Why teenage girls are on the front line of the trans war
January 21, 2023 at 7:00 AM GMT+1
“My daughter has decided to identify as ‘male’. She is 13. She decided this and told me the day after a PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education] day in Year 8.” Nottinghamshire.
“My daughter’s school – a girl’s school – actively promotes gender ideology. The first thing they were told in the tutor group when they arrived in Y7 was that they should choose any pronouns they wanted.” Wiltshire.
“My daughter is in Year 7. Within the first few months of secondary school, [she] started talking endlessly about her gender identity … She had been taught at school that there are many genders …” Yorkshire.
Across the country, if parental testimonials gathered on the Free to Speak website are to be believed, something profound is occurring in schools under the banner of tolerance and inclusivity. Children are being encouraged to challenge their fundamental biology, to question their sex and the deepest assumptions they have made about their identities. It can be the beginning of a journey leading ultimately to irreversible sex-change surgery. And it is adolescent girls who are most affected.
As one account by Julie, 14, puts it: “Controversial gender ideology has taken over my school. There’s been a rapidly increasing number of teenagers ‘coming out’ as ‘transgender’, entire friend groups suddenly emerging as ‘Non-Binary’ or ‘Gender-Queer’.” Julie describes the phenomenon as a “social contagion”. Teachers, she adds, “are basically encouraging it. Lessons feel more like political activism than education.” Flags in the school hallways bear the mottos “Demiboy” “Asexual” “Non-Binary” and “Polysexual”. Adopting a new “gender identity” is popular in every sense. One girl who “switched her pronouns to he/him, stopped using the girl’s changing rooms and changed her name … and is now essentially a school celebrity. Girls left and right are saying they’re transgender.”
David Bell is familiar with these sorts of accounts. He is the eminent psychiatrist who wrote the whistleblowing report that ultimately resulted in the Tavistock NHS trust’s controversial Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) being shut down. He worries that “transgender” is a term far too easily used to describe confused adolescents – a simplistic label that “forecloses” debate about what children are experiencing, offering a single comforting explanation for “multiple and complex problems”. “One shouldn’t talk about transgender children,” he says.
Schools, however, very much do. According to a recent YouGov poll, 79 per cent of secondary teachers say their school now has at least one pupil who identifies as trans, with 85 per cent reporting an increase in the past three years. Such self-identification has real consequences. A fifth of teachers report that trans pupils are allowed to use facilities intended for the sex they identify with, which can include toilets and changing rooms. Significantly, teachers who said the majority of trans pupils were “birth-assigned female” outnumbered those who said the majority were “birth-assigned male” by almost seven to one. In a startling development, girls are now the epicentre of the transgender phenomenon.
The numbers speak for the profound nature of this development. In 2009-10, when just 77 people were referred to the Tavistock’s Gender Identity Development Service, those born male outnumbered females by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. A decade later, 74 per cent of those referred were born female. Over the past five years, referrals of young women have increased at twice the rate of men. That has driven a huge growth in referrals. In 2021-22 the NHS reported more than 5,000 referrals to GIDS, up 64-fold in just over a decade.
To some parents, such a dramatic rise in young girls seeking treatment which could ultimately lead to irreversible sex-change surgery requires explaining. “The patient cohort is basically 15-year-old girls and that’s brand new,” says a spokesman from the For Women Scotland campaign group. “We don’t know why. No one knows.” Bell has his suspicions. “It must be clear,” he writes in his 2020 essay, First, Do No Harm, “that such a rapid escalation of cases, the increase in natal females … cannot be explained by individual factors alone, nor is it likely to be caused by a large number of individuals feeling free to ‘come out’ in this new ‘liberal’ atmosphere. It must be derived from socio-cultural forces.” Forces which, on the face of it, appear to have taken a grip at many schools.
In part, that is because there is a policy vacuum. The Government has long promised – then delayed – official transgender guidance for schools. Gillian Keegan, the new Education Secretary, suggests it will emerge some time this year. “There’s never really been proper guidance on this issue from the Department for Education [DfE],” says Helen Joyce, spokesman for the charity Sex Matters, which campaigns for clarity about sex in public policy, law and culture. “Schools have a million things to do; they cannot possibly become experts on gender medicine. They need to be told chapter and verse by the DfE what to do when a child says to you, ‘My birth certificate says I’m a girl. I’m not really. I’m a boy.’” Indeed, in the YouGov poll of teachers, 60 per cent said that they wanted more official guidance. In its absence, schools are leaning on “unofficial guidance” either from unions, or from groups such as Stonewall, or Mermaids, or Free2Be, who offer staff training – at a price – on how to be trans “allies”. The problem, say critics, is that such groups have an agenda. Mermaids, for example, has offered breast-binders to girls as young as 13 without their parents’ knowledge. It is currently being investigated by the Charity Commission.
As Joanna Williams, founder and director of the think tank CIEO, notes: “From early in childhood, children are encouraged to think about gender as something quite distinct from biology.” PSHE lessons can introduce children as young as eight to the terms “cisgender, transgender, sexual orientation, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, gender expression, biological sex, intersex, non-binary, gender fluid, pronouns, transition, gender dysphoria, questioning and queer.” By the age of 10, some children are expected to “know about gender identities and have an awareness of transgender issues”. In all, Williams notes, “a highly political agenda is being promoted to a captive audience” with “children being indoctrinated into a one-sided and controversial view of gender when they are too young to challenge what they are hearing and lack the capacity simply to walk away.”
Often, parents are wholly unaware what is going on – sometimes being deliberately kept in the dark if their child adopts a cross-sex identity at school. Almost a fifth of the teachers polled said that they would not, as a matter of course, inform parents in such a case. In Scotland, inclusivity guidelines issued last year said pupils should be able to “come out” as transgender from the moment they enter the school system at four, without their parents being told as a matter of course. “We have lost our minds in schools here,” says the spokesman For Women Scotland. Indeed, the new Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which aims to make it easier for someone to change their legally recognised sex, has been blocked by Westminster, showing how what was a niche issue only 10 years ago is now proving a faultline in our very constitutional settlement.
But parental ignorance is not limited to north of the border. “I’ve heard the most horrific stories,” says Joyce, “of parents discovering a year down the line that their girl has been referred to as a boy and pupil’s records saying, revert to female name and pronouns when the parents are around because they’re ‘transphobes’. So schools are actively deceiving parents.”
Among girls, in particular, such policies can be the background to “outbreaks” of gender questioning, ripping through social groups. “Even in Freud’s day it was known that sometimes one girl had a fit, the next day there were 20 girls with fits,” says Bell. “We don’t know why. We do know it’s much more common in girls. Social contagion is very important. People treating them haven’t recognised that. You see epidemics of gender dysphoria [which he defines as a ‘very painful disturbance in relation to their sexual body’].”
For Charlie Bentley-Astor, who bound her breasts as a “transgender” teenager, such “contagion” is all too familiar. “Girls want to fit in more than boys,” she says. “You take on the emotions of the person you are with; as soon as you do that, these things spread.” In the past, schools have had to deal with outbreaks of eating disorders, spreading from girl to girl. Since the beginning of this century, online interest in “anorexia” has declined even as searches for “transgender” increased, with the latter overtaking the former in 2015, just as the explosion in girls’ gender identity referrals got under way. “Transgender is definitely this generation’s anorexia,” says Bentley-Astor.
It is a phenomenon that has been described by researchers as “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), and occurs shortly after puberty in girls with no previous signs of gender confusion. One study found that in more than a third of cases, parents reported that “a majority” of the members of their daughters’ friendship groups became “transgender-identified”. Yet the 2021 census, which provided an estimate of the trans community for the first time, found that just 0.5 per cent of the population used different identities to the one assigned at birth.
The girls in the study often had something else in common too. Forty-one per cent of those identifying as trangender had previously said they were not heterosexual; almost two-thirds had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, with many on the autistic spectrum.
Such findings are controversial. But respected studies have found that girls with autism, or who have experienced eating disorders, are much more likely to suffer gender dysphoria and claim a new gender identity. A government review found that about one-third of children and young people being referred to Tavistock had autism or other neurodiversity.
For Bentley-Astor it is about “control” at a period in girls’ lives when their very bodies seem out of control. For those who feel miserable and confused, says Bell, or for whom trauma might have fostered a “disgust of their sexual body” a socially supported belief emerges that “there is a place (another body) I can get into [which] will cure me. I will at last be at peace. Through a kind of viral social contagion, children who feel lost in the world join trans groups that provide them at last with an identity and social belonging, and also an explanation for all their suffering.” Friendship groups are one driver. Social media is another. Such is its pull, that Bentley-Astor described her own experience as “a cult”.
She describes “the slow creep from wanting to be ‘not woman’ to ‘not female’ to ‘gender non-conforming’ to ‘gender non-binary’ to ‘man’. I was trying to get away from being sexualised.” It starts with girls wearing baggier clothes, then cutting their hair progressively shorter. Shaving one side of it. Dyeing it hot pink or turquoise. Changing pronouns. Binding breasts. “I used gauze. There are TikTok videos. People will show you the best way to do it.” Some will be “not eating, cutting themselves”. In the short term, she says, each step brings relief. “Then people further along say they feel so much better, and you feel you’re not doing enough. Everyone around you tells you they’re doing better, but of course they’re not.”
The process can feel like a one-way street. “By the time you’ve changed pronouns, you’ve pretty much got dysphoria and you’re putting in for treatment. By then it’s never ‘I’m confused, let me ask a few questions with a therapist; it’s always I know exactly who I am. I’ve been trapped in the wrong body.’” And rather than challenging those self-assessments, which can have such radical implications as irreversible surgery, the NHS now stands accused in a class action suit of adopting an “unquestioning affirmative approach” which “rushed children into life-altering” treatments.
It is important to note that for some, such treatments are, in the words of 33-year-old transgender woman Stella, “genuinely lifesaving”. “While the transgender experience is incredibly diverse there are a good number who say: ‘I knew when I was nine. I knew when I was 14, when I went through a nightmarish puberty. I knew when I was 21, even though I tried to drown it in drink/drugs/the Army. And only at 25, 37, or 58, did I decide that transition would help.’”
The NHS case centres on the Tavistock, where Bell’s whistleblowing led to a review by Dr Hilary Cass, past president of the Royal College of Paediatrics. Her interim findings proved sufficiently damning that GIDS was ordered to close, with its doors due to shut this year. Lawyers expect 1,000 families to join the case. Since 1989, GIDS has treated 19,000 children. In particular, the case will focus on allegations that the service “affirmed” the gender beliefs of its patients, ushering them onto puberty blockers which had not been tested on children, with potential effects, according to the Cass Review, “on maturation and development of frontal lobe functions which control decision-making, emotional regulation, judgment and planning ability”, and locking them into a process which moved almost inevitably to sex-change hormones. “Some children were only seen once or twice before being referred for the prescription of puberty-blocking drugs,” says Bell, “in effect starting them on a road to opposite sex hormones and probably towards surgery.” Lisa Lunt, the lead lawyer on the Tavistock case, says that “those we have spoken with have several concerns about the care they received at the NHS and expressed a sense of relief when they heard the clinic was due to be closed”.
“Primary and secondary care staff have told us that they feel under pressure to adopt an unquestioning affirmative approach and that this is at odds with the standard process of clinical assessment and diagnosis,” notes Cass in her review. Or, as Bentley-Astor describes her encounters with an NHS therapist: “‘Maybe you are gay?’ ‘Maybe you don’t feel sexual attraction?’ ‘Maybe you are a man?’ These ‘maybes’ weren’t open-ended shoulder-shrugs. They were suggestions. Encouragements.”
Stella, however, counters that puberty blockers can serve a vital purpose. “I’d emphasise the irreversible and sometimes traumatic effects of a trans child going through the wrong puberty, which are very arduous to ameliorate in later life and must be weighed against any potential risks of providing trans healthcare to minors.”
Cass suggests that GIDS be replaced by several, more questioning clinics around the country. But GIDS’s imminent closure and lengthy waiting lists in Scotland mean that, as Stella says, “publicly funded trans healthcare effectively no longer exists for most people in the UK”.
Yet campaigners fear that the dangerous impulse to affirm, not investigate, teenage gender dysphoria has simply moved from clinic to school. Bell offers a long list of alternative reasons why girls may rebel against their birth sex, and which need to be examined, “given the enormity of taking cross-sex hormones, proceeding to double mastectomy, and possible removal of sexual organs”. The list includes trauma, depression, internalised homophobia among those discovering they are gay and, increasingly, a growing misogyny in our culture, where hardcore pornography is universal and girls face many demands for sex acts they don’t want. In other words, girls who fear the sexual development of their bodies and rebel against it. “Hypersexualisation is the central problem,” says Bentley-Astor. “Being wolf-whistled at when you’re 10. You don’t know where it comes from but you know it is somehow related to sex. You feel out of control. And then here’s a way to get control.”
The problem is that transitioning is not always the solution it seems. Keira Bell, who was attracted to other girls as an adolescent, went to the Tavistock and was put on puberty blockers at 16 after “superficial conversations”, before having a double mastectomy at 20. She is one of those who found that becoming a man did not solve her problems, and is now “detransitioning”. “As I matured, I recognised that gender dysphoria was a symptom of my overall misery,” she writes, “not its cause.”
As David Bell – no relation – puts it: “There is an illusion that their problems will be solved by transitioning, but once they go through it they find their problems are not solved.” Almost all “detransitioners” he says, are now gay women. By then, though, it’s often too late. “Some have gone through mutilating surgery.” They may no longer, for example, be able to have children. “I have no doubt that, if I’d gone through with the surgical transition, I would have committed suicide not long after. Because I would have been just as unhappy on the other side of surgery. And the irrevocable nature of those changes would have been unbearable,” says Bentley-Astor.
“A lot of girls are transitioning because they’re in pain, whether it’s from mental health disorders, or life trauma, or other reasons,” notes Keira Bell. “I know what it’s like to get caught up in dreaming that transitioning will fix all of this. I was an unhappy girl who needed help. Instead, I was treated like an experiment.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that David Bell “acknowledged that small numbers [of children] are ‘genuinely trapped in the wrong body’”. This is not Mr Bell’s position and the words should not have been attributed to him. We are happy to correct the record.