Tue 18 Apr 2023 — 6 min

Trans Safety Network strongly condemns the harmful guidance issued yesterday by anti-trans campaign group Sex Matters. The title of this guidance is “Teenagers and gender identity: the evidence base”, and has been issued in three parts. Despite posing as guidance “which does not prejudge outcomes for a gender-questioning child”, this guidance recommends withholding access to best-practice care and treating young people’s expression of their gender identity with suspicion. We are concerned that this guidance if used by parents will result directly in harm to young trans and gender-diverse (TGD) people.

In doing this, this guidance by Sex Matters uses for its primary expertise a variety of practitioners of conversion therapy, transphobic clinicians accused of promoting conversion therapy, pro-conversion therapy activists and organisations which promote conversion therapy.

The guidance makes several harmful claims about young TGD people. For example, the guidance paints young TGD people as “beastly and trying to wreck everything” in response to parent interventions, people who “want to hate” their parents, and who may be using gender identity to “wield power in [their] relationship” over a parent. It claims that young people may be transitioning to gain status. This is despite the considerable amount of bullying trans students face in reality.

The guidance clearly prioritises the needs of an assumed anti-trans parent in their relationship with their child, whether they can “set a hard line” against their child’s transition, and how they can “influence your child’s path”. The guidance seems to assume that the young person’s developmental needs are best met by slowing or impeding their access to gender identity-related support as often as possible.

The guidance suggests that TGD young people may be under the influence of “engaging with trans-influencer material online”, or that they might be exploring a variant gender identity because of “friendship groups, schools and the internet”. These suggestions clearly stigmatise the reality that young people exploring their gender identity naturally seek out information and figures they can relate to. It is a perfectly normal and healthy practice for young trans and gender-diverse people to form friendships with peers with similar experiences for support.

For parents looking for peer support as parents, the guidance recommends that parents in need of support get in touch with the Bayswater Support Group which openly promote a conversion therapy manual on their own website. For counselling, the guidance recommends parents get in touch with members of a body founded by conversion therapist Stella O’Malley. In all of this, the guidance completely neglects to mention the large body of evidence that lack of parental support is a key factor in developing mental resilience and well-being for transgender youth.

Trans Safety Network believes that under the definitions used by the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy (which is signed by all accrediting bodies for therapists and clinicians in the United Kingdom) this guidance clearly advocates for conversion therapy. The Memorandum of Understanding defines conversion therapy as “a therapeutic approach, or any model or individual viewpoint that demonstrates an assumption that any sexual orientation or gender identity is inherently preferable to any other, and which attempts to bring about a change of sexual orientation or gender identity, or seeks to suppress an individual’s expression of sexual orientation or gender identity on that basis.” The Sex Matters guidance clearly recommends a model and a viewpoint that it is preferable for young people not to express gender diverse identities or access medical transition support. For instance, on page 11, the guidance suggests “setting clear boundaries around what you will and will not tolerate – for example, using children’s birth name and sex-based pronouns at home” and “you may need to have conversations with relatives about names and pronouns if you have made a decision not to go ahead with social transition.” These clearly frame non-cisgender gender expression for trans youth as a disciplinary matter in the home. The negativity towards trans expressions of gender identity is made explicit on page 16 which describes the anticipated relationship with young people around transition decisions saying “You have a teenager who wants to hate you” followed by advice to deter teenage children from accessing transition related healthcare support. This is extended to young adult children suggesting that they “may benefit from being supported to slow down any medical decisions” and extending this on page 17 to recommend “continuing to exercise parental authority in areas such as participation in family life.” This appears to be a suggestion that where young adults continue to live with their parents, they use this as leverage to stop them transitioning even when they are able to otherwise make their own medical decisions. The overwhelming focus of the advice given is on discouraging young people from expressing their gender identity, clearly falling foul of the definition set in the MOU.

This advice depicts TGD youth as both naïve and manipulative, and goes against prevailing best practice recommendations on the topic of the care of trans youth. Trans Safety Network are concerned that following this guidance may likely exacerbate difficulties in relationships between parents and young TGD people, and primarily serves to encourage parents not to engage supportively and productively with their children, but instead with resentment and suspicion that is likely to create a hostile environment in the home.

We urge parents and schools to disregard Sex Matters’ advice on supporting TGD youth. TGD young people’s gender identity and expression does not need to be contained, punished or suppressed. Young people have a developmental need, as well as a human right to develop and explore their identities and self-expression as they grow, as well as safeguarding from conversion practices.

We further urge that safeguarding authorities take very seriously the risk that organisations are able to create and promote guidance which may cause serious harm to trans and gender-diverse youth.

Additionally, we note that ongoing delays by the UK Government in implementing a ban on conversion therapy are aiding in creating an environment where this sort of harmful guidance proliferates.