November 29, 2022   7 mins

It’s incredibly easy to criticise Susie Green, the influential and, as of Friday, ex-CEO of Mermaids. But I’d like to say this in her defence: she never lied about who she was.

From her early interviews in 2012, when her trans daughter, Jackie, then 19, became a Miss England finalist, Green, then an IT-manager, was utterly open about how she first knew her child was trans: “As a toddler, Jackie always headed for the dolls in toy shops.” And if a four-year-old looking at dolls weren’t evidence enough that this child should be committed to a lifetime of medicalisation, Green added, “[Jackie] loathed having her hair cut.” Green put Jack — as he was then known — on puberty-blockers and flew him to Thailand for a sex change operation when he was 16, making him the youngest person in the world to undergo that surgery.

She merrily recalls in a YouTube interview that because Jack’s penis hadn’t developed due to the blockers, “there wasn’t much for the surgeon to work with” when constructing their vagina. “Sorry, Jackie!” she laughs.

During her time at Mermaids, Green has been advising parents, schools, the police, the media and NHS trusts about how to deal with other children who dare to not be gender stereotypes. She was their first staff member — before Mermaids was run by volunteers — and under her leadership, she has transformed the organisation from a quiet, low-key charity to an energetically active lobbying group, and her theories about childhood and gender have been at least as influential as Judith Butler’s. Mermaids has been endorsed by the Be Kind brigade, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jameela Jamil and Emma Watson, accrued a slew of corporate sponsors and been awarded £500,000 by the National Lottery. Progressive newspapers advise readers to contact the service should they have any concerns about their child.

Since 2017, I regularly asked editors at the newspaper where I worked if I could write about Mermaids in general and Green specifically, because it was so obvious that something was very wrong here. The answer, always, was no, but the reasons given were fuzzy: it wouldn’t be right in that section, they couldn’t see the news peg, it felt too niche. A more likely reason was one articulated to me with some passion on social media any time I tweeted anything sceptical about Green or Mermaids: to question either was to wish trans children would die. Doubt the charity, hate the cause, in other words. Weirdly, this attitude seems to hold true only for charities connected to trans issues: no one, as far as I know, screamed that The Times hates starving people when they investigated Oxfam in 2018 about allegations that some of its workers paid for sex.

I do have some sympathy with those who were too scared to question Mermaids. Under Green’s leadership, the organisation has done its utmost to evade scrutiny, trotting out — even in parliamentary committees, even in the 2018 ITV drama Butterfly, starring Anna Friel, and for which Green was the series lead consultant — the claim that 48% of young trans people attempt suicide. A terrifying statistic for any parent of a gender dysphoric child, and almost as scary for any organisation that cares more about being kind than being accurate. Happily, the statistic is bunkum, as the researcher behind the study it’s based on has said, because the study involved 27 self-selecting trans volunteers, and therefore its findings should not be widened out to all gender dysphoric young people, as Mermaids had done.

You would think that discovering attempted suicide is not as common among young gender dysphoric people as previously believed would be greeted with triumphant cheers and celebrations by a charity that claims to support them, and the celebrities who frequently tweet their love for the group routinely described as “the most oppressed people in the world”. And yet, strangely, not so much. As a result, that statistic is still routinely banded around by activists. (Is telling oppressed people that they are likely to try to kill themselves, despite the facts suggesting otherwise, really Being Kind?) It’s the same story with puberty blockers: for years, Green and Mermaids insisted they were fully reversable. Green had given them to her child, as she repeated so often, and she wouldn’t deliberately harm her own child, right? Online obsessives — such as one full-time tweeter, part-time lawyer and occasional fox murderer — parroted these claims, and people went along with the theory that a drug originally licensed to treat prostate cancer would be fine for children. In fact, it is now becoming widely accepted that blockers affect bone development, and may prevent the young person from ever being able to orgasm.

Despite telling Jackie’s story over and over, and always including the detail about the girls’ toys, Green took pains to stress that being trans child went deeper than a desire for dolls. But how else would a four-year-old boy express a wish to be a girl other than through the medium of toys? What else would being a girl mean to them? In her Tedx talk, Green says that as soon as her baby boy “got mobile” — ie, learned to crawl — “he was gravitating to things that you would think are stereotypically female”. Like what, tampons? Was her one-year-old trying to book an appointment for a cervical smear test? Nope, “the Polly Pocket and My Little Pony”, she says, and then quickly adds “that was fine – but not for Dad”. Green’s then husband disapproved of his son playing with My Little Pony toys and therefore banned them from the house. (A macho father who abhors effeminacy in his son is a common feature in the life stories of trans women; Paris Lees’ semi-autobiographical novel, What It Feels Like for a Girl, is a recent example.)

Shortly after that, the child then known as Jack told his mother, “God made a mistake and I should have been a girl.” As Green recounts in her talk, “What I had come to the conclusion, up until she was about two, was that I had a very sensitive, quite effeminate little boy who was probably gay.” So when four-year-old Jack told her he should be a girl, Green felt “it explained so many things”. And to be fair, a trans four-year-old makes about as much sense as a gay two-year-old. No one has ever accused Green of failing to maintain fidelity to her extraordinary version of logic.

Jackie Green has occasionally spoken up in defence of her mother. In 2018, a journalist tweeted that Green had “castrated” her teenage son when she arranged for the sex change operation in Thailand. Jackie tweeted back that this was untrue: “I was meant to be female and thus had surgery to correct my small defect,” was how she put it. As to how she knew she was meant to be a girl, Jackie said, “For a long time I was told I had to play with action men and other ‘boy toys’, another concept I find rather silly, but I still wanted the Barbies and little mermaids.” And so her mother arranged for the “small defect” to be “corrected” so she could.

No one has said why Green is suddenly no longer the CEO of Mermaids. But the fact that the charity has said they are appointing an interim one for now suggests the decision was quite sudden. The timing was certainly peculiar, coming 10 days after Green gave a rare interview, refuting all recent criticisms of her organisation.

Slowly, it seems, the tide is turning against Mermaids. When it was announced this year that the NHS was going shut down Gids, its gender identity clinic for children, in the spring, attention quickly turned to Mermaids. Former clinicians at Gids have accused the charity of having a “harmful” effect on the clinic by promoting transition as a cure. Mermaids has denied this, but it didn’t help matters by putting itself in the spotlight when it launched an appeal against the Charity Commission’s decision to award charitable status to the LGB Alliance, now the only specifically gay charity in this country which does not include trans people. Witnesses for Mermaids have had to defend gender theories under questioning this autumn, which has led to extraordinary moments such as Mermaids’ chair of trustees, claiming, “I’m not sure that people come out of the womb with a sex.”

A Daily Telegraph investigation in September found that the charity was offering to send breast binders to children against their parents’ wishes, which prompted the Charity Commission to open a regulatory compliance case. Green later defended Mermaids in The Guardian by saying a binder is better than “a young person using duct tape on themselves”. In October, the Times revealed that one of the Mermaids trustees, Jacob Breslow, gave a 2011 presentation for B4U-ACT, an organisation that aims to promote better understanding of paedophiles, in which he criticised the negative ideas about “paedophilic desire”. “We did some general top-level Google and internet searches. We did a social media search [and it] didn’t come up,” Green told The Guardian. Then, 10 days later, she was ousted.

Maybe the Mermaids board belatedly realised that if they want their organisation to endure, they needed to get rid of the wacky front woman. Ultimately, I don’t care why she went, because so much damage has already been done. But what I do want to know is this: how did so many people take Green so seriously for so long? Why did so many people turn off their intelligence when faced with this former IT consultant from Leeds? And how could so many LGBT activists champion and defend a woman who saw effeminacy — and therefore homosexuality — in her two-year-old and feel she had to “correct” this “defect”?

Green kept telling the story of Jackie because, for a long time, it gave her moral authority. No doubt, parents have long been great advocates for the rights of their marginalised children. But an alternative way of looking at Green is she was at least as good an advocate for her own rights: the right to put her child on untested hormone pills, the right to take her child to Thailand for a sex change. There is a fine line between using your parenting experience to help others, and validating your parenting choices by encouraging others to do the same.

I’m not waiting for celebrities such as Emma Watson to own up to their foolishness, mainly because I don’t care what Emma Watson thinks about anything. But all the journalists, teachers, editors and activists who endorsed Green’s obviously ludicrous ideas and shouted down anyone who didn’t, they really need to take a long look at their judgement, their motives and themselves. Because Green never once hid who she was.

Hadley Freeman is a staff writer at The Guardian. She was recently named Columnist of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. Her last book, House of Glass, was published by 4th Estate in 2020. Her next will be published by 4th Estate in 2023.