The U.K.’s largest support organization for trans youth has been forced to suspend services twice in the past week following a targeted harassment campaign.
Mermaids U.K., which supports trans and gender nonconforming children, announced on October 6 that the advocacy group would be pausing its helpline and web chat services after its platforms were flooded by transphobic messages and accusations of pedophilia. In a series of tweets, Mermaids said it would also reduce hours for support platforms in light of the mental health impact on its own staff.
“Due to intolerable abuse, we have made the decision to close the helpline and web chat services for the rest of today and tomorrow,” the organization wrote. “Next week, to enable us to take all volunteers off the rota, we will reduce hours to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. only.
Just six days later, Mermaids announced that it would be ceasing operations on Wednesdays for the foreseeable future. “We hope to be able to resume normal working hours as soon as possible,” the group said. “Thank you for your understanding.”
Mermaids was not available for comment, but informed Xtra by email that the helpline had been suspended in order to give staff “a breather” from the vitriol they have faced, as well as access to their counselling services. Out of 131 volunteers, 19 working on the helpline were taken off until this week for their safety.
According to Mermaids, its team will be reporting the abuse staff have been experiencing to the police as a hate crime.
The onslaught of harassment comes after it was revealed that a former board of trustees member, Dr. Jacob Breslow, attended and spoke at a conference for B4U-ACT, a support group for pedophiles, as a PhD student in 2011.
Belinda Bell, chair of the Mermaids board of trustees, said in a statement that an investigation was launched against Breslow on October 3, immediately after the organization became aware of the speech. Bell affirmed that the information “would have disqualified him from becoming a trustee” and said that Breslow resigned later the same day.
“We want to apologize for the distress and concern this news has caused,” she added. “It is clear that Dr. Breslow should never have been appointed to the board, and as Chair of the trustee board, I am horrified that he was.”
Prior to the B4U-ACT controversy, the organization had already been facing intense scrutiny over the last month, thanks to a series of articles published by The Telegraph that accuse Mermaids of safeguarding issues, including sending binders to trans children without parents’ knowledge. The organization’s supporters counter that lack of parental involvement is necessary to ensure that youth aren’t outed to unsupportive households.
The revelations have been weaponized by anti-trans figures, such as Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, to discredit the organization’s work.
The campaign to undermine Mermaids appears to be working. Britain’s new prime minister, Liz Truss, has signalled support for an investigation into the organization as a result of The Telegraph’s reporting, and the Department for Education reportedly removed Mermaids from the list of mental health resources it provides to schools. According to the Daily Mail, workers within the U.K.’s National Health Services have been advised to stop promoting the group.
Support services for LGBTQ2S+ youth in the United States have faced similar attacks in recent months. In August, 4chan trolls spammed The Trevor Project’s helpline and online platform to prevent queer and trans young people from being able to get assistance for their mental health needs.
In a statement, the national youth suicide organization said it wasn’t the first time that anti-LGBTQ2S+ forces had targeted its services. “As our organization continues to gain visibility and reach more LGBTQ2S+ youth in crisis, we have also seen increased attacks from antagonistic individuals and groups seeking to mischaracterize and undermine our work,” The Trevor Project wrote. “We are working diligently in the face of this disruption to protect our counsellors and those youth who need us.”