50.50: News

Staff at trans charity targeted by trolls describe impact of abuse and doxxing

Mermaids staff received more than 100 abusive calls and messages in the wake of a misleading news article

Maysa Pritilata
10 November 2022, 5.44pm

Trans campaigners with a Mermaids banner at the Trans+ Pride March in London, July 2022

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Mark Kerrison / Alamy Stock Photo

Workers at trans young people’s charity Mermaids have told of the horrifying personal impact of a media-influenced wave of abuse last month, which included a death threat and publication of people’s personal details.

Mermaids had to find therapeutic support for workers after receiving 130 abusive messages, 40 of which were escalated to the police as hate crimes. Some staff were also pictured online by trolls and had their addresses made available.

One helpline service officer told openDemocracy: “The fear of who would be personally attacked next is a fear for us all. It has made us question our own personal safety outside of Mermaids. For some, collecting their child from school became a worry.”

Another said: “In the height of it all, it was really quite scary. At one point I was scared to go into town. In fact, I was even too scared to even put my bins out.” They experienced problems sleeping and came out in a rash due to the stress.

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Something they found particularly “distressing” was being called a “paedo” and a “nonce”, having survived sexual violence themselves. They believe the trolls were not motivated by genuine concerns about survivors or potential survivors, or by concerns about safeguarding as has been claimed, because many simply phoned up, shouted “paedophile”, and made transphobic, homophobic and racist remarks.

My heart was racing, my hands would go clammy because I didn't know if I was going to get a genuine call or just someone mouthing off

The abuse also affected their ability to do their job: “I was getting to the point where, when the phone would ring, my heart was racing, my hands would go clammy because I didn't know if I was going to get a genuine call or just someone mouthing off,” they said.

“We [normally] put so much passion and experience into our jobs. Because we couldn’t trust people, we were self-censoring, giving very much the bare bones stuff, which meant that we weren’t doing as good a job as we could be – because we were just so scared that something would be taken out of context or used against us.”

When returning to work, head of helpline services Krystyna Hebb said, she “went to sign on my laptop and I started shaking”.

Chief executive Susie Green told openDemocracy that helpline workers “do not deserve to have this kind of abuse”, adding: “It shouldn’t feel dangerous to work for a charity.”

Mermaids closed its helpline services temporarily, reduced hours, and removed their volunteers from the service in the wake of the abuse.

‘Campaign of misinformation and hate’

What Green called a “campaign of misinformation and hate against us” began after an article in the Telegraph conflated chest ironing – a practice that is classed as female genital mutilation – with chest binding, which queer and trans people have been doing for decades to alleviate gender dysphoria. The article suggested that Mermaids’ provision of chest binders to children, allegedly behind parents’ backs, could be considered child abuse.

The Met Police released a statement clarifying that wearing and supplying chest binders is not a criminal offence – but, Susie said, by this point “the damage had already been done”.

In Green’s view, this was a “coordinated attack” to discredit Mermaids and included complaints to the Charity Commission, the government body that regulates charities in England and Wales, and to local councils and councillors who they demanded to take Mermaids off their resource lists.

The campaign has led to pauses in funding from Mermaids’ trusts and foundations while the charity commission completes the regulatory case it opened, and the Department for Education has removed Mermaids from its school well-being resources. Tory MP Miriam Cates went as far as calling for a police inquiry into Mermaids, while former prime minister Liz Truss said the allegations should be “properly looked at”.

Green said: “They’re basically trying to come at us from all sides and damage our reputation and our standing and create a furore where there isn’t one.”

The helpline service staff expressed fears that children who would previously have called in the evenings after school, when helplines are now closed, may be struggling with their mental health.

Mermaids has launched a crowdfunder with a target of raising £25,000 to help keep its helpline open in the face of the threats, and continue to provide support for trans young people and their families.

“They keep trying to get rid of us,” said Green. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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