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Legal fight against puberty blockers cited a study of sheep in its arguments, and 5 other things you should know about the case

Vic Parsons December 1, 2020
Trans kids can take puberty blockers as long as they understand treatment

Keira Bell, centre, and supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice during the hearing in October. (Twitter/Belstaffie)

There was only one transgender journalist covering the major court case about trans kids and puberty blockers. I know, because that was me.

On the first day of the hearing back in October, I sat in an overflow room with the founder of anti-trans campaign group Transgender Trend and assorted other vaguely familiar faces who don’t like trans people. I don’t know if they read me as trans, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t clock me as LGBT+. I wonder what, if anything, they made of this stranger in their midst.

I was late because, 45 minutes before the hearing began, I finally got an email back from the court listings office – but instead of containing a link to a livestream to watch proceedings remotely, as I’d been promised, I was informed the hearing would now be held in-person only. I should have sat in the press gallery, but it was full by the time I’d rushed to the Royal Courts of Justice. I wasn’t the only journalist who was late, but it was frustrating to see a press gallery full of cis journalists.

The landmark judicial review asked the High Court to decide whether gender dysphoric trans people under the age of 18 should be forced to get a judge’s approval before being able to take hormone blockers when they hit puberty.

In a ruling published on 1 December, the judges said that trans children under the age of 16 must understand “the immediate and long-term consequences” of puberty blockers and subsequent hormone therapy before being prescribed them.

However, judges said in their ruling that it is “doubtful” children aged 14 to 15 could understand “the long-term risks and consequences” of the treatment, and “highly unlikely” that children under 13 would be competent to give consent. The judges ruled that for under 16s they “consider that it is appropriate that the court should determine whether it is in the child’s best interests to take puberty blockers”.

I first covered this case in January. It has been brought against the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, which runs GIDS, the UK’s only gender clinic for trans youth, by Mrs A, the anonymous mother of a 16-year-old trans child who she wants to prevent taking puberty blockers, and Keira Bell, a 23-year-old woman who took puberty blockers aged 16 and now regrets that decision.

Hormone blockers do what the name suggests: temporarily stop a young person developing secondary sexual characteristics – like a deeper voice, breasts, facial hair or periods – by blocking the hormones that cause those changes.

For trans kids with gender dysphoria, puberty can be an incredibly distressing event, and puberty blockers can be literal life-savers. But healthcare for trans youth has been one of the focal points of British anti-trans campaigners in recent years, and the case saw blockers branded a dangerous, experimental treatment that no child could possibly consent to.

What gives these young people the ability to consent to this healthcare is the same mechanism, called Gillick competence, that allows teenage girls to be prescribed contraception or have abortions. It means this case poses an impossible-to-understate threat to all young people’s rights to healthcare.

It’s one of many things that went underreported that you might be interested to learn.

1. One of the arguments the court heard against puberty blockers relies on a study of sheep

Yes, really. Jeremy Hyam QC, the barrister for Mrs A and Keira Bell, claimed that puberty blockers affect neurological development in children, and his evidence for this was based on “emerging evidence” in sheep.

2. Those trying to block trans kids healthcare crowdfunded £95,000 to fund this case against the Tavistock

And if that seems like a lot, it’s because it is.

3. Only 161 trans kids were referred for puberty blockers last year

There were TV crews broadcasting outside the Royal Courts of Justice, a hashtag in support of Keira Bell trended nationally on Twitter, a full press gallery, and countless newspaper columns… all contributing to the anti-trans claim that the NHS is over-eagerly pushing young people to transition. In fact, last year GIDS referred 161 children, half of which were aged 16 or over, to an endocrinology service to be considered for puberty blockers.

Children who, as the Tavistock lawyer repeatedly pointed out, are transgender, diagnosed with gender dysphoria, have made it through years on the GIDS waiting list to then have a minimum of nine or 10 appointments with specialist GIDS doctors and psychologists, before they can be referred to an endocrinology service service, where they are assessed for puberty blocking medication.

The Tavistock lawyer emphasised that the reality of healthcare for trans youth in the UK is the total opposite of the “conveyor belt” the anti-trans campaigners think exists, on which gender doctors hand out blockers and hormones like sweets.

4. Nothing about us without us

As one of the lawyers finally pointed out on the second day, people who don’t have gender dysphoria don’t know what it feels like.

Gender dysphoria is a condition some trans people experience, and it’s awful. People who aren’t trans can’t understand it. Being the only trans journalist in that room was a stark reminder of how few openly trans journalists there are in the UK, let alone lawyers or judges.

And while I’d like to believe that newspaper journalists came to the case with an open mind, it’s likely some weren’t even trying to understand. As must have been the case for the journalist who I saw taking a nap during the hearing.

5. The hearing was plagued by technical difficulties

But the anti-trans campaigners didn’t care much, because they were only interested in listening to one side.

6. ‘Feminists’ laughed when the only female lawyer stumbled on her words

While Keira Bell and Mrs A had a male solicitor and barrister, the Tavistock had a female barrister, Fenella Morris QC. Every time she stumbled during her arguments, some of the anti-trans campaigners crowded round the TV showing the livestream in the press gallery laughed.

When the judge questioned her and she didn’t immediately answer, one of them punched the air. These so-called ‘feminists’ were loud, evidently not press, and laughing at a female lawyer doing her job under immense pressure. I’d add a comment here about the sartorial choices of the person who wore a glittery t-shirt bearing the slogan “woman = adult human female” to the hearing, but it wouldn’t be very feminist of me.

Clarification: PinkNews’ reporter was the only trans journalist who was at the court covering the case for two days in October. When the verdict was handed down on 1 December another non-binary journalist was present.

More: High Court, keira bell, puberty blockers, tavistock and portman nhs trust, trans healthcare, trans kids

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