family trans youth

Pride in Our Youth Work

At Gendered Intelligence, we are proud of our youth work service. We want to take the opportunity to go further in detailing our practices; we feel it important to delve into and offer more information about the age ranges and safeguarding procedures for the people our youth work service supports.

Gendered Intelligence is a charity that aims to improve the lives of trans people in the UK — we specialise in supporting young trans people aged 8-25. Youth work widely has a long and proud history of supporting children and teenagers in their lives as they are, and also in their journey to becoming young adults.

“My daughter and I attended the under 12’s group. This was led by professional and very lovely youth workers who went out of their way to make my daughter feel safe and welcome. The children remained hearing distance from their parents and carers at all times – I know this because they had to ask me to be quiet (the shame).

My daughter had a new lease of life after the first session and I’ve rarely seen her so relaxed and comfortable in her own skin. We can’t wait for sessions to resume. Thanks to all at GI for creating safe happy spaces for children like mine. “

A parent of one of our users

Since 2018 we have also been running a peer-led 18-30 group for young trans and gender questioning adults to meet together and find mutual support, strength and friendship.

We have noticed over the years that for young trans and gender questioning people, the journey of self-realisation can start later than ‘teenage-hood’, extending into early 20s. The need for support at this stage— from responsible and trusted adults and organisations — is vital.  

Occasionally, across our calendar of events, we have some sessions where we invite children, teenagers and young adults who are members of our groups to attend the same event.

For instance, our Imagining Our Futures sessions offer much-needed information about career and future family opportunities, information which is sorely lacking for these young people. We open these events up to parents, carers and family members as well as our wider age range and more staff. This creates more of a ‘community day’ feel than a youth group, with parents and carers being in the same space as their children and our youth workers and the session.

Our Context

We have been working with transgender and gender-questioning young people for over a decade; around 500 young people attend our youth groups every year. We provide a supportive environment where young people can meet others in a similar situation.

“When my son was 8, we started going to GI, as he was bullied in school for who he was. He needed to hear from and play with like-minded children, who would take him as he is. The first time we came to the youth group, we were welcomed with open arms.

GI is such a wonderful community and an actual, bully free, safe space for my child. He made some incredible friends as well. GI gave him the confidence to be him, unreservedly and unapologetically and they have given me the confidence I needed to be a spokesperson for my child, until he is old enough to tackle society’s pressures himself. “

All our youth work takes place in the context of well-established youth work practice in the UK. We are endorsed by UK Youth, London Youth and the Youth and Community Department at Ruskin College, Oxford , a leading provider of youth work qualifications, as well as by many other senior youth work practitioners and organisations around the UK. There are existing guidelines and frameworks which shape the work of thousands of youth groups across the country, including residential youth trips for mixed age ranges. We are no exception to this framework.

We often find, however, that we attract negative attention because we are trans-identified professionals and work with young trans and gender diverse young people. We welcome criticism or reflections where it may offer us the ability to further improve our youth work practice, but undue criticism on the trans youth work practice existing in and of itself is an obvious outcome of a transphobic mind. Hyper-focus on our professionals — who go above and beyond for the young people entrusted in their care — simply for their identities is callous.

This callousness is met instead with thanks from users and their parents, with one parent telling us:  

“I just wanted to thank you all as an organisation for everything you do. I know that you are such a supportive organisation, and honestly the whole of GI feels more like a family to me.

You’ve saved and changed lives, and I just wanted to drop you an email to say thank you so much for that, and I’m so grateful for it.”

Our Practices

Our work is funded by a range of well-respected grant-giving foundations, including Children in Need, the Blagrave Trust, the Lottery, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Comic Relief, Trust for London and City Bridge Trust, to name a few. Application processes are as thorough for us as for any other organisation.

All funders ask to see our safeguarding and child protection policies and on occasion, asked us to adapt them to include something specific. For example, Children in Need grants officers asked us to develop an e-safety policy, which was gladly produced and approved.

We welcome interrogation and questioning related to our safeguarding processes and practices and have a positive attitude to continual learning.

As with all charities Gendered Intelligence is governed by a Board of Trustees, who have responsibilities to ensure safeguarding is taken seriously and carried out effectively in the organisation. We adhere to the rules of, and are regulated by, the Charity Commission, which includes compliance of safeguarding.    

About Our Practices

At GI, we have been running split age youth groups as part of our services and we believe that those seeking to discredit our work are not representing the facts of our age splits in our work.

For clarity – our youth groups are split by age as follows:

  • 8-11 year olds group (with 7 year olds allowed to stay if their parent/carer stays at the parent group in the same building) in London
  • 11-15 year olds group in London
  • 16 – 20 year olds group in London
  • 13 – 20 year olds groups in Leeds and Bristol
  • 13 – 25 year olds group for our Black, Asian and other minority ethnicities  group in London
  • 11 – 25 year olds group for our Community Saturday, with increased staffing, parents and carers group running alongside and siblings in the same age range welcome to join in.
  • 18-30 year olds peer led group

As stated, on occasion we carry out activities with wider age ranges, including our Youth Board, Swimming, Pride trips, Imagine our Futures season.

On these occasions, the space is staffed with more youth workers and trained volunteers than usual and have strict policies and rules around how the attendees share the space. This includes: no 1:1 areas, facilitated discussions, and toilets separated by over- and under-18. Our workers are briefed in detail about supporting all ages to share and be in the space and all young people are supervised at all times by at least two workers. With the coronavirus crisis meaning our youth work sessions are now online, we felt the immediate need to put strict safeguards into place around our online work. When we host these groups, our young person attendees are not given the option to message each other 1:1 (only publicly to the entire group, or to the Youth Worker hosts). There is no way in our online spaces for young people to privately message each other; therefore there is no possibility for sharing of details. Entry into these groups is vetted through our usual Youth Work procedures. Our workers are briefed in detail about supporting all ages to share and be in the space and all young people are supervised at all times by at least two workers.

All young people under the age of 16 have parental/carer consent to attend our sessions. We communicate regularly with parents and carers over all matters concerning their young people who attend our services.

Our residentials every summer have 18 youth workers to 36 young people, which is a ratio of 1:2. Young people are divided into the following age categories for sleeping: 11-13; 14-15; 16-17 and 18+.  As you might expect, we have a ban on any kind of sexual behaviour and the consumption of alcohol on our residentials. 

Our swimming group and residentials have strict rules and regulations that the workers and young people understand. Changing rooms and sleeping areas are split into various age ranges to keep young people separated according to existing national laws. These age ranges are as follows: under 16s, 16-17s & 18+ spaces.

We always require that young people under the age of 18 have consent from a parent/legal guardian in order to take part in our swimming group or overnight projects. Before we go away or go swimming, we invite young people’s parents/carers to a meeting so they can listen to our project plans in full, ask questions and meet the team of workers as well as the other young people. For our swimming, parents and carers are invited to drop their young people off and talk to workers at that point.

Our safeguarding qualifications 

We have a robust safeguarding policy in place which applies to everyone who works with young people, including volunteers. 

Our Designated Safeguarding Leads (DSL) are Dr. Catherine McNamara who works on the Board. Finn Greig, the Head of our Youth Service is also a qualified DSL 

Finn Greig has a First Class Hons Level 6 Youth and Community Work BA, 15 years’ youth work experience and Level 3 Designated Safeguarding Lead (DSL) status.

Dr Catherine McNamara has carried out the following training:

  • Child Protection Training, Designated Safeguarding Lead update training, NSPCC, 2017, 2019
  • Organisational development coaching, Institute of Group Analysis, 2016
  • The Prevent Agenda, MASHEIN, 2016
  • WRAP (Workshop to Raise Awareness of Prevent), Harrow Council, 2016
  • Child Protection Training UK, Safeguarding Children level 3 (Designated Safeguarding Lead), 2015

The deputy to our youth service and residential programme lead, Jake Kelly, also works as a LGBT specialist support worker at Portsmouth City Council as part of the Early Help and Prevention team and runs the PCC’s LGBT Youth Group. In addition to this, he has 10 years’ youth work experience, a level 3 Youth and Community Work qualification, a Masters in Applied Theatre and 6 years’ experience working in various school settings, including Head of Inclusion at a large secondary school in Hampshire.   

In terms of external review or contributions on specific issues, our work is informed by safeguarding and child protection expert Ann Marie Christian. Ann Marie helps schools, organisations, charities, churches and childcare settings to implement their statutory duty and responsibility in keeping children safe. She set up Child 1st Consultancy Limited in 2010 after working for a local authority in frontline child protection since 1996. She works in partnership with colleagues in various settings and supports them in offering bespoke intense support via training and consultancy.

We do not require our youth workers or mentors to have qualifications around psychotherapy, but some of them do. Indeed, some are therapists or counsellors in other aspects of their professional lives. They all have at least a level 2 or level 3 qualification in Youth and Community work, or are working towards them. The youth workers are also situated in a growing interdisciplinary team in the Youth and Communities Services, where we also carry out therapeutic practices.

Misdirected influences

Recently, we have noted an increase in members of the public saying that they have “safeguarding concerns” about Gendered Intelligence. This is not to mean there are any genuine areas of concern with our policies and practices, but as a way of suggesting that where trans adults carry out youth work with young people, there must be a nefarious aim. Thankfully, simply saying “safeguarding concern!” repeatedly and loudly will not bring one into actual existence: we are proud that our safeguarding policies are commendable and watertight.

We find that the assertion that our policies are unsuitable to be a mendacious one, often made in bad faith by people who would like our unique and necessary youth work programmes to no longer exist. It is unfortunate that these accusations mean we have to redirect our energies to protect our young people from even more loud voices. We would much rather use our limited resources to support our users to flourish as individuals. If there is a silver lining, it is that insidious and transphobic invective directed at us stands to strengthen the case that there is an acute need for Gendered Intelligence’s youth work output.

Safe spaces and working with young trans people

You may be aware that trans, non-binary and gender diverse children and young people face significant barriers to living the safe and care-free life that young people deserve. They face bullying and harassment at school or college, in public life and sometimes at home too. This often leads to poor mental health and low self-confidence. 

According to research by Stonewall, almost two thirds of trans pupils are bullied for being trans at school. Whilst we at Gendered Intelligence cannot confirm these exact figures with great certainty, we know from the young people who attend our services that anti-trans bullying is both prolific and rife.

However, with the right support, young trans people can flourish. 

Our support of young people sits within an established and recognised youth work practice framework. Through our youth work, we support young people to: improve their social networks and reduce isolation; achieve a sense of self-empowerment; increase confidence and build resilience. 

When young people come to our youth groups, they find recognition, understanding and validation. They leave feeling seen, with new friends and a sense of pride.

We recently asked a young transgender person, aged 9, what made him proud about being part of our 8-11 youth group. He said: “It feels like I’m part of something, a bunch of special people. Before I felt like I was nothing.” Our youth work practice exists so no child feels themselves to be “nothing”.

Creating a safe space for young people who identify as trans or are questioning their gender identity is at the core of our youth work.

bodily autonomy Gender Recognition Act GEO policy trans inclusion trans rights trans youth

What is an irreversible decision?

As part of our newly-launched BAEB campaign, Gendered Intelligence CEO, Dr Jay Stewart has written on the idea of bodily autonomy for trans people.

Who has the right to bodily autonomy?

In a film called Gendernauts by Monika Treut, (1999), trans historian Susan Stryker said:

It’s been a really powerful way of feeling that I’m in control of my own body, that it’s like saying: my body belongs to me and I’m going to do with it as I choose… I have the right or the ability to exercise complete control over this flesh. I live here. I don’t rent, I’m not borrowing it from someone. I didn’t have to pay a damage deposit. It’s mine. To do with it as I see fit. … [it’s] my responsibility. (Monika Treut 1999– interview with Susan Stryker)

This was the single most important utterance that I had heard when I was developing an understanding of my own gender, and emerging trans identity at the turn of the millennium. The principle of bodily autonomy as a human right is stated clearly. I am in my own body. It is mine. And it is ultimately my responsibility. There is a sense of graveness but also freedom in this revelation.

Bodies are also routinely regulated by the state and societal norms pervade our thinking in relation to our own bodies and indeed in the way that we judge and police other bodies. So, I recognise the tensions between freedom and constraint. Nonetheless in contemporary discourse when it comes to trans adults’ lives the sentiment of bodily autonomy is appreciated widely. But what about people who are under 18 years old? Do they have a right to bodily autonomy?

On 22nd April, Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss, gave evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Here she set out her priorities for the Government Equalities Office. In response to the reform to the Gender Recognition Act, she stated:

“…not a direct issue concerning the Gender Recognition Act, but [one which] is relevant, [is] making sure that the under 18s are protected from decisions that they could make, that are irreversible in the future. I believe strongly that adults should have the freedom to lead their lives as they see fit, but I think it’s very important that while people are still developing their decision-making capabilities that we protect them from making those irreversible decisions.”

What is an irreversible decision?

Being a legal adult means something in society. It means the ability to take responsibility for your actions. Children are granted differing levels of responsibility which builds throughout childhood and teenage life before developing into an independent adulthood. With this comes degrees of freedom and opportunity to take decisions  which is generated from demonstrating an ability to take ownership of  responsibilities. It’s an iterative process.

For instance, I have ten year old twins and for Christmas last year one of my children wanted an iPhone 11 pro, whilst the other wanted a snake. Having your own smartphone (we settled on an iPhone 7) is a key moment in a child’s and indeed their carer’s/parent’s life. As they step into their own digital social world, I worry. It’s important that I learn about what’s involved – what are the risks? Of course, my constant thought is that I want to protect my child. Allowing my child to have a smartphone involves ongoing conversations about trust. We agree some basic rules. We equip ourselves and educate ourselves about how to keep safe and my child must embrace the responsibility that is involved in having a smart phone.

Now, what about the snake – well that’s another dilemma. Will the child look after it, feed, clean out its vivarium? Will the child take responsibility? In addition to this, did you know corn snakes live ‘til they’re 20 and that potentially would make my child will be 30 by the time it dies? That’s quite a commitment for a 10-year-old. However, giving a child an opportunity to be responsible is part of watching them grow. And of course, as responsible adults we are the back-up plan; we are there to catch our young people if they need us.

Entering teenage years the journey continues towards independence. Choosing GCSEs, A or T Levels, who to be friends with, who to break friends with, ear and other piercings, emerging sexualities and life experimentation. Decisions are happening all of the time. Which ones can be categorised as ‘irreversible’ is hard to say.

Okay, so let’s talk about gender

So, how does this relate to gender? Currently when we are born we are given a gender – an emphatic ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl’. That decision is based on genitalia. Each of us has no say in the gender that we are given. One could argue that it’s the first non-consensual act.  We think of ‘being a boy’ or ‘being a girl’ as a very normal part of human existence, natural even. However we don’t have to dig too deep to know that gender is a fundamental aspect of social life and there are deeply embedded social expectations to behave in particular ways based on the gender that we have been given.

What if you don’t behave in these particular ways? Or can’t? What can a person do?

At Gendered Intelligence we run groups for young people who feel that the gender that was given to them (the gender that they didn’t choose), doesn’t feel right to them. Being trans is an identity category or label that some individuals— including young people— take on for themselves. It is a word that we use to explain something about our gender where we are saying ‘hang on folks! The gender that you’re putting on me – it’s not right. It doesn’t feel right.’

Some individuals will use this term about themselves and feel empowered. Finally we are able to communicate something about our sense of self, about our inner feelings to the world around us, including our loved ones and family members.

Some will try on the label and take it off again – it’s not for them after all. Young people are welcome to come to GI to explore their gender and if they find that actually they come to the conclusion that they’re not trans, then of course that’s okay too. No judgement on the proverbial journey!

It’s not for anyone else to tell another person that they’re trans, or indeed that they’re not.

Being trans or becoming trans involves a process of self-determination. Not all identity categories work this way. I think sexual orientation also involves a process of self-determination in the sense that an individual might say, “I’m a lesbian. That description helps me to organise and communicate my principle desires for other women”. Not that people actually talk like that!

The problem with society is that being trans, like being lesbian, gay or bisexual, involves us saying ‘hey, I’m not the thing others have put on me and assumed me to be. I am different to that’. Despite strides made by the LGBT rights movement over the past decades, society continues to assume a person is heterosexual until they tell us otherwise. Likewise, we assume that a person, a baby born and a child growing up, is okay with the gender that they’ve been given or at least that they don’t have any intentions to change it (we often call this cisgender). In short, LGBT people go against the ‘norm’.

So, here we are at the crunch point – let’s imagine there is a person under the age of 18, who is telling the people around them that they do not feel themselves to be the gender that they have been given  – what actual decisions are ahead of them? And who is making them?

What is an irreversible decision? Or where may the harm lie?

Truss’s concern around individuals making ‘irreversible’ decisions is a hangover from a medically framed model of being trans. When a trans person chooses to have medical intervention, they do this in dialogue with a health practitioner who is a specialist in gender care. The doctors’ code of ‘do no harm’ provides an ethical dilemma around balancing the rights of an individual to bodily autonomy and the ability to take responsibility for themselves, with that of the duty of care a statutory funded health practitioner has to their patient.

One way doctors have dealt with this is to differentiate the treatments between that which is ‘reversible’ from that which is considered to be ‘irreversible’.  Before a person undergoes any kind of medical treatment via a Gender Identity Clinic or a Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), they will carry out social actions that are changeable, moveable and if wanted also reversible. They are not fixed acts. For instance, to start using a different name, to try it out and seeing how it feels   As a person goes about their daily life, they might try to experiment with their gender expression – clothes, haircuts, make up, or with their mannerisms, walk, voice etc. There is a lot in social life that a person can change if they wish to – all of which are not harmful and are, if you choose to think of it this way, ‘irreversible’.

This is about experimenting with the ways in which our expression feels authentic to us as individuals, where we feel that we are being most real, where we feel settled in our self (as much as possible anyhow – I’m being cautious here if we are to recognise the complexities of a world that highly regulates body image, as indeed, we regulate those of others).

Trans people, including those under 18, should be – and indeed are – free to change any of these social aspects of what we would call ‘gender’. This is because we have the right to be able to autonomously express ourselves and that should be respected.

It is in the refusal to respect a trans person’s wishes where harm is caused. And yet, to use a trans person’s name and pronoun can be such a small act on the part of those around us and the difference can be so very validating for us.  And if a person changes their name and pronoun again, or returns to a previous one, or goes onto wear a totally different style of clothes again, or in anyway reflects a different gender expression again, then that’s all perfectly acceptable. It all forms part of the rich tapestry of diverse life. The more openness to explore the better for everyone.

Likewise if a person feels confident with their name and they want to change important documents they can do that – there are processes to change names on passports, getting a deedpoll, changing names on exam certificates and if the person needs to change their name again and again, going back to their previous gender marker, then it is entirely possible – it is reversible, if you choose to think about it like that.

So what about body changes?

Families and young people who attend the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) will discuss options around the treatment that will change their bodies. Some children (usually around 10-12 years old) might explore puberty blocking treatment. For anyone younger than this, there is no hormone treatment or medical intervention of any kind. Puberty blocking treatment is reversible in the sense that when administered it stops puberty progressing and, if treatment stops, puberty kicks back in (like pressing the pause button – this is how it is currently understood).

For 16 year olds who want their bodies to masculinise through testosterone or feminise through oestrogen (sometimes called cross sex hormones) they will need to have been on puberty blockers for at least a year. Remember -sixteen is the age that a person can access health services and administer medicines without consent from their legal guardian; they can also get married, pregnant and join the army – all pretty responsible stuff.

So here we have a picture –  a young person and their legal guardians have been in GIDS services for some time, they will have attended several appointments, talked about their relationship to gender and what they would like to happen; they will have had the opportunity to explore and express their gender in everyday life and be continuing to do that; they may have made some changes to their identity documentation, been put on puberty blockers and, at the age of 16, go on cross sex hormones. At 18, they may consider surgery – as Liz Truss MP says, they would “have the freedom to lead their lives as they see fit”.

GIDS is there to provide a space to discuss and explore – what does the young person want, what do the family members think, what are some of the concerns everyone has, what do we know about the choices that are available? It’s important that there is space for discussion, exploration and to get the right information in order to support decision making. Parents and carers are involved.  Staff in schools are involved. Sometimes Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are involved. Therapists and counsellors are involved. Gendered Intelligence, along with a whole number of LGBT charitable and voluntary sector organisations, may be  involved. We make up a collective of professionals around the child – thinking about what is in the child’s best interests, safeguarding them, holding them at the centre, listening to their wishes, supporting them in the respective roles that we have, asking ourselves ‘where the harm lie?’ We each bear our own responsibilities here, and recognise that the young person has responsibilities too. No one is rushing (in fact waiting lists are long!) There are no quick decisions made out of nowhere.

There is always a context – an iterative process of decision making.

We need to do away with the false dichotomy of ‘reversible’ and ‘irreversible’ when talking about young trans people and decision making. It’s not useful. What is useful is for adults to process their fears of gifting children their right to autonomy. We all know that young people thrive when given responsibility. We also know that, as adults, we should be supporting and reassuring young people, providing a safety net beneath them, working with them.

Trans, gender questioning and gender diverse people, especially those under 18 years of age, need more support not less. We need less judgement, not more.