Maya Forstater is (amongst other things!), a mother and an Assistant Cub Scout Leader. This article is her personal opinion and is not a comment on behalf of the Scout Association. We thank the Scout Association for reviewing their policy and making changes. We are very grateful to Maya for all her work to safeguard children, her courage in speaking out and for offering us her insights to publish here.
The Scout Association’s New Transgender Guidance is a Big Step Forward
The UK Scout Association is a co-educational youth organisation, with young members from 6 to 25. More than a quarter of its total membership is female.
Given the rapid growth in children identifying as trans in recent years, it is not unusual for scout districts to have at least one, and sometimes several young people identifying as trans or having gender identity issues; something neither headquarters staff or the dedicated volunteers who run Beaver, Cub, Scout and Explorer packs, would have encountered only a few years ago.
In an effort to support volunteers to understand this phenomena and help them to include all young people in activities, the Scout Association issued guidance on ‘supporting transgender young people’ a few years ago (this can be found in internet archives going back to 2016 here and here ). This guidance was developed in partnership with the charity Mermaids and a less well known organisation called The Gender Trust.
In 2017 the guidance was criticised in the national press for encouraging self harming with support for chest binding. Recently The Scout Association has revised its guidance, rewriting it completely, removing the Gender Trust altogether and reducing the strength of endorsement given to Mermaids (the new guidance can be seen here and here -this was reported on by the Sunday Times on May 26). This article highlights the key differences between the old and new versions. While there are still some problems with the new version, it is a major improvement on what they had before.
A central theme of the old guidance was the idea of that gender dysphoria is a sign that a child has a “true gender” of someone of the opposite sex. The previous guidance said children “as young as two” can be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and presents ‘trans children’ as having a ‘true gender’ which does not match with ‘the sex they are assigned at birth’. It stated that this is most likely caused by ‘development of the brain in the womb’ going on to explain that “young person may decide they want to either permanently alter their body or their appearance to match their true gender. Young people may be prescribed medication to stop puberty from progressing, or hormones to allow their body to develop in the way of their true gender. Later on, the young person, might undergo surgery to change their bodies to match their true gender.”
Thus scout leaders were told authoritatively that it is both in the child’s best interests, and that it is their legal right to be treated as their self-identified “true gender” at any age, with social, and potentially medical transition presented as the best course of action to ‘allow their body to develop’. However, many children with gender dysphoria will desist from identifying as the opposite sex if they are not encouraged onto a pathway of early social and medical transition. Many of these children will grow up to reconciled with their healthy bodies and many will be gay and lesbian adults. ‘Watchful waiting’ (which neither affirms a child as the opposite sex or shames them into changing their behaviour) is the established clinical approach to children with gender dysphoria.
The new guidance is more aligned with this approach. Although it is still framed by the the idea of the ‘trans child’, rather than a child experiencing gender dysphoria, it talks about addressing children’s needs and making adjustments rather than promoting the idea of “true gender” or necessary social transition. It says “A young person may be questioning their gender identity and be unsure if they are trans or not.” It says“every young person and situation will be different” and tells volunteers to respond to a young person confiding in them about gender identity issues by asking “if there is anything they might need to make them feel comfortable and included in the section…. A young person might not want to do anything at all, or may need some time to think about any adjustments they need, so let them know that they can always come back to talk to you.”
Safeguarding and confidentiality
A key concern with the previous guidance was that it undermined safeguarding practice by telling scout leaders they should give a reassurance of “complete confidentiality” to a child disclosing gender concerns or undertaking steps such as breast binding, social transition, or engagement with strangers on the internet in intimate details about their body. It made no mention of safeguarding. Importantly the new guidance does away with complete confidentiality and instead says “reassure the young person that you will not share this personal information with others without their permission, unless you have concerns for their welfare or safety.” It prominently includes contact details of the scouts safeguarding team for any questions or concerns.
Parental support is not the same as affirmation
The previous guidance encouraged scout leaders to view parents as as unsupportive and prejudiced if they do not agree with the young person’s self identity and expressed wish to transition. Beyond this it makes little mention of parents’ role. The new guidance is better, saying “if a young person has confided in you that they are trans, sensitively discuss with them whether they have told their parents or carers” and says “it may also be useful to discuss and agree together [with parents] any needs or adjustments that might be made for the young person.” However it also states that volunteers should never tell parents or carers about a child’s gender issues without their consent. This is not in line with safeguarding. Parents have primary responsibility for their children and there can be situations where third parties such as teachers or scout leaders can have concerns for a child’s welfare or safety (such as from relationships with peers) which do not warrant escalation into a social services referral but where the best course of action is, after careful consideration and discussion with the child, to tell their parents about the situation.
Who to call?
The previous guidance featured the logos of Mermaids and the Gender Trust prominently and listed the organisations as partners, advising volunteers to refer children on to “organisations like Mermaids”. The new guidance reduces the prominence of Mermaids and has dropped the Gender Trust. However it still gives a list of resource organisations that only includes those that promote the idea of ‘true gender’ and early affirmation, such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence. It could usefully add links to Transgender Trend and 4th Wave Now to the list of organisations that parents and volunteers might find useful.
The previous guidance had sections normalising breast binding; “Young people who are developing breasts may strap down their chest, to make it less obvious. This is called ‘binding’ and it is important to respect the young person’s decision to do this.” “If you have young people who are binding their chests, monitor them carefully during particularly physical activities (such as rock climbing) and hot temperatures. There is a chance that the binding could cause discomfort or even impair breathing, and it may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.” ”A young person may be binding their chest or wearing very tight underwear to flatten themselves. The chance to privately remove this clothing overnight is very important.” This has all been removed.
Other children’s privacy
The new guidance makes improvements in considering the interests and privacy of other children in the scout group. The previous guidance said toilet arrangements should “ideally” involve trans identifying children using “cubicles in facilities of their true gender”. The new guidance still says “trans young people should be able to use the toilets or facilities of the gender they identify as”, but it does not present as ideal that males should have their gender identity validated by sharing ‘single-sex’ cubicled facilities with girls (and vice versa). It highlights the need to consider all children’s comfort and privacy sensitively saying “most young people would prefer privacy when using facilities. Providing a range of options to everyone will not only avoid a trans person feeling singled out, uncomfortable or unsafe using facilities, but will probably make everyone else in the section feel more comfortable too”. It suggests the provision of ‘gender neutral’, self-contained or individual toilet and shower cubicles that can be used by anyone. On sleeping arrangements it says leaders should “make a range of different sleeping options available to all members, including mixed-sex accommodation, single and multiple occupancy tents or dorms, compartment tents with single rooms”.
Do your best!
Every cub scout meeting starts with an exhortation to “Do Your Best”, so as cub scout leader I raised the problems with the previous guidance with the the CEO and with those responsible for overseeing safeguarding and volunteering at Scouting HQ last year. I do not know whether it was my conversations with them that made a difference, but I was pleased to see the new guidance.
I think it is a significant improvement, and a step forward that the Scout Association was willing to revisit their previous decision and diverge from the advice of advocacy organisations such as Mermaids. It should be perfectly possible for the Scouts to responsibly and sensitively include children of both sexes who are experiencing gender dysphoria, since it is already a mixed sex organisation. Scout leaders routinely include and safeguard children of both sexes, and there is no reason why they cannot do this for children of either sex experiencing gender dysphoria.
Girl Guides, on the other hand, have put themselves in a much more difficult position, by taking the decision to admit male children who have gender dysphoria into a previously single-sex organisation, and arguing that it is still single sex. Girl Guides policy is to allow parents to enroll their male children in the ‘girls only’ organisation. This provides a strong means of affirming their opposite sex identity, which may not be in the best interests of the child themselves. It also undermines other children’s privacy and safety and the idea of consent, as Girl Guides says that parents can enroll their male children without ever disclosing their sex, and teenage girls may be allocated to share sleeping and washing facilities with males, without them or their parents being told. Girl Guides has not responded as positively to leaders such as Helen Watts raising safeguarding concerns, but instead have tried to close down discussion.
The lessons I take away from the progress by the Scout Association are:
- Schools, local authorities and youth organisations should not rely on advocacy organisations but should take responsibility for reviewing their own approach in line with medical practice and the law. I hope the Scout Association is able to share their experience with other youth organisations such as Girl Guides and Woodcraft Folk
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission should issue clear, medically and legally informed guidance for schools and youth organisations. Their promised guidance (trailed with Mermaids and Gendered intelligence) is now over a year late, leaving organisations like Scouts and Guides trying to work out the best course of action without the benefit of official guidance.
Parents, staff, volunteers and governors can make a difference by speaking up. Get a copy of Transgender Trend’s resource pack and its guidance on safeguarding. Take the Scouts new guidance and go and talk to the decision makers responsible for safeguarding and inclusion in the youth and education organisations you are connected to. Sometimes it pays off.