When Keira Bell began pursuing sex-change options at age 16, she said no one questioned her as she took puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, and eventually had a double mastectomy in an attempt to become a man. Now, at age 23, Bell said she “should have been challenged more,” but instead she made irreversible changes she would live to regret without her healthcare providers offering her alternatives.
But that may be changing for future generations of children in the United Kingdom. Liz Truss, the British secretary of state for international trade and minister for women and equalities, said last week the well-being of children under 18 will guide a government policy review on gender identity.
“Grown adults should be able to make decisions, to have agency to live life as they see fit,” she told the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee. “But before the age of 18, when people are still developing their decision-making capabilities, they should be protected.”
Truss promised to announce specific policies by summer, including restrictions for children with gender dysphoria and changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, which allows adults in England and Wales to obtain new birth certificates with a sex other than the one they were born with. She also said protecting single-sex spaces like restrooms and changing rooms is “extremely important.”
Ciarán Kelly, deputy communications director at the U.K.-based Christian Institute, welcomed Truss’ comments but noted she leaves many questions unanswered: “It’s good that there is a desire to protect children under 18, but what is the scope?”
Children in the U.K. may begin “gender identity development” treatment after at least three therapy sessions and without their parent’s consent. The Tavistock and Portman National Health Service Foundation Trust operates the U.K.’s only gender transition center. The center in London offers puberty-blocking medication and cross-sex hormones—testosterone for girls or estrogen for boys—for children in their mid-teens. The average age for children receiving these treatments is 14, but some start as early as age 12. At age 17, they can legally have sex-change surgery. The number of children seeking treatment at the Tavistock center skyrocketed from 94 in 2010 to 2,519 in 2018.
But the center has come under fire in recent years for fast-tracking children—including those with mental health issues, autism, or a history of trauma or sexual abuse—into experimental and invasive medical treatments. Last year, five former clinical psychologists resigned from the facility, telling The Times of London that their supervisors pressured them to refer children for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones even if they believed the treatment would not help the patients.
In March, Bell filed a lawsuit against the Tavistock center for not taking more care before helping her try to change her sex. In the lawsuit, Bell and other claimants––a former psychiatric nurse at the center and an anonymous mother of a 15-year-old gender-dysphoric girl who is seeking treatment at the facility—argue against the legality of providing puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones to children under the age of 18 who cannot give informed consent.
Kelly said that the “trans phenomenon” is still relatively new and additional young people like Bell are beginning to speak out about the negative, life-altering consequences of puberty blockers, hormone treatments, and sex-change surgeries: “It’s becoming increasingly hard for trans activists to paint these people as extreme outliers.”