"The past few months have been the most surreal I’ve ever been through," says Susie Green, chief executive of Mermaids, the charity that supports transgender and gender diverse children and their parents.
Since December, the charity has been awarded a transformative grant, found itself plunged into a media storm and suffered at the receiving end of both an anti-trans campaign and an innovative viral fundraising appeal.
The charity that has emerged is unashamedly ambitious and Green is brimming with ideas to continue its expansion. Though still small, with an annual income of less than £1m, it is a far cry from the organisation that Green encountered 19 years ago.
Green first phoned the Mermaids helpline looking for advice after her six-year-old, now known as Jackie, requested an operation to allow her to live as girl. Green soon became involved in the organisation, then a support group of about 25 parents, later becoming a trustee.
The internet and the number of high-profile people who have come out as transgender recently have boosted trans visibility over the past five years, Green says, and led to increased demand for the charity’s services.
In 2015, Green, then an IT manager at Leeds Citizens Advice Bureau, discovered Mermaids was answering less than 10 per cent of calls to its helpline.
Horrified, she started fundraising, initially securing small grants to improve the helpline and demonstrate that the charity could handle money responsibly. Eventually, a grant from Children in Need allowed her to become the chief executive at the beginning of 2016, working three days a week for four months.
The charity now has 10 staff and is recruiting four more. As well as the helpline, it runs two online support groups – one for trans children and teens, one for their parents – and residential weekends for service users.
Awareness of the charity was growing, but it was a Big Lottery Fund (now the
National Lottery Community Fund) grant of £500,000 to set up 45 new local support groups and fund training and policy officers that catapulted Mermaids into the national media.
There’s a perception we’re going around bullying schools to be trans-inclusive or pressuring people to transition their kidsSusie Green, chief executive, Mermaids
The charity was told it had won the grant in December, but before the announcement was made public it was leaked to a Sunday Times journalist. After the resulting negative news story, the NLCF received 800 emails about the grant – some of them supportive, but many protesting the decision – and decided that as a public body it had to review the grant. "There’s a perception we’re going round bullying schools to be trans-inclusive or putting pressure on people to transition their kids," Green says. "Pictures of me as the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were posted online. People said I had castrated my child or that we push all the children we work with towards transitioning and that’s all we accept."
Information and support
Green rejects all of this. Working under the banner "embrace, empower, educate", the charity provides information and support, she says, and isn’t involved in clinical or care decisions.
It’s difficult to track why people stop using the charity’s services, she says, but there are undoubtedly some children who decide they do not want to transition after all. From jubilant celebrations over the grant, morale at the charity plummeted, with staff, volunteers and service users left feeling "bruised" and "attacked", she says.
Then, at the end of January, the charity discovered that the YouTuber Hbomber Guy, real name Harry Brewis, had launched a livestream on the video-game platform Twitch, challenging himself to play Donkey Kong for 24 hours while encouraging viewers to donate to Mermaids.
As the campaign gained traction, it drew support from the likes of the Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the singer and actor Cher and the journalist Owen Jones. By the time Brewis completed the game, his stream had raised more than $360,000 (£275,000) for the charity.
"It was an absolute gift," Green says. "I’d never seen such positivity. It was just magical and turned everybody around. It’s raised our profile – and put us back in the firing line."
Mermaids was concerned that the controversy would be too big for a publicly funded grant-maker, Green says.
But in February, the NLCF announced that it saw no reason to withhold the grant, and the extra money brought in by the Twitch stream meant Green could begin work she had thought was months away.
As well as expanding its campaigning, the charity is launching its own legal
services for service users, mostly those experiencing hate crime and discrimination, and hiring a PR manager. It also plans to introduce a peer mentoring service for everyday and crisis counselling.
But Green is aware of the risks for small charities that grow quickly and says she’s well supported by the NLCF and other charities that have had similar experiences.
"I’m also looking for new trustees who’ve governed bigger charities, and I’ve got a really specific business plan," she says.
Collaboration is key to Green’s approach to growth. Her ultimate aim for the charity is to be able to offer a single entry point to help trans teens seek help, both from Mermaids and other charities that might have more expertise in areas such as self-harm, homelessness and eating disorders, which often affect young transgender people.
"We want to offer a place where young people can speak their difficult truths to people who can then act as advocates," she says. "They won’t have to keep repeating those difficult things – they’ll have someone to do it for them."
Demand for the charity’s services is still growing. "The estimated population of trans people is 1 to 2 per cent of the whole, so there are still many young people out there who can’t talk about this," she says. "We need to be ready to listen."