02.07.24 Trans+ Voices

The parents group at the centre of a rollback of trans rights

A Conservative MP enlisted Bayswater Support Group in push back on trans education in schools

“An amendment to the Schools Bill is being discussed in Parliament tomorrow,” read the post on an online forum run by the Bayswater Support Group, which describes itself as the UK’s only support organisation run by and for parents of trans children and young people.

“If passed it will allow greater transparency about what is being taught in schools. We have been contacted for a short piece of evidence,” the mother said. “Does anyone have the experience of their autistic child identifying as trans following learning about it at school? Ideally a situation where the school went onto transition the child.”

The following day, on 30 June 2022, during a parliamentary debate about relationships, sex and health education (RSHE), the Conservative MP Miriam Cates argued that learning about trans identities was damaging to children.

“One parent of a 15-year-old with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome said she discovered that without her knowledge, her [child’s] school had started the process of socially transitioning her child, and has continued to do so despite the mother’s objections,” said Cates, who is standing again for her seat Penistone and Stockbridge, in South Yorkshire, in the upcoming election.

The story Cates told the House of Commons closely mirrored the request posted on Bayswater’s private channel on Discord, an online message board. She even named the group during the debate, saying it had reported “a surge” of parents contacting Bayswater after their children learned about trans people at school.

With Bayswater providing the kind of case studies Cates needed to make her arguments, the MP has spearheaded a drive to stop children from learning at school about being trans. She is on the verge of success.

Thanks to the efforts of Cates and her supporters it may soon be illegal for schools to teach that children can be trans or nonbinary.

In March 2023, Cates’ organisation, which promotes socially conservative values, included complaints made by Bayswater parents in a report about “inappropriate” content in sex education lessons. The same day, the prime minister Rishi Sunak launched a review into statutory relationships and sex education guidance at Cates’ behest.

Miriam Cates speaks at a conference in June 2023 Miriam Cates has argued that learning about trans identities is damaging to children PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The new draft guidance, published in May, would ban schools from teaching about the existence of gender identity. The guidance states that some materials “[risk] leading pupils who do not comply with sex stereotypes to question their gender”, echoing the concerns of Bayswater parents that Cates has quoted in parliament.

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) reveals the significant role Bayswater Support Group – an organisation with about 650 members set up by a handful of parents – has played in shaping policy around one of the most contested issues in UK politics, including influencing prosecutors’ guidelines relating to domestic abuse. TBIJ’s findings are based on posts on Bayswater’s online forum over a 12-month period.

Trans organisations describe the group as transphobic. Trans Safety Network, which records attempts at institutional and organised harm against trans people in the UK, has expressed concern that Bayswater actively promotes a manual for conversion therapy, coercive practices that aim to change or suppress a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Posts show Bayswater members describing how they destroyed their children’s possessions, restricted their internet access or sent them to conversion therapy – all in an effort to ‘stop’ them being trans.

Labour’s Nadia Whittome, who is standing to keep her seat in Nottingham East, said: “This investigation raises serious concerns about the kinds of organisations influencing government policy towards trans people, who are among the most marginalised groups in society.

"At a time when anti-trans discrimination is rife and hate crime has reached record levels, the government is failing to meaningfully engage with LGBTQ+ organisations when creating policy and is instead listening to extremist voices who are putting trans people at greater risk."

Bayswater denied being anti-trans, telling TBIJ that suggesting this would “risk causing serious harm to the vulnerable families and children who seek help within [its] community” and that its “evidence-based stance (which is public) is completely within UK legislation and safeguarding protocols.”

Bayswater rejected being “characterised as a lobbying group”. It said posts on the forum showed parents seeking advice about how to “liaise with services about their children’s needs”, and that these were “highly personal and therefore private matters”.

The group denied being “tied” to Cates or any other MP or political party, adding that to accuse it of being party political would be “defamatory and highly damaging”.

A spokesperson for Cates said the investigation’s findings were “contrary to publicly available evidence” and “include basic factual errors.” They declined to provide specific comment on individual points and instead threatened to sue TBIJ.

Friends in high places

Since entering parliament in 2019, Cates has been remarkably successful in pushing her party to the right on social issues such as trans rights. In an interview with Premier Christianity in January, Cates said she is a practising Christian and guided by her worldview. Before entering parliament, she sat on the board of an evangelical church in Sheffield, which “endorsed and supported” conversion therapy, according to an independent report by the charity Barnardo’s released yesterday. Cates told the BBC she was not aware of the allegations during her time as a trustee and did not support gay conversion therapy.

As an MP she has voted against improving abortion access and advocated ending no fault divorce.

Posts on Bayswater’s forum on Discord suggest Cates has developed a relationship with the parents’ group. While she receives members’ stories to use as case studies to argue a point, members hear their concerns voiced in parliament.

On 21 May 2022 a member posted about a school where a child had allegedly been bullied for expressing gender critical beliefs. “I spoke with Miriam Cates,” another user wrote, “she’s keen to get parents testimony of the goings on within the school for Nadhim Zahawi [then the education secretary] to instigate an investigation.”

In April this year, Cates named the group during a parliamentary debate about the Cass Review, a report commissioned by NHS England into healthcare for trans children in England. “I pay tribute to the brave parents, including those in the Bayswater Support Group, who have been raising concerns for years about the ethics and the safety of putting vulnerable children on irreversible and unevidenced medical pathways,” she said.

Nikki da Costa sits on the grass next to path Nikki da Costa, a Conservative party candidate, has been linked to Bayswater

A year earlier, in April 2022, a Bayswater committee member shared a thank-you note from another of the group’s political allies: Nikki da Costa, a current Conservative candidate for North East Hertfordshire and a former advisor to the prime minister and the women and equalities minister.

The exchange came as Boris Johnson’s government announced that proposed legislation to ban conversion therapy would not protect trans people.

“I’ve so appreciated the support,” the note read. “We know there is huge pressure to add [trans people] back into the bill.” The mother added that she had replied to Da Costa, saying, “she has an ‘army’ behind her”.

The Conservative government shifted its stance from promising a ban on conversion therapy in 2018 to then deciding the opposite. Paul Brand reported for ITV in October that it was Cates who convinced the government to drop the ban, and the party did not include one in its manifesto this summer.

With input from Bayswater, Cates pushed education policies that harm trans people, including rolling back LGBTQ-inclusive teaching, and banning social transition at school – where trans people change their name, pronouns and/or gender presentation to better align with their identity.

Both Bayswater and Cates frame these changes as necessary for “safeguarding” vulnerable children, but some experts disagree.

“Prejudice is often veiled under language such as ‘care and support for children’,” said Dr Cal Horton, a research fellow in applied trans studies at Oxford Brookes University, who specialises in healthcare and education policy. “It’s really important to be aware of the potential for actors influenced by prejudice to very actively try to shape policy in this arena.”

Bayswater’s public concern about children’s safety strikes a marked contrast to posts on its Discord channel, where parents wrote of being reported to social services over “restraining” their child and called a shelter for LGBTQ+ abuse survivors “a church for the gender faithful”. A post on the forum recommended blocking children’s access to the website for Childline, the NSPCC’s counselling service.

‘Section 28 reborn’

There is historical precedent to restricting how British schools can talk about sex and gender. A law known as Section 28, which was introduced in 1988 and fully repealed in 2003, banned any positive mention of LGBTQ+ people and identities.

Horton believes parents should have access to what their children are learning at school but is concerned that groups like Bayswater may use “tactics of fear” to “prompt parents into taking actions that are not in their children’s best interests”

They say the current generation of parents may be susceptible to this "fear-mongering" because most grew up under Section 28, and were not educated about LGBTQ+ identities at school.

Beyond their national campaigns, Bayswater members have worked against LGBTQ+ inclusion in their own children’s schools. Members have lodged successful complaints about school LGBTQ+ clubs and rejoiced when they have been shut down. Parents also accused teachers who facilitate the clubs of “grooming”; the false narrative that LGBTQ+ people as a group are engaged in child grooming dates back almost a century, and has been used to justify everything from persecution in Nazi Germany to campaigns against teachers in 1970s Florida.

Bayswater parents claim to have convinced schools to distance themselves from LGBTQ+ charities, including Mermaids, Stonewall, and Just Like Us, and occasionally to suspend lessons covering gender identity altogether.

Dr Adam Jowett, the lead author of a government-commissioned report on conversion practices, said Bayswater’s preferred policies remind him of Section 28.

“Under Section 28, LGBT people felt isolated,” he said. “They felt that there was a sense of stigma and shame attached to their identity, because it was treated as this shameful thing that shouldn’t be addressed in the class. So it is very worrying to see groups lobbying schools not to engage with these issues in sex and relationships education.”

Though Section 28 was repealed by 2003, guidance mandating that all English schools teach about LGBTQ+ identities was not released until 2019, the same year Cates entered parliament and Bayswater was founded.

George, a 22-year-old trans man, said his school refused to discuss LGBTQ+ issues well into the 2010s, which meant school provided little respite from the homophobia and transphobia at home. “The silence of people who could have stepped in is what made it so bad,” he said.

George struggled with suicidal ideation throughout his teens and stopped speaking to his parents when he went to university, though he later reconciled with his father.

Seeing a Stonewall poster at the college he moved to for sixth form had a profound effect. “I remember seeing that and it being just a tiny bit of hope that some people are OK with this, even though right now I’m not, and my family’s not,” he said.

“Basic education on trans existence is really important for children who are feeling isolated and alone, like there isn't space for them in this world,” said Horton.

Forced out of social transition

The draft schools guidance released in May harked back to Section 28. It also echoed separate draft advice for schools on “Gender Questioning Children”, released in December 2023, which recommended that primary schools should not allow social transition under any circumstances, and secondary schools should only consider it with parental consent.

“Studies that have looked at the experiences of trans children all report positive findings in terms of the impact of social transition on mental health, self-confidence and the ability to engage in social life and succeed at school,” Horton said. “There has not been a single study that has found any negative repercussions of support for social transition.”

The December guidance was announced as “a welcome step in the right direction” on Bayswater’s official X account. According to Schools Week, however, Department for Education lawyers warned the guidance could breach equalities law. Although it is only a draft, and as non-statutory guidance would not be legally enforceable, it is already pushing schools to create barriers to social transition.

“I fought and fought and fought to get the school to change my son’s gender,” said Louise*, whose trans son is currently in Year 6. At the start of this school year, the school finally changed his gender on the register, but the victory was short-lived.

“They phoned me in January to say they changed it back again because of that guidance. They’ve put him back to being female,” said Louise. She hasn’t told her son because he would find it upsetting.

Bayswater’s advocacy for parents’ rights does not extend to supportive parents like Louise. “Well-intentioned parents may not appreciate the lack of evidence around social transition or the complex drivers of gender distress,” the group wrote on X.

The group welcomed a pending 2024 update to safeguarding guidance, also published in May, that will, if approved, make many of Bayswater’s preferences law. The guidance replaces the word “trans” with “gender-questioning” and requires parents to be informed of a child’s transgender status except in “exceptionally rare” cases where it would risk child safety.

A Galop and YouGov survey of LGBT+ people across the UK reported that two in five trans and nonbinary people experience abuse from relatives. Bayswater parents have themselves received social services referrals and visits from the police for suspected abuse, according to the Daily Telegraph.

The safeguarding guidance also recommends involving doctors or therapists before affirming a child’s gender at school, limiting the ability of supportive parents like Louise to consent to their children socially transitioning.

“The kind of policies that are being considered in the UK at the moment are about prolonged, institutionally mandated rejection,” said Horton. “To support a trans child is very easy. To reject them requires persistent rejection, daily, by multiple people.”

After the election

The day after the election was called, the health secretary Victoria Atkins used emergency legislation to ban the private prescription of puberty blockers to trans children, and the draft safeguarding guidance was quietly published.

With polling day nearing, the Conservatives promised to amend the Equality Act to remove anti-discrimination protections for trans people if the party wins another term.

Labour dismissed the proposal as a “distraction” but, in April, Sir Keir Starmer backed government plans to exclude trans women from single-sex NHS hospital wards. The shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has suggested the next Labour government would extend the ban on puberty blockers.

A week ago, the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson repeatedly dodged questions on whether Labour would scrap the government’s proposed ban on teaching about gender identity in schools. The following day Starmer clarified the party’s position, telling reporters he was “not in favour of ideology being taught in our schools on gender”.

Horton believes that a political climate that puts the lives of trans and nonbinary people up for debate has harmed both children and adults across the UK.

“The politicians who espouse really impolite transphobia are easy to identify and to understand where they're coming from,” they said.

“I feel a lot more threatened by the politicians who maybe even describe themselves as LGBT allies, but who nevertheless support policies that will cause significant harm to trans children and adolescents.”

Polls suggest Cates could lose her seat on 4 July, but the policy agenda she has championed may well live on, even in the event of a Labour government.

Have you been affected by the issues raised in this article? Contact [email protected]

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Reporters: Sasha Baker and Valeria Rocca
Additional reporting: Vic Parsons
Illustration: Hayley Wall
Bureau Local editor: Gareth Davies
Deputy editors: Katie Mark and Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Production editor: Frankie Goodway
Fact checker: Somesh Jha