James Esses turned 30 this week and has been thinking a lot. Last year he was expelled from his psychotherapist training course – three years later – for openly discussing his fears that young children expressing discomfort in their bodies are being actively encouraged to make the transition; weeks later, Childline removed him from his volunteer role as a counselor for the same reasons. After logging more than 1,000 hours at the charity over five years, attending one night a week after his work as a criminal barrister, he had been alarmed that such calls were becoming more frequent; younger callers. Of his subsequent battle against the two institutions, he says “the pain and the hurt are more acute than ever”.
Until he joined Childline in 2016, he had never engaged much with the notion of gender dysphoria – feeling trapped in the wrong body. But the increase in those calls “triggered something in my mind,” he recalls. Esses began reading books and academic articles on the subject, wanting to better understand how to help. “Once I started reading, I started to be extremely concerned about the medical pathways we were putting very, very young children into,” he says. The kids on the other end of the line ‘were so young they couldn’t even really tell me what exactly it meant to be a man or a woman’ – yet they told Esses that they wanted to take puberty blockers and hormones, wear breast belts, and undergo sex reassignment surgery.
Worried, Esses raised the issue internally, also disturbed by the influence of Stonewall – the charity contributed by many organizations in the name of equality – whose posters in boardrooms suggested “an ideological message around the gender,” and Childline’s website, where he describes the gender identity page as a “road map to medical transition.” He also features a video of individuals who have made the transition, who “essentially sell it to young people… [with] no mention of de-transitioners and the significant risks and potential permanent scars that could come from those who regret [it]”.
He spoke with senior management, but nothing changed. As her online advocacy around the protection continued, she was told not to refer to the charity or her role there. In July, Esses received an appeal dismissing him with immediate effect. “I was devastated”, he recalls, when faced with “the most important thing in my life” – which had inspired his decision to leave law and train as a psychotherapist – to go “in smoke almost from day to day. next day”. The NSPCC, Childline’s parent company, says: “We respect people’s right to have different opinions, but volunteers cannot give the impression that Childline endorses their personal campaigns… We have discussed the situation at length with the volunteer, we tried to find a solution, but unfortunately we could not find a compromise.
Esses wrote an open letter to Childline; his “cathartic attempt at closure”. He could only form such thoughts now, he says, because he has spent much of the past year embroiled in legal proceedings against his former teacher, Metanoia University. Preliminary hearings are due to begin in June; he is currently funding £120,000 for his legal fees and has just passed the £95,000 mark.
Four weeks before his deportation he had emailed a plea to the government to “save evidence-based therapy for children struggling with gender dysphoria”, which received more than 10,000 signatures. Esses had also created Thoughtful Therapists, a collective of clinicians “deeply concerned” with the current grip on public discourse. This was apparently reason enough for his immediate dismissal, although he states: “I never received the grounds or the evidence for the expulsion. I was never provided with a justification as to why I received the same punishment as someone who had committed a physical or sexual assault on campus. He says he was also denied the opportunity to make his point or appeal the decision. When asked to comment, the university said “it is not possible to comment on an ongoing case.”
All of this “irreparably and severely damaged” his professional position in a career he “wanted to spend the rest of my life doing”. And the “weak spots” continue, says Esses. On top of the legal battles and personal agony of a wrecked career, there’s the significant abuse on social media he receives for his belief that sex is immutable – he can’t risk his partner or his wife. family are publicly linked to him lest they be subjected to the same. He currently works in the public sector but won’t elaborate on his role because “I’ve had problems before” there after “being targeted by militants from the other side”.
Still, he has “no regrets, because although it was a personal cost to me, the stakes are simply far too high”. On the contrary, going public only strengthened his position: he was inundated with messages from anguished parents who, in one case, had found correspondence from Mermaids, the transgender charity, promising to send breast binders to their child behind their back. (The Mermaids did not respond to requests for comment.) The de-transitioners, who took puberty-blocking drugs and remained infertile, or “permanently disfigured and scarred,” have also been in touch to show their support. .
It seems mind-boggling that someone could be kicked out of much-needed counseling and therapeutic training for wondering how best to help vulnerable children; that Esses now spends her days messaging peers who share her views, but are too scared to speak up. But the “‘trans’ subject is the problem of our time”, Esses now realizes, a subject where an “assertive mindset” has taken hold and where any deviation leads to career burnout like hers.
Part of the problem is in schools, where he has heard many cases where “very young children learn that sex was assigned at birth, which is factually inaccurate.” Social media—where people can find confirmation bias in corners of the internet—also plays a role. Like, he thinks, the language used by organizations such as Mermaids who tell children that “family is not blood” – “very, very alienating [and] “isolation” aimed at “increasingly alienating young people” from those close to them who might challenge their point of view. If children are allowed to develop unhindered, says Esses, “over time, with exploratory therapy, most of them settle into themselves and settle into their bodies.”
For adults who have exhausted all options, namely exploratory therapy to address the root cause of their discomfort, he thinks sex reassignment surgery may be a reasonable last resort. But the general push for transition is regressive, he believes: the product of a society that can only calculate stereotypes, rather than a nuanced understanding that every man or woman does not conform. gender expectations, or doesn’t need to. He still doesn’t know why surgery has become a widely accepted solution to a mental disorder: “You wouldn’t treat anorexia with liposuction, so why are we treating gender dysphoria with medical bridging?”
The Queen’s Speech came as a relief to Esses and her peers; legislation banning conversion therapy will not extend to gender identity, which would have “risked criminalizing exploratory therapy beneficial to vulnerable children with gender dysphoria and pushing children further down a path to one way towards medicalization”.
He hopes this is a positive sign of the direction of travel and that by the time he starts a family, the problem will have become less difficult. “If things stayed the way they are now, I would be afraid for my children,” he admits. That, like the rest of his future, still hangs in the balance.