In its current summer newsletter, Girlguiding – the organisation formerly known as the Girl Guides – shares the real-life story of a recent recruit welcomed warmly into Rainbows, the organisation’s youngest tier for four-to-seven-year-old girls. The child in question – a lover of dolls and scarves and dresses, we are told, who wants to be called “Rainbow” – is biologically male, though his mother says in the article that his “true gender” is female.
The circulation of “Rainbow’s story” to the 290,000 girls between four and 18 who are members of Rainbows, Brownies, Guides and Rangers has caused a storm of protest among parents. “I found it horrific reading,” says Catherine, a former nursery teacher and mother of three from north London, whose eight-year-old daughter is currently a Brownie.
“I really object to my child being used as a prop in this social experiment of pretending that biological males can be girls. Girlguiding is telling my daughter that something that isn’t true, is true. And to think the opposite is wrong.”
Far from being woke and progressive, she says, the tone of the article – that those who like dolls and dresses are girls – is, she argues, “wholly regressive in terms of sexist stereotyping. I was a girl in the 1980s who preferred train sets and play fights, but it never occurred to me that I was a boy. And no-one suggested it to me.”
In its move since 2018 to become “proudly trans-inclusive”, Girlguiding had been advised by Stonewall, the LGBT rights organisation whose work in this area with public, private and charitable organisations has proved controversial.
Last week, barrister Allison Bailey was awarded £22,000 after winning part of a tribunal claim she brought against her chambers on the grounds she had been discriminated against because of her gender-critical views. Her chambers had brought in Stonewall in order to become more trans-inclusive. Bailey had questioned Stonewall’s positions, and accused it of “trans-extremism”.
And last weekend, Stonewall tweeted approvingly about research suggesting that children as young as two recognise their “trans identity”, and castigated nurseries for not doing enough to respect this (though the Tweet was later amended, moving the focus off the disputed research).
What worries Catherine most, however, is that the implementation of the new approach at Girlguiding does not include sufficient safeguarding controls – for example, to stop biologically male children sharing tents and showers with girls such as her daughter when they go away on camp.
“My daughter is looking forward to becoming a Guide when she is 10, but as it stands I will not be sending her. These are crucial years for her as she goes through puberty, and I don’t want it to be normalised that she should take her clothes off to get into her pyjamas next to biological males who have a penis.”
Catherine is therefore writing to Girlguiding to register her objections, which will be the latest in a recent flood of concerns directed at the charity, founded 109 years ago by Robert Baden Powell and his sister Agnes two years after the former had set up the Scouts for boys.
Earlier this year, Girlguiding found itself in hot water when one of its volunteer group leaders in Nottinghamshire, 58-year-old Monica Sulley, a trans woman, posted Instagram pictures of herself in bondage gear and with a fake assault rifle. The images horrified some of those with children in the Guides. On Mumsnet, the popular website for parents, a lengthy online debate took place about how such a volunteer was not picked up through Girlguiding’s scrutiny processes.
“I will not put my girls in that organisation until they have a more robust safeguarding policy,” one user wrote. “I am disappointed by Girlguiding’s response to this,” said the next. “As a leader myself, I am increasingly disillusioned with the top of the organisation”.
Another – one of the 80,000 volunteers who run local Guides groups – had already resigned: “I quit because I couldn’t reconcile the guidance with my understanding of safeguarding.”
In a written response to its handling of Monica Sulley, Girlguiding insists that it “operates a thorough complaints procedure and takes any safeguarding concerns raised very seriously. In this case, the volunteer has cooperated fully and the investigation has concluded. The volunteer made the decision to leave and is no longer a volunteer at Girlguiding.”
Yet the appearance of Rainbow’s story has once again raised fears among some parents that Girlguiding is putting the needs of young boys who feel they are female above the wellbeing of their daughters, in what was created and has long been valued as an all-women safe space. Alumnae include actor Emma Thompson, athlete Kelly Holmes, newscaster Kate Silverton, author JK Rowling and comedian Shappi Khorsandi.
One mother has decided against sending her daughter to Rainbows when she turns five. It says something of the tone of the debate within guiding that this mother doesn’t want to be named for fear of a backlash, but she tells me that she put her daughter’s name down for a place in Rainbows straight after she was born.
“I feel now that Girlguiding is promoting an ideology in its recent policy changes. When I was a Brownie, it was all about girls being strong and independent, building their self-confidence. Today, it seems that Girlguiding is refusing to acknowledge that including biological males poses some increased safeguarding concerns, especially around accommodation and among leaders.”
When she wrote to the local pack to explain her decision, she was referred to the head office – and received (she says) a brush-off. “I am not anti-trans, but these are children and safeguarding is a red flag for me. Girlguiding has become a top-down organisation that doesn’t listen to its members and tells them to like it or lump it when they disagree.”
Girlguiding rejects this characterisation, and questions the extent of the internal criticism it is facing. In response to my queries, a spokesperson said: “Girlguiding changes as the lives of girls and society changes, and our community of girls, volunteers, staff, parents and carers told us during our strategy consultation that they want us to be inclusive and welcoming to all.”
What had first alerted this mother to the changes in the Guides was reading in the papers about the civil case brought against Girlguiding by an academic and long-serving Guide leader from Lancaster, Katie Alcock. She had been expelled from the organisation in 2018, along with several others, after joining a Facebook group of leaders who shared worries about safeguarding in the new trans-inclusive ethos.
“You can’t say the Guides is a single-sex movement and yet take in boys and men as members,” Alcock explained of her protest. When the court case was eventually settled earlier this year, Girlguiding explained its position. It recognised, the organisation said, that gender critical beliefs (saying that sex is a biological fact and not a matter of choice) are protected under the 2010 Equality Act and that: “There are girls and volunteers who hold gender critical beliefs within our membership. We respect and value their right to do so, and to express those beliefs. Girlguiding is also, and shall remain, a home for trans people.”
It did include an olive branch to its critics. “Whilst these are complex and evolving issues, we agree that sex and gender are different, and will reflect this in the language we use.”
Yet if Girlguiding wanted to take the heat out of the situation, publishing Rainbow’s story – which, it could be argued, conflates sex and gender – in the summer magazine may not have been the best strategy. When approached about the negative reaction it had provoked, the organisation declined to put forward an official to explain its approach and instead provided another brief written statement, in which it said that it aims to “empower members to find their voice and discover the best in themselves”.
Certainly, the organisation’s latest published figures suggest that the organisation is having no problem recruiting, with a 20 per cent growth seen since 2021 in its membership among four- to 18-year-olds (though that may also have something to do with pent-up demand from the lockdown period). And it is oversubscribed, with 56,882 on the waiting list, though its website also concedes a drop in overall membership “in the past few years” from 500,000 to 330,000.
In the absence of any official willingness to debate this latest flash point, Heather Binning, founder of the Women’s Rights Network – with 1,200 members in 70 groups, many of whom are concerned at the treatment of those who hold gender-critical views – suggests that the message Girlguiding is signalling with the story is “that society has changed. Self-identification is now the norm, so we must all get on with it.”
While no-one would want Girlguiding to be behind when it comes to general societal attitudes, its critics feel it is currently too far in advance of them. And for an organisation that was once a staple of middle England, it is turning out to be an uneasy place to be.