‘I questioned why children were being encouraged to transition – and it cost me my dream career’
James Esses turned 30 this week and has been doing a lot of reflecting. Last year, he was ejected from his psychotherapist training course – three years in – for openly discussing his fears that young children expressing discomfort in their bodies were being actively encouraged to transition; weeks later, Childline removed him from his volunteer role as a counsellor on the same grounds. After racking up more than 1,000 hours at the charity over the course of five years, attending one night a week after his work as a criminal barrister, he had been alarmed by such calls becoming more frequent; the callers younger. Of his subsequent battle against both institutions, he says “the pain and hurt is as raw as ever”.
Until he joined Childline in 2016, he’d never much engaged with the notion of gender dysphoria – feeling trapped in the wrong body. But the rise in those calls “set something off in my mind”, he remembers. Esses began reading books and academic papers on the subject, wanting to better understand how to help. “Once I began reading, I began to get extremely concerned with the medical pathways that we were putting very, very young children on,” he says. The children on the other end of the line “were so young that they weren’t even able to really verbalise to me what exactly it meant to be a man or a woman” – yet they told Esses they wanted to take puberty blockers and hormones, wear breast binders and have sex reassignment surgery.
Concerned, Esses raised the issue internally, perturbed too by the influence of Stonewall – the charity brought in by many organisations in the name of equality – whose posters in counselling rooms suggested “an ideological message around gender”, and Childline’s website, where he describes the page on gender identity as a “roadmap towards medical transitioning”. It also features a video from individuals who have transitioned, who are “basically selling it to young people… [with] no mention of de-transitioners and the significant risks and potential permanent scars that might come from those who regret [it]”.
He spoke with senior management, yet nothing changed. As his online advocacy around safeguarding continued, he was told not to refer to the charity or his role there. In July, Esses received a call dismissing him with immediate effect. “I was distraught,” he reflects, at “the most important thing in my life” – which had inspired his decision to leave law and train as a psychotherapist – going “up in smoke almost overnight”. The NSPCC, Childline’s parent company, says: “We respect people’s rights to hold different views, but volunteers can’t give the impression Childline endorses their personal campaigns… We discussed the situation at length with the volunteer, tried hard to find a solution, but unfortunately we couldn’t find a compromise.”
Esses has written an open letter to Childline; his “cathartic attempt at closure”. He has only been able to formulate such thoughts now, he says, because he has spent much of the past year embroiled in legal proceedings against his former educator, the University of Metanoia. Preliminary hearings are due to begin in June; he is currently crowdfunding £120,000 for his legal fees and has just passed the £95,000 mark.
Four weeks before his expulsion via email, he had petitioned the Government to “safeguard evidence-based therapy for children struggling with gender dysphoria”, which received more than 10,000 signatures. Esses had also set up Thoughtful Therapists, a collective of clinicians who are “deeply concerned” about the current stranglehold on public discourse. These were seemingly reason enough for his instant dismissal, though he says: “I was never provided with the grounds or evidence for expulsion. I was never provided with justification for why I received the same sanction as someone who had committed a physical or sexual assault on campus.” He says he was also denied the chance to put forth his side or to appeal the decision. When asked for comment, the university said “it is not possible to make any comment about an ongoing case”.
All of this has “irretrievably and grievously damaged” his professional standing in a career that he “wanted to spend the rest of my life doing”. And the “low points” roll on, Esses says. On top of the legal battles and personal agony at a career gone haywire is the significant social media abuse he receives for his belief that sex is immutable – he cannot risk his partner or family being publicly linked to him for fear they will be subjected to the same. He is currently working in the public sector but won’t give specifics about his role, as “I’ve already had some issues” there following “being targeted by activists from the other side”.
Still, he has “no regrets whatsoever, because although this has come as a personal cost to me, the stakes are simply far too high”. If anything, going public has only fortified his stance: he has been 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. (Mermaids did not respond to requests for comment.) De-transitioners, who have taken puberty-blocking medication and been left infertile, or “permanently disfigured and scarred,” have also been in touch to show their support.
It seems mind-boggling that someone could be ejected from much-needed counselling work and therapy training for questioning how best to help vulnerable children; that Esses now spends his days fielding messages from peers who share his views, yet are too frightened to speak out. But the “‘trans’ topic is the issue of our time”, Esses now realises, one where an “affirmation mindset” has taken hold and any deviation results in career combustion like his own.
Part of the problem is in schools, where he has heard many cases where “children at a very young age are being taught that sex was assigned at birth, which is factually inaccurate”. Social media – in which people can find confirmation bias in corners of the internet – also plays a part. As, he thinks, does the language used by organisations such as Mermaids who tell children that “family isn’t blood” – “very, very alienating [and] isolating” phrasing designed to “drive young people further and further away” from loved ones who might challenge their point of view. If children are left to develop unencumbered, Esses says, “given time, given exploratory therapy, most of them settle into themselves and settle into their bodies”.
For adults who have exhausted all the options, namely exploratory therapy to get to the root cause of their discomfort, he believes gender reassignment surgery can be a reasonable last resort. But the general push for transitioning is regressive, he thinks: the product of a society that can only compute stereotypes, rather than nuanced understanding of the fact not every man or woman conforms to gender expectations, or needs to. It remains unclear to him 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 transition?”
The Queen’s Speech came as a relief to Esses and his peers; legislation banning conversion therapy will not extend to gender identity, which would have “risked criminalising beneficial explorative therapy for vulnerable children with gender dysphoria and pushing children further down a one-way path towards medicalisation”.
He is hopeful that this is a positive sign of the direction of travel and that, by the time he starts a family, the issue will have become less fraught. “If things would stay as they are now, I would be fearful for my children,” he admits. That, like the rest of his future, still hangs in the balance.
An NSPCC spokesperson said: “Childline counsellors support children to explore their feelings in a non-directive way. They offer advice on how to cope with anxiety, how to discuss issues with trusted adults in their lives and signpost to available external support. We stand by our approach.
“Volunteers are the heart and soul of Childline and we value every second of support they offer children. But nothing is more important than the trust children have in the service.
“We respect people's rights to hold different views, but volunteers can’t give the impression Childline endorses their personal campaigns. It’s vital that children know that Childline is a welcoming place for all young people.
“We believe this is a reasonable expectation. We discussed the situation at length with the volunteer, tried hard to find a solution, but unfortunately we couldn’t find a compromise. The conclusion we came to and the reasons for it were relayed to him via a telephone call and a letter. We took the concerns he raised about the Childline service seriously and fully investigated them but this had nothing to do with the discussions about his volunteering.”