On a spring afternoon in 1952, two young siblings stood on the front porch of their parents grocery shop in Preston, Lancashire. Four-year-old Carolyn Mercer convinced her little sister to swap clothes with her, trading shorts and a shirt for her sister’s school dress. Standing on those front steps, looking down at the dress on her body, Carolyn realised for the first time that she was a girl.
Speaking to me now over Zoom from her holiday in Madeira, 74-year-old Carolyn recalls that afternoon 70 years ago, and that little confused Lancashire boy, with remarkable clarity.
“At the time, of course, I had no idea what being trans was,” she tells me. “I just remember desperately wanting to be female. There wasn’t an internet in those days or even access to any information about being trans at all. It concerned me and horrified me; I had no idea what was going on.”
Born in 1947, 20 years before homosexuality was legalised in England, the atmosphere for LGBT+ people during Carolyn’s childhood was often openly hostile. The idea of being transgender barely existed in public consciousness.
A little boy at a single sex school, the idea of telling anyone how she felt was out of the question.
Throughout her childhood, Carolyn’s secret desire to live as a woman took a damaging toll on her mental health, transforming into a debilitating self-hatred.
“I was terrified someone might find out my darkest secret. It was pretty horrific really, and very damaging. It meant I couldn’t openly share other parts of myself, other emotions.”
So as a teenager, Carolyn threw herself into traditionally masculine sports such as rugby, football and boxing – anything to try to fit into the gender to which she had been born. But no matter how hard she tried, those same feelings she felt on her parents’ doorstep kept coming back.
At age 17, Carolyn reached crisis point. Having already attempted suicide, she decided to confide in her local vicar as a last resort.
“He was the first person I told. He knew a psychiatrist at a local mental hospital, who then recommended half a dozen sessions of treatment”.
This treatment, Carolyn would later discover, was so-called electric shock “conversion therapy” – a dangerous pseudoscientific attempt to change one’s gender identity or sexual orientation.
She was taken into a darkened room, strapped into a wooden chair and had electrodes placed on her arm. Picture after picture of women were projected onto the opposing wall. A switch was then thrown and an electric shock passed through her body.
“My hand shot up in the air, but of course my arm couldn’t because it was fastened to the chair. That continued, at random, so I was never prepared for the pain. They asked me why I was crying during the sessions, and my simple reply was ‘because it hurts.’”
“I understood the philosophy behind it: it would make me associate pain with what I saw myself as wanting to be. But all it did was make me hate myself. Not just that aspect of me, but the whole of me.”
After a few months, Carolyn chose not to continue with the treatment. But the impact the sessions had on her has been lifelong.
“I physically shook for 40 years every time I recalled those events. Even after that time I still have difficulty with feeling positive emotions.”
After abandoning the treatment, Carolyn again tried to stifle her feelings of gender dysphoria and live, as much as possible, “as a man”. She got married, had a baby daughter, and immersed herself in her career – by age 26 she was head of Maths at a secondary school in Halifax.
But again, the feelings returned, and with them came crippling depression. So, in the early 1990s, Carolyn eventually began taking hormones to develop breasts. This was the beginning of a process described by many in the transgender community as “transition” or, as Carolyn prefers, to “align my gender expression with my gender identity” - (“I’m renowned for long-winded phrases,” she tells me).
However in 1994, unbeknownst to her, the secret Carolyn had been so carefully guarding for 40 years was about to be taken out of her hands and thrust into the spotlight for good. By now a headteacher at a Blackpool school, a journalist discovered that Carolyn was taking hormones. She was outed in the national press, her personal life splashed across the pages of tabloids, supposedly in the public interest.
She was temporarily suspended from work and put on disciplinary charges, only reinstated by the school on the condition that she never talk about her feelings.
It was eight years before Carolyn finally came out to her friends and family, and decided to live the life she had been dreaming of since she was four years old.
“My family and friends have all been superb and I could not have asked for more from them. My children – both adult – and my spouse were initially shocked. They were also concerned for my safety as more publicity was inevitable.”
“I’m still in touch with over 400 ex-pupils and I meet them on a regular basis and I haven’t had a single problem to my face, which is a great tribute to them.”
The so-called “therapy” Carolyn underwent was available on the NHS until the 1970s. The government and the NHS have no record of how many people underwent it or died as a result of these treatments.
Last month, the government changed plans for banning conversion therapy that had first been set out in 2018 by then prime minister Theresa May. On International Trans Day of Visibility, a ban on conversion therapy was announced, but only for gay and bisexual people – transgender people were excluded.
The decision was met with widespread and immediate condemnation. More than 100 organisations pulled out of the UK’s first ever global LGBT+ conference due to be held this summer. Iain Anderson, the UK’s LGBT+ business champion, resigned, saying it was “profoundly shocking” and accusing the government of attempting to wage a “woke war” on the LGBT+ community. The following weekend, hundreds gathered outside Downing Street to protest the exclusion.
Boris Johnson defended his decision, pointing to the need for parents to be fully involved in their children’s decisions about whether to undergo “irreversible treatments”. He said there are “complexities and sensitivities” regarding trans conversion therapy, adding that the matter is not something “I thought I would have to consider in great detail”.
Trans people are the most likely to be offered and put through conversion practices. In the Government’s 2018 LGBT+ survey, trans people were shown to be nearly twice as likely as lesbian and gay people to be offered and to undergo these interventions. However, it is thought that the Government, following guidance from a number of gender critical groups, sees it as too complicated to avoid what it views as unintended consequences of the legislation. There are fears that it could affect parents, teachers, and therapists who are helping children experiencing gender identity issues.
But experts say conflating conversion therapy with gender-affirming therapy, explorative conversations and gender transition healthcare is disingenuous. The Ban Conversion Therapy Legal Forum states that the only practices which would be banned are those with a “predetermined purpose”, i.e any practice that has only one outcome. There are clear distinctions between these practices, often fuelled by religious belief, which seek to “cure” or suppress gender identity, and legitimate treatment and healthcare that supports people to be themselves.
Chile, India, Canada, France and New Zealand are the latest countries to ban conversion therapy, all of which have banned it for trans as well as gay and bisexual people.
“The Prime Minister is muddying the water between gender critical lobby concerns around medical pathways with conversion therapy,” said Jayne Ozanne, chair of the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition, and a conversion therapy survivor.
Ozanne resigned from the government’s LGBT advisory panel last year, citing concerns that the government was creating a “hostile” environment for the LGBT+ community.
“His comments this week have shown me that he is playing to a culture war which I’m sure he thinks is a vote winner, and leaving unprotected one of the most vulnerable groups in society today.”
‘I was vomiting and fainting after religious conversion therapy’
Alex Clare-Young was 15 when they came out as gay.
“When I was a child, I didn’t know who or what I was, only that I felt completely alienated from everyone around me and didn’t really have any friends.
“For me, coming out as gay felt like the only way to express what I was feeling. I didn’t know that trans people existed, so I didn’t know that I could be trans.”
Coming from a Christian family and attending an all-girls primary school in the central belt of Scotland, Alex, who uses they/them pronouns, always felt like they couldn’t relate to girls. “I can’t explain why, I just felt incredibly comfortable around boys and completely at odds around girls.”
“School was horrible. I was incredibly shy and uncomfortable and students – girls in particular – bullied me. Once they followed me into the toilets and threw raw chicken over the stall which landed all over me. I got into social groups that weren’t healthy for me, and self-harmed as a way to cope. Clothes shopping, makeup, changing rooms, and public toilets were like forms of torture for me.”
At age 15, while on a church youth trip to North Africa, Alex finally began to open up about themself. They started to mention that they hated wearing skirts, and told their friends that they were attracted to a girl. At first, the responses were fairly light. They were encouraged to wear skirts, and their peers did their hair and makeup for them.
However over time, the youth leaders began to attempt to change Alex, through practices which they now understand to be attempts at conversion therapy.
“There were late night prayer sessions in my bedroom, while my roommates pretended to sleep, and prayer circles where I had to sit on the ground while people stood around me and prayed for me.”
“I was in a foreign country and under the care of these leaders, so I felt very, very vulnerable and unsafe. I withdrew into myself and began to become physically unwell, vomiting and fainting.”
Soon after Alex came home, they became more open about their identity, cutting their hair short and presenting in a more masculine way. The church asked them to leave as a result.
“I’m glad they did, in retrospect,” Alex says.
A few years later, at university, Alex met a trans person for the first time, who invited them to an LGBT+ youth group. There, they met other trans and non-binary people, and felt an immediate sense of ease.
“It was like looking in a mirror, and gave me an immense feeling of freedom. I began to explore what it might look like to transition.”
Over time, Alex experimented with a new name and pronouns, and gradually came out to family and friends. They began seeing their GP to start the referral process.
“It was tough at first. My family struggled to understand, because I hadn’t mentioned this before. I lost some friends, mainly due to religion. My university insisted on placing my old name next to my real name in brackets, which was humiliating. I had, however, started to go to a church which was supportive and encouraged me to re-read scripture for myself.
“Over time, as I transitioned and became very obviously happier and healthier, my family became some of my biggest allies.”
Now 30 years old, although Alex is living authentically as a pioneer minister, academic and writer in Cambridge, the affects of conversion therapy have never left them.
“I became very physically unwell on the trip. My GP was concerned that I may have contracted an illness. Eventually, a breathing specialist recognised that I was having extreme panic attacks and rarely breathing properly.”
It took Alex years of therapy to address these effects, and they still struggle with low self esteem, anxiety and panic attacks.
“I also struggle to fully relax or do one thing at once; I need to always be busy. I strongly believe that this is because it was when I was at my most relaxed that I was most vulnerable to abuse.”
In the last year, transphobic hate crimes have risen by 16 per cent in the UK. The issue of trans rights has become a hot button ‘culture war’ issue, and both Alex and Carolyn fear that the atmosphere in the UK for trans people is becoming increasingly hostile.
“I have real fears that the safeguarding of trans people is going downhill in the UK, and I am scared that one day it won’t be possible to be me any more,” Alex says. “This can make me very pessimistic sometimes.”
Just five days after the Government announced that trans people would not be covered by their conversion therapy ban, the Equality and Human Rights Commission ruled that trans people can be legitimately excluded from single-sex services if the reasons are “justifiable and proportionate”. Two days later, during a visit to a hospital in Hertfordshire, Boris Johnson said he does not “think that biological males should be competing in female sporting events”.
“I think this is bigotry, I think it’s a move certainly within some parts of the equalities office to try to obliterate the concept of trans. I can’t see any other justification for what has taken place,” Carolyn says.
“Being trans is not something that can be cured, it’s not something that needs to be cured. It needs to be accepted.”
Once accepted, Alex believes that life for trans people, rather than one of suffering, is one of joy.
“I don’t dwell on, or talk a lot about, the horrible things that I have experienced, because actually that isn’t the story,” Alex says.
“The real story, for trans people, is how much we can give to the world and the euphoria we experience when we are able to become more fully ourselves.”