Exclusive: staff at LGBTQ+ charity Mermaids faced ‘coordinated’ torrent of abuse to helpline services

Mermaids said it has referred 40 incidents to the police in less than two months

Trigger warning: this article includes the mention of homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexual violence and offensive language.

An LGBTQ+ charity claims it has faced a coordinated torrent of abuse from callers to its helpline service in recent weeks, which has left staff feeling “scared, stressed and fed up” and had a “domino effect” on the trans community.

Mermaids has been at the centre of a highly charged debate around trans rights. Workers have experienced abusive calls, emails and web chats that have been “targeting staff personally and the services we provide”, chief executive Susie Green said.

One helpline worker told NationalWorld they had been told they were “mutilating, grooming, and corrupting children and that we should all be thrown in prison”. Mermaids said it has referred 40 incidents to the police in less than two months.

It comes after the Charity Commission opened a “regulatory compliance case” into Mermaids at the end of September. Although this is not a formal investigation and does not look at wrongdoing, a number of organisations, including the Department for Education, suspended their relationships with the group pending the commission’s findings.

Between 27 September and 20 October 2022, the charity says the helpline team experienced 130 abusive calls, web chat messages and emails. Forty of these have been reported to the police as a hate crime due to their extremely abusive nature.

In the six months prior to this - from March to August - 29 abusive calls, web chat messages and emails were recorded, but none were deemed bad enough to escalate as a hate crime.

Ms Green told NationalWorld: “We believe this to be a coordinated attempt from certain publications and individuals to close in on the integral support we offer children, young people and families - support that is literally a lifeline for some.”

She added that this has had a “domino effect” on the trans community as the charity’s supporters, allies and the LGBTQ+ community “have been forced to watch us be abused in a public, online space”. She said this “risks signalling to the wider population that our persecution is legitimised and leaves queer people feeling unsafe”.

The charity had to reduce the helpline hours worked from 9am - 9pm weekly to 9am - 6pm with Wednesdays off in order to tackle the abuse faced, and also temporarily removed volunteers from the helpline. These measures then had a direct impact on the amount of young people and families the charity could support.

LGBTQ+ charity Mermaids claims it has faced a coordinated torrent of abuse from callers to its helpline service in recent weeks
LGBTQ+ charity Mermaids claims it has faced a coordinated torrent of abuse from callers to its helpline service in recent weeks
LGBTQ+ charity Mermaids claims it has faced a coordinated torrent of abuse from callers to its helpline service in recent weeks

A 24-year-old helpline service officer at the charity, who wished to remain anonymous, was one of the paid staff members who received abuse. Their role includes working on the helpline and web chat, taking calls and chats from young people, their families and the professionals who support them.

The staff member said the abuse started in late September, with people ringing up or opening web chats to “mouth off”. The employee said: “They’d be saying horrible slurs, swearing at us, calling us sick, groomers etc. They would say we were mutilating, grooming, and corrupting children and that we should all be thrown in prison.”

They added: “Sometimes they’d just be silly, saying they identify as a hedgehog or a mermaid. Other times they would try to appear genuine and interrogate to get us to ‘slip up’ or to catch us out. There was a lot of transphobia and homophobia, as well as racism, Islamophobia etc.”

The helpline officer said they think the abuse happened “because of the media attacks against Mermaids”, which “whipped people into a frenzy” and then members of the public “would get angry and ring us”. The charity has featured in an increasing number of media stories regarding being removed from some health and educational resources, and the regulatory compliance case, which Mermaids told NationalWorld it cannot currently comment on as it’s an ongoing case.

However, the helpline officer said they think the abuse is also due to people who already held trans and homophobic views.

Ms Green said the charity being removed from some resources is “very upsetting” as “we are one of the major UK trans charities supporting young people and offering valuable educational resources - which they may struggle to find otherwise, or, worse, be fed misinformation from unreliable sources”.

She added: “It has shaken our service users to see the service and support they and their families rely upon so much come under fire and threat. It is yet another attack on trans young people’s lives and has stoked the fire even more with anti-trans activists. This is emotionally draining and physically exhausting for them to see.”

Susie Green is the CEO of Mermaids
Susie Green is the CEO of Mermaids
Susie Green is the CEO of Mermaids

The employee said the abuse they personally experienced made them “feel all sorts of emotions”, including being “scared, stressed and fed up”.

They explained that they were scared of answering the phone in case it was somebody shouting abuse at them and they were also scared of them or their partner going outside “in case we got attacked by somebody who recognised me as working for Mermaids”.

“It was so stressful as well. Imagine going to work every day, trying to do your job and help people, but all the calls are people shouting obscenities at you. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I felt particularly hurt and uncomfortable when people were calling me these names. At times it really felt like everyone hated us, the trans community and my workplace, which was a horrible feeling.”

They said the measures put in place to reduce abuse “really helped” as “it allowed us to have a breather and recuperate”.

Addressing whether they have been doing anything differently in their role to prevent or reduce abuse they may face, the helpline officer said: “I think at one point most, if not all of the helpline team members were giving service users the bare minimum of support and answers because we were so worried about things being misconstrued and used against us.

“I think we are still doing that a little bit, I know I’m still a bit wary and kind of suspicious when talking to people.”

But, on a final note, Ms Green said: “We will not be bullied and give in to hate.”