EXCLUSIVE: What they did was despicable…I should never have changed gender at 16: Brave young woman reveals her story after damning report finally forced the closure of the controversial Tavistock clinic
- Keira Bell was given drugs aged 16 by clinic doctors to pause her development
- Six years later and following a double mastectomy, she regretted the situation
- In 2020 she took Tavistock’s Gender Identity Service to the High Court and won
- Keira wants doctors to stop prescribing drugs to children with gender dysphoria
- The Tavistock clinic has now been ordered to close following a damning report
When it emerged this week that the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust was being ordered to close its gender identity service (GIDS), it was a particularly personal victory for one young woman.
Indeed, as Keira Bell admits today, it felt as if David had finally slayed Goliath. Two years ago, Keira, now 25, stood on the steps of the High Court after winning her case against GIDS to stop children with gender dysphoria being prescribed puberty-halting drugs.
Keira’s battle was based on her own horrifying experience. Aged 16 and, by her own admission, ‘very mentally ill’, Keira had been given the drugs by doctors at the controversial clinic to pause her own development before realising – six years later and after undergoing a double mastectomy – that it was a monumental mistake.
Keira Bell has spoken about her experience of being prescribed drugs at the age of 16 to halt her development after she was referred to the Tavistock clinic’s gender identity service
In bringing her High Court challenge with another claimant, Mrs A – the mother of an autistic girl on the waiting list for gender treatment – she hoped to save other young people from going through the same trauma.
Yet she and her fellow whistle-blowers found themselves slurred as bigots, transphobes and, in Keira’s case, ‘traitors’ to transgender people, for daring to question GIDS’s practices.
Her initial victory also turned to disappointment when it was quashed on appeal.
Now, of course, the tables have turned and Keira, and many others, know they were on the right side of history all along.
The Tavistock clinic has been ordered to shut by spring following a damning interim report by Dr Hilary Cass, a former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who was commissioned by NHS England to independently review gender identity services for young people.
Dr Cass raised concerns that young people were ‘at considerable risk’ of poor mental health and distress, and said that the Tavistock clinic was not ‘a safe or viable longterm option’.
The full report will be finished next year. But for many, the fight is not over. Keira is wary of what the changes to gender identity clinics will mean in practice – and is determined to continue battling to protect the thousands of children who remain on waiting lists for treatment.
Keira Bell is campaigning to stop doctors prescribing drugs to children with gender dysphoria
Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, Keira said: ‘It’s been a long time coming, but I believe an important change is occurring and now at least the awful experience I have had hasn’t happened in vain.
‘I just hope that what this will mean is the end of the medicalisation of children.’
Keira’s case woke up the world to the reality of the medical transition of children and the dangers of simply affirming, without question, a child’s beliefs about their gender.
Keira was referred to GIDS in 2013 when, in the middle of a mental health crisis, she told a therapist she thought she was a boy.
Keira, pictured at the age of 5, was born female but later began questioning if she was a boy
But rather than exploring the underlying causes of her anxiety and depression, GIDS staff recommended puberty blockers. ‘They asked questions such as “How was I growing up? What was my style of dress, and were my friends boys or girls?”’ she recalls.
‘They didn’t explore any of my background or mental health. It seemed they just wanted to appease me, using my chosen male name Quincy and affirming me as a boy.’
She was told the puberty-blocking drugs, delivered in regular injections to suppress her developmental hormones, would give her ‘more time to think’.
Keira, aged 20 and then known as Quincy, took testosterone and underwent a mastectomy
What she wasn’t told was that there are concerns over the long-term effects of such treatment, including stunted growth and a reduction in bone density. They may also disrupt the development of children’s brains.
Keira says she can barely believe an NHS service she trusted would plunge a vulnerable teen into a world of ‘experimental’ drugs with such little care.
‘I thought, “Well, I’m being taken to a hospital”, so at that age I thought it all must be OK and safe,’ she says.
‘Now I think, “What the hell happened?” I should have had psychotherapy for several years before I was allowed to take such medication.
‘I definitely shouldn’t have been allowed to do that as a minor.’
The reality of the next two years was ‘hell’, she explains, with hot flushes, night sweats and brain fog.
Having just entered sixth form, she went on to fail most of her exams as she struggled to deal with the side effects of her medication.
Keira outside the Royal Courts of Justice after winning her case against the Tavistock clinic
‘The Tavistock told me it would be a good thing, but it was all negative,’ she says. ‘I can’t think of any positive effects from it. I wish the option hadn’t been given to me at all. That’s what I’m fighting for now – I don’t think the option should be there for children.’
Keira is also convinced this first step put her on the path to further medical treatment.
At the age of 17 she started taking testosterone to begin her ‘transition’, which gave her a deeper voice, body hair and increased muscle tone.
By the time she was 20 she had undergone surgery to remove her breasts. But Keira soon had serious doubts about her decision.
‘I was living in stealth as a man in society,’ she says. ‘I was 22 and I realised nothing had improved.’
It was a distressing realisation: changing gender had not, as she had believed, been the answer to her mental health problems.
Today she has stopped taking the male hormones and is living once more as a woman. But the irreversible changes will be with her for life.
She is plagued, too, by the psychological after-effects of such life-altering treatments – as well as growing anger at the professionals who led her down this road.
The Tavistock clinic has been ordered to shut by spring following a damning report that raised concerns that young people were ‘at considerable risk’ of poor mental health and distress
It was this rage, and her knowledge that children were still being prescribed puberty-blockers, that drove her to join the legal action against the Tavistock.
It was not an easy undertaking as Keira – a natural introvert – was suddenly thrust into the glare of the public eye and subject to abuse by trans activists on social media.
While the case was initially successful, with judges ruling that it was ‘doubtful’ children could consent to such treatment and must have a court order to take them, this decision was later overturned on appeal – not because it was wrong, but on a technicality, because the Court of Appeal ruled the High Court did not have jurisdiction to make the ruling.
But Keira has no regrets, and believes it may have raised a red flag about the GIDS model.
She says there are thousands of other children and teenagers as young as 13 who now regret their decision to live as the opposite sex and are telling their stories online.
‘I think the court case needed to happen and I was glad that I was able to share my story,’ she says.
‘The case was to prevent puberty blockers from being prescribed at all to under-18s. But I just wanted the Tavistock to realise that what they’re doing has repercussions.
‘The fact that it’s closing down is symbolic because what they’ve done there has been despicable. These are people’s lives.
‘My whole life has been affected and I’m not getting any relief from the medical issues I’m having. You can’t even describe how much damage they caused.’
Keira welcomes the findings of Dr Cass and hopes the recommendations for the service to be replaced next year by regional centres, which will take a more holistic approach to dealing with complex mental health issues, will be applied in good faith.
But she admits she’s watching these developments with some trepidation. ‘I’m just keeping my eyes and ears out because I hope this doesn’t become a situation where these centres are set up and they’re just doing the same thing.’
A spokesperson for the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust said it could not comment on individual cases.
In a statement, it said: ‘We work with every young person on a case-by-case basis, with no expectation of what might be the right path for them.
‘We offer support, advice and information, and consider possible future pathways together.
‘Only the minority of young people we support access any physical treatment while with us.’