Keira Bell ‘I knew I wasn’t like biological men – I would always be female no matter how hard I tried’ The Telegraph 11.10.20
The original article is here.
Early last year a strange thing happened to Keira Bell: she started to cry. It had been years since the 21-year-old from Hertfordshire was last able to properly shed tears, ever since she started receiving testosterone injections at the age of 17.
The male hormones and puberty blockers she was prescribed forced many changes in her teenage body: her voice dropped, hair sprouted on her face and body, and her sex drive increased.
There were other more concerning physical changes which she felt she had not been properly warned about by her clinicians, her bones started losing density and she suffered vaginal atrophy (a condition more commonly seen in post-menopausal women).
And, the tears dried up. At moments of extreme emotion Keira would instead feel a lump forming in her thickening throat. But even those moments became rarer, nullified by what she describes as a strange inner numbness.
“The first time I cried was very weird,” the now 22-year-old recalls. “It felt like I was becoming myself again.”
At the time she had decided to turn her back upon the pathway she had been directed down as a teenager and revert to her biological gender. “Detransition” is the proper term for it and while a very personal choice, it was one which has propelled Keira to the forefront of a growing movement of young people who feel they have been pressured or encouraged into gender reassignment treatments or surgeries, which they later regret.
Last week, she appeared at the Royal Courts of Justice for a landmark legal challenge against the Tavistock Clinic in London. Keira, who lives in Cambridge, was referred for assessment for puberty blockers by the clinic in 2013 and later had her breasts removed. She is bringing the action with an anonymous claimant called “Mrs A”, the mother of an autistic girl of 16 who is on an NHS gender development service waiting list.
Their aim is to ban puberty suppressants (which block hormones linked to a person’s biological sex) for under-18s, unless their parents obtain a court order, arguing children cannot fully understand the risks involved. As heard in court, a quarter of the children referred for puberty-blocking medication last year by the Tavistock clinic (which runs the UK’s only gender-identity development service) were under 14, and half were under 16. The youngest was 10 years old.
The Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust rejects the claims, saying puberty suppressants are lawful, reversible, that they relieve distress by delaying the onset of puberty and allow children time to consider their gender. When contacted by The Telegraph, a spokesman for the trust said it was awaiting the outcome of the hearing but added the clinic “is a safe and thoughtful service which puts the best interest of its patients and their families first”.
A judgment is not expected for at least a few weeks but the case has ignited attention around the world. The hashtag “I stand with Keira Bell” has been widely shared on social media, prompting various young people who have undergone a similar experience to speak out. A crowdfunder to pay for her legal fees has raised around £130,000.
Keira, a quiet and thoughtful speaker, admits the attention of recent days has shocked her but also strengthened her resolve. “I do hope this case drops a reality bomb on the situation for some people,” she says.
Growing up in the Hertfordshire town of Letchworth, Keira had a “very rocky” childhood. Her parents separated when she was around five and she and her sister were shuttled between them, meaning she failed to settle long in any school.
Always a tomboy, as she reached her teens she started to feel alienated from her peers and different from all the other girls she knew. Suffering mental health issues, she started taking longer absences from school, sitting at home all day, online. Around the age of 14, she started researching the process of physically transitioning, watching videos on YouTube and other social media sites.
After her relationship with her mother broke down she moved once again to live with her father and his new partner in Cambridgeshire. “She picked up on the fact I was on the more masculine side and asked me whether I was struggling with my sexuality or gender,” Keira recalls.
She was taken to see a baffled local GP – “I was the first person he had seen having those issues” – and then referred to the child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS). After a few meetings she was referred to the Tavistock Clinic, which she first attended in January 2013, shortly after she turned 16.
There, she was referred to the endocrinology department and after several appointments prescribed puberty blockers, the first of which she received at the end of that year.
“I definitely felt affirmed at the Tavistock,” she says. “When I spoke to these clinicians there was no exploration of why I felt like that, really. It was just accepted, and they were trying to deal with it [by putting] me on to the treatment path.”
At that stage, her family life was in crisis. Her father, who had reluctantly taken her to the early appointments, refused any more involvement and kicked her out of the house. Suddenly she was living alone in a youth hostel in Cambridgeshire, attending a new school but with no friends. “It is a very awkward time when you are going through those changes,” she says.
But her treatments continued. The following year, aged 17, she started receiving testosterone injections and was referred by the Tavistock to an adult gender clinic in west London. At first, she took pleasure in the unfamiliar changes in her body – her lower voice gave her more confidence and she felt renewed energy. But she feels she was not adequately prepared for the more severe side-effects, in particular her deteriorating sexual health. “There is definitely a massive downside and those downsides aren’t spoken about,” she says.
After leaving college she started working as an IT analyst for a computer game company in Cambridge. She changed her name to Quincy by deed poll, and applied for a government-authorised Gender Recognition Certificate making her officially male.
Around that time she also received a referral from her doctors for a double mastectomy, which she underwent aged 20, in 2017.
Initially it was a relief to remove her breasts after so many years painfully binding them to hide under her clothes. “I wanted them gone,” she says. “But a year after surgery I really started to have serious doubts.”
She cannot put her finger on the exact moment she decided to detransition. There was no single “Eureka! moment”, she says, rather a series of small realisations. Even in the company of men, she never felt like she fitted in. “It became very obvious to me that I wasn’t the same as biological men,” she says. “I would always be female no matter how hard I tried.
Early last year she decided to refuse any further testosterone injections. Her periods returned after a few months and she says her body has slowly reverted to a more feminine shape.
In a statement submitted to the court, Bell described the effect on her body, saying she had been left with “no breasts, a deep voice, body hair, a beard, affected sexual function and who knows what else that has not been discovered”.
Now with a new partner, a woman whom she met late last year, she told the court that she must live with the fact that if she is able to have children in the future, she would not be able to breastfeed.
“I made a rash decision as a teenager (as a lot of teenagers do) trying to find confidence and happiness, except now the rest of my life will be negatively affected,” she said.
The court heard that referrals to the Tavistock’s Gender Identity Development Service had increased from 97 in 2009 to 2,590 in 2018, with girls comprising 76 per cent of cases.
Stephanie Davies-Arai, the director of Transgender Trend (an organisation of parents, academics and professionals, concerned about the unprecedented number of children diagnosed in recent years) spoke as an intervener in the case on Kiera’s behalf.
She believes a toxic mix of celebrity culture and social media has increased pressure on young girls to conform to a particular body ideal. “I’m not surprised that so many don’t want to become women,” she says. In recent years, however, she adds the number of people who have opened up about detransitioning has “exploded”.
Keira has been contacted by numerous such young women online and hopes to establish a formalised network of people who have detransitioned.
For now, however, she is steadily dealing with the trauma of her own experience, and focusing on her new relationship. “I just am a woman,” she tells me. “And that is it.”