Gender, Identity Politics

Twitter and the Birmingham University Report

David Pilgrim posts….

Although no one yet has responded to my earlier piece on this blog, there has been some Twitter activity of relevance passed on to me by Pat Harvey. Two historians (Dr Sarah Marks and Dr Kate Davison) have offered criticisms of my arguments about the Birmingham University report. Here are my responses to their claims that my critique of the report was, in some ways, flawed.

1  My piece reflected activism. This is a fair and correct accusation. We are a group of activists concerned primarily with misgovernance in the BPS, with child protection being implicated as a result.  My piece was not a journal submission (it would have been stylistically different) but neither was the Birmingham University report, as it was generated for external consumption by paid employees. Both reflect interest work but we are being explicit about our campaign aims. By contrast, the Birmingham group offered a report that was seemingly disinterested – but was it? Cue the next point…..

2  Dr Marks conceded that historians ‘have an agenda’. Indeed they do, and more so in this case. In my view the Birmingham historians were remiss in not making a reflective declaration.  Moreover, Marks defends her colleagues in Birmingham for conveniently ‘grouping’ conversion therapy and aversion therapy as an ‘analytical device’. She concedes explicitly that this might well be anachronistic in its logic. If this is so, who exactly then is benefiting from this tolerance of anachronistic thinking from professional historians? Surely they should be the very people who are careful to steer us clumsy amateurs away from anachronisms. I interpret this break from professional methodological convention as a reflection of the virtue-signalling priorities, which now dominate the zeitgeist of identity politics in neoliberal times. (I elaborate that point at length in my recent book Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong?).

3  Dr Davison noted that in the wider aversion therapy literature, although homosexual men were overwhelmingly the main focus, there were smaller numbers of research subjects of lesbians, transvestites and transsexuals, as well as exhibitionists and fetishists (Bancroft, 1969; Bancroft and Marks, 1968). This does not alter the fact that homosexual men were the focus of the Feldman and MacCulloch work, which was allegedly the very point of the Birmingham report about disgraced ex-staff, and accordingly my piece stayed with that focus. Moreover, that work was research; it did not reflect contemporary clinical routines, cueing the next point.  

4  The norm emerging in the 1970s for adult transsexuals was for them to attend for regular monitoring by psychiatrists, while living as the opposite sex, in order to obtain referrals for hormones and surgery. The psychiatric consideration then was on the psycho-social adjustment of adult transsexuals. It is crucially important to note here that the focus was adults, not children who are the focus of recent health policy controversy. This was about the use of mental health assessments of adults prior to their bio-medicalisation, not routine aversion therapy.  The BBC2 documentary in 1979, called A Change of Sex, illuminated well this typical psychiatric surveillance of the time. (It had a medical assessor with an unforgivably persecutory professional style when he was interrogating the MtF transsexual, and a poor mistreated patient, Julia Grant). At that point children were not implicated in protocols about transgender care, but that was to change (see point 7 later).

5 For emphasis (for those who are not clinical psychologists) behaviour therapy was about behaviour and it was behavioural criteria that were used to check efficacy. The intention of the research intervention by Feldman and MacCulloch was to displace same-sex arousal with heterosexual arousal. This emphasis on altering sexual interest was aligned epistemologically with methodological behaviourism (hegemonic at the time but, note, not today). By contrast, the concern of transgender activists now is all about identityThis is a much wider existential matter (e.g.‘Who is the real me?, ‘Can I be my true self?’, ‘Will medicine cooperate in my preferences for body modification to make me feel better about life?’). It is simply dishonest to conflate these two matters of the scenario of defunct aversion therapy with recent therapeutic encounters about gender confusion, especially when children, not adults, are the clinical focus. The closure of GIDS and the Cass Report should be our point of reflection today about child protection, not what happened in 1970 to adult homosexuals.

6  If the Birmingham report authors or any other historians, such as Drs Marks and Davison, are inclined to offer us a longer and fuller historical context that is fine and would be welcomed, but that would need to report what has happened since 1980. This has included: the postmodern turn; the gap between second and third wave feminism; the claims from Queer Theory and its neologisms, like ‘cis’; the risky introduction of the provisional Dutch protocol elsewhere as a standard service philosophy; the raised campaigning salience of T not LGB, within expansive identity politics; the decline of the term ‘sex’ and the rise of ‘gender’ in academic discourse; the shift from ‘women’s studies’ to ‘gender studies’; and the new norms of rapid ‘clictivism’, created by social media. To miss out this long list of important details affords a false conflation of aversion therapy, pre-1980, and exploratory psychological therapy of today. This post-1980 scenario has involved the LGB Alliance splitting off from Stonewall.  Why has that happened? Why has equality now been displaced by identity? These are pertinent historical questions which cannot be answered by looking narrowly at the long-gone discredited work of Feldman and MacCulloch (or for that matter, Marks and Bancroft). Yes, let us have history; we need much more of it not less. However, it must also consider what happened after 1980 to account for current transgender activism. In other words, why was 1980 different from both 1970 and 2020? It also should consider the wider picture circa 1970, cueing the next point……

7  Professional historians such as Drs Marks and Davison might also help us to ‘get the story right’ about the 1970s. By focusing on the alleged unbroken link between then, when aversion therapy for homosexuality predominated, and now, when the matter in dispute is the reasons for the closure of GIDS, a key feature of the 1970s is then ignored.  The care of transsexual adults in the 1970s and beyond was not routinely governed by the goal of the patient accepting their natal sexed body (with or without the use of aversion therapy) but instead in permitting its bio-medical manipulation after a period of psychosocial assessment (see point 4 earlier). Psychiatrists then were gatekeepers for access to other medical specialists (endocrinologists and cosmetic surgeons), not therapists. The later mission creep of this gatekeeping function of mental health services, increasingly implicating psychologists, from adults to children, came originally from the work of Harry Benjamin in the 1960s (Benjamin, 1966). The clinical rationale was to check that the patient genuinely wanted hormones and surgery and then to enable that outcome sympathetically. This rationale was systematised in the 1970s in the standards of care suggested by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, which became the World Professional Association of Transgender Health in 2007. Here then is the link with the affirmative approach of GIDS (now closed) which, quite properly, remains the focus of a post-mortem.


We can see that in the 1970s the clinical rationale evolving about transgender patients was different from the aversion therapy rationale applied to homosexuality.  Benjamin conceptually separated homosexuality both from transsexualism and eroticised transvestism. The latter was to be later conceptualised as one aspect of variegated transgender phenomena, ‘autogynephilia’ (Blanchard, 1991). 

The mission creep of transgender activism, supported during the postmodern turn by Queer Theory and Third Wave feminism, from adults to children should be at the centre of any historical understanding of why the Cass Report emerged. It also explains why thirty five disaffected therapists left GIDS between 2016 and 2019, with some of them warning of the upcoming medico-legal challenge of de-transitioners suffering iatrogenic symptoms (Butler and Hutchinson, 2018). 

There is now a clear link to be made (diverted from our needed attention by focusing on homosexuality and aversion therapy) between the Benjamin care regime for adults in the 1970s and children in the past twenty years. The Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria in Amsterdam and then GIDS in London in the 1990s began to experiment with the impact of puberty suppression, while affirming credulously the child’s subjective identity. From the outset no one knew whether this would be effective in creating mental health gain or what its iatrogenic impact might be. The optimistic assumption was that puberty suppression would be readily reversible and would simply press a ‘pause button’, so that the gender confused child could consider options about their identity in the future (Biggs, 2022; de Vries and Cohen-Kettenis, 2012). That Pollyanna optimism is now facing some earnest reality testing in the wake of the internal report at the Tavistock Clinic in 2018 from David Bell and, more importantly, the Cass Review in 2022. 

In case the above points from me are dismissed as merely of academic interest, we know that the young are exposed to social media reports that healthcare professionals today supposedly torture gender non-conforming children. This preposterous myth will continue to be reinforced and legitimised, unless we make some important honest distinctions. Homosexuality is not transsexualism and it does not require any self-doubts about the ontology of our sexual anatomy. Children are not adults. Mainstream secular mental health services are not fundamentalist religious organisations. 

All these distinctions are important politically right now, if we are to discern what connects the past and present, but also how things have changed and for what reason. The work of Harry Benjamin has much more to offer us in terms of clarifying the role of history than that of Feldman and MacCulloch. 

At the heart of the standoff now between gender critical clinicians and transgender activists is the meaning of the term ‘conversion therapy’. The first emphasise that putting healthy sexed bodies, with immutable chromosomes at risk of iatrogenic damage is a form of ‘conversion’. The second emphasises that to offer a cautious exploratory alternative to that bio-medicalisation is a form of ‘conversion’, because it prevents children who believe that they were born in the wrong body having their current desire fulfilled. We can all have a view about which case is more persuasive on empirical and ethical grounds. 


Bancroft, J. (1969). Aversion therapy of homosexuality: A pilot study of 10 cases. British Journal of Psychiatry, 115(529), 1417-1431. 

Bancroft, J. and Marks, I. (1968). Treatment of sexual deviations. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. 61 (8): 796–79

Benjamin, H. (1966) The Transsexual Phenomenon New York: Julian Press.

Blanchard R. (1991) Clinical observations and systematic studies of autogynephilia. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. 17, 4, 235-5.

Biggs, M. (2022). The Dutch protocol for juvenile transsexuals: origins and evidence. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy. 19, 1-21.

Butler, C. and Hutchinson, A. (2020), Debate: The pressing need for research and services for gender desisters/detransitioners. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 25: 45-47.

de Vries, A. and Cohen-Kettenis, P. (2012) Clinical management of gender dysphoria in children and adolescents: The Dutch approach. Journal of Homosexuality, 59 (3), 301-320. 

Gender, Governance, Identity Politics

‘Conversion Therapy’ and the BPS

David Pilgrim posts…

A dozen private detectives, working 24/7, would struggle to fathom everything that is happening and not happening inside the BPS. A case in point is the remarkable persistence of the role of transgender activism inside the Society. In the book emerging from our amateur sleuthing, coming out in the New Year (Pilgrim, 2023a), we devote chapters to two symptoms of the underlying malaise of misgovernance, both of which implicate child protection. One deals with the distortions of risk appraisal in the extant official BPS advice on memory and the law and the other is the flawed, and in my view dangerous, Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (BPS, 2019)(GSRD).

We have campaigned, without success, to have this removed it its entirety, in the interests of child protection and to minimise the reputational damage to psychological practitioners. It is a scandal that the guidelines have not been withdrawn. Those purportedly revising the document seem to be more or less the same working group, but now minus several people who refused to be part of the review, some of whom – after complaining – have had their names removed from the 2019 document – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

While the UK health policy world is moving on apace in the wake of the Cass Review on paediatric transition and the closure of the Tavistock GIDS Clinic, with its ‘affirmative’ service ideology, it feels for now as though the BPS is simply carrying on regardless, with its old ‘trans-captured’ ways (cf. NHS England, 2022). The advice it has given recently to the Scottish government is a case in point. 

Another indication of business as usual about a trans-captured organisation has related to the Society’s ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ manager (‘Equality’ has been disappeared as a prefix by ‘the BPS’, in its unending virtue signalling on steroids (cf. Ben Michaels, 2006).). That newly appointed manager operated in an ultra vires role in 2021, as the secretary for the ‘MOU Coalition Against Conversion Therapy’. So we have had a full time Society employee, paid from membership fees, at the centre of a transgender activist political campaign. 

This raises a fundamental question about the probity and legitimacy of an organisation still registered, precariously, as a charity and claiming, more and more implausibly, to be a learned body. In the rush to curry favour with an imagined customer base, many organisations are happy to accept, unthinkingly, the challengeable rhetorical claims of transgender activism. The BPS is not alone in this regard; indeed it is probably typical today, as many universities and medical colleges go down the same self-righteous route. However, where there is power there is resistance, and a fight back by gender critical professionals is also underway. More on this now after a brief historical and sociological note for context.

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’ (Hartley, 1953: first line)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some British psychologists and psychiatrists worked together to deploy aversive conditioning techniques (‘anticipatory avoidance’) to try to alter the conduct of gay people. Electrical or less often, chemical, aversive stimuli were used within the broader orthodoxy of applied methodological behaviourism of the time. This was led by the clinical psychologist Hans Eysenck and the psychiatrist Isaac Marks from the Institute of Psychiatry in London, both doyens of the behaviour therapy movement. They encountered angry criticism at the time from an increasingly confident New Social Movement of gay activists (Pilgrim 2023b).

In parallel to the Eysenck-Marks defence of enforcing heteronormativity for the good of the patient, another and more researched and published project occurred between Birmingham and Manchester, led by a clinical psychologist Maurice Feldman and a psychiatrist Malcolm McCulloch. Their work is on the record in reputable journals and books for all to read (e.g. Feldman and McCulloch, 1968, 1971). 

By the end of the 1970s aversion therapy for homosexuals petered out and its own early advocates recanted their position. Gay Liberation was in its heyday and homosexuality had been dropped from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. In any case, aversion therapy simply created distressed homosexual patients, who remained same-sex attracted. Aversion therapy for homosexuality failed on empirical grounds. Moreover, it was now at odds with a successful de-medicalisation shift in societal norms in North America and Western Europe though, note, by no means globally. This controversy was emphatically about aversion therapy (not ‘conversion therapy’) and it was targeted on gay people. Transgender patients were missing from the picture. 

However, after 1980, the postmodern turn (everything was now to be about narratives and discourses, not material reality), Queer Theory and third wave feminism began to coalesce to afford a celebration of diverse identities (Butler, 1999; cf. Oakley, 1972; Watkins, 2018). How people saw themselves (subjectively) and wanted others to recognise them (inter-subjectively) now was to become as important as their transgressive actions, as was homosexual activity in past times. By the turn of this century, the grounds for particular forms of special pleading, within expansive identity politics, were becoming slippery to the grasp for many. What about paedosexuality or incels or those ‘into’ BDSM or kink? Should they be embraced in a spirit of unending inclusiveness? That question is pertinent for any reader of the current BPS Guidelines.

Mirroring those changes, ‘sex’ was displaced by ‘gender’ in social, though not biological, research (Haig, 2004). Neologisms like ‘cis’ and ‘misgendering’ created much head-scratching in ordinary people, who were losing confidence in being able to express their common sense perception of others. This culture shock and perplexity about transgender politics is explored at some length in the ten episode series from ‘Nolan Investigates’ (BBC Northern Ireland, October 2021, available on BBC Sounds). This series challenges the legitimacy of public bodies, including the BBC itself, of being coached and appraised by Stonewall about their take on transgender politics.

In the past few years, ‘gay’ and ‘transgender’ became, for many organisations such as Stonewall and those it coached and appraised, the same amalgam target of oppressive norms in society. Hetero-activism, homophobia and transphobia were alloyed as one. The personal bigotry of ‘cis’ and heterosexual people, not the reversal of structural inequalities, became the salient priority to attack. This was reflected in the campaigning of the ever-elastic LGBTQ+ ideological formation, which hid a major contradiction. If we bracket the connecting glue of gender non-conformity, then we find that sexuality and gender identity are orthogonal; they are not the same either conceptually or in practice. Unfortunately, they have been lumped together in the BPS GSRD Guidelines.

Gay people are sexually attracted to those of their own biological sex; this is about sexual desire and preferred forms of intimacy and sometimes sub-cultural habits. By contrast, transgender people may see themselves as straight, gay, bisexual or even a-sexual.  Moreover, even the connecting glue of gender non-conformity is open to question. For example, many transgender people do not challenge gender conformity at all; they actually affirm and reinforce conservative gender stereotypes as they alter their bodies and clothing in line with the latter. Also, some gay men and lesbians are not manifestly gender non-conforming in their dress and demeanour. The glue eventually became weak and hence the split from Stonewall of the LGB Alliance; the transgender contention was the catalyst but the lack of clear grounds for ally-ship had been around since the 1970s. 

And then there has been the tricky problem for that ally-ship of the ontological, not epistemological or normative, aspect of sex itself (Hull, 2008). Within the transgender activism world, boys and girls with respective immutable XY and XX chromosomes are no longer described validly at birth but, instead, their identity is only provisionally ‘assigned’. Our gender identity has now been reified as a purely subjective matter of choice and a newly sacralised human right, as part of the norms of recent identity politics. The ontology of sex has been ignored or scorned as a political irrelevance.

The objective over-determination of being a man or a woman by materiality (i.e. our chromosomes and being raised in a supra-personal socio-economic regime of patriarchy) have been backgrounded, or simply denied with contempt, and replaced by a kaleidoscope of self-identifications (Pilgrim, 2022). Many gay men and lesbians today know that as children, they could have been shepherded, under the pressure of recent transgender activist demands, into a different and problematic bodily state. Some of them knowing this are concerned for the fate of gay children today. The LGB Alliance now make this point very clearly.

The red herring of intersex is invoked sometimes by transgender activists to demonstrate that ‘sex is a spectrum’. Apart from the fact the 99.99% of us, like all mammals, are sexually dimorphic, even those people who are born intersex still have fixed genetic material. Our genes are immutable. We are not born in the ‘wrong body’, just one that we may or may not come to like. ‘Wrong’ is a human judgement not a biological fact.

The University of Birmingham Report on ‘Conversion Therapy’

What has all the above to do with the BPS? The answer lies in the opening to the recent report (June 2022, available online) conducted by staff members of the University of Birmingham, on behalf of their employers. The title of it is pertinent as a headline message: Conversion Therapy’ and the University of Birmingham, c.1966-1983. This is what it says, in the first paragraph of the executive summary quoted in full:

“The University of Birmingham agrees wholeheartedly with the British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatry (sic) and numerous other organisations and professional bodies, which state that there is no moral or ethical support for activities aimed at changing sexual orientation or gender identity (often called ‘conversion therapy’). The Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the United Kingdom is endorsed by 26 prominent health and therapy organisations, including NHS England and NHS Scotland. Crucially, there is no robust scientific evidence to support the use of ‘conversion therapy’. This report places that term in inverted commas, precisely because these interventions have no form of therapeutic value. Efforts to suppress same-sex desire or enforce conformity to social expectations of gender do not ‘work’ as intended; in fact there is substantial evidence that shows how harmful it is.”

As with so much going on in the diversionary world of identity politics, this statement has more than a kernel of validity. However, at no point is there any self-reflection from Birmingham on the historical context of current controversies, which leads to a partial (in both senses of the word) account. 

This accusation here may seem odd about a report, which is explicitly about history and for the most part is a very good summary of what happened in the 1970s. However, turning what could have been a relatively simple look back at the work of an ex-staff member (Feldman) from fifty years ago, into a political platform for current rhetoric about transgender politics, suggests a virtue signalling exercise with instrumental value for the university ‘brand’. The facts of the central role of a single staff member were known forty years ago. A critical review of his work could have been carried out there and then. So why now and why in this form? 

It is not a journal submission or commissioned piece of work by outside historians of British psychology. Instead, it has emerged from within the identity politics zeitgeist now shaping the academy and its public statements (such as UCL’s recent decisions about Galton and Pearson, or Sheffield’s about Darwin). The report is driven by current political decision-making and posturing from university managers in response to consumer pressure from below. The sequencing of sections of the document confirms this point. 

First, there is a dramatic health warning about people who might be currently affected by the content of the report (see point 3 below). Second, there is a mea culpa statement from the university’s Vice Chancellor. Third, the report itself is offered, which ipso facto is not about current anxieties but the fifty year-old research of Feldman and McCulloch. In light of this character of the report’s own historical context, the following points are relevant to compensate for that lack of self-reflection, from those producing it and endorsing it uncritically: 

Past scandals and current risks. The current term of ‘conversion therapy’ is projected backwards onto history. The behaviour therapists used the term aversion therapy and they were focused explicitly on homosexual orientation, not transgender people and their existential confusion. All mental health interventions, inter alia, are about rule enforcement according to the contemporary ’emotion rules’ of a situated culture in time and space, whether that is done with voluntary or coerced patients (Thoits, 1985; Bean, 1986). The behaviour therapists were enforcing rules of heteronormativity in the genuine belief that this was in the patient’s interests in order to ease their social acceptance and personal angst or guilt about being gay. At that time, with male homosexuality only recently legalised (and even then with a lack of equality about age of consent), being gay was still seen as problematic by many people, including some gay people themselves. Cultural norms typically lag behind legal changes; look today at the presence of casual racism, despite the existence of the Race Relations Act.

Professional therapy and religious fundamentalism. Conversion practices (not therapy in any reasonable sense) in relation to gay people have remained associated with some conservative Christian groups, not with professional psychological therapy. The paragraph cited from the executive summary quite correctly identifies that professional therapy and counselling organisations today have no truck with aversion therapy. It has been dead in the water since 1980. Given this fact, where is the evidence today in the UK that, outside of a few fundamentalist religious organisations, there is any such thing as ‘conversion therapy’? The truth is that there is none. However, there is evidence that many mental health workers defend exploratory psychological therapy with clients and the need for revisable co-constructed formulations that develop over time.

Those insisting on ‘affirmative’ clinical practice, conveniently reframe this orthodox stance, of supportive cautious waiting and personal exploration, darkly as ‘conversion therapy’. We now find that purported prevalent risk of ‘conversion therapy’ as being weaponised against a cautious wait-and-see approach to existential confusion in unhappy young people. For the transgender activist, the exploratory therapist of today, with their ‘first do no harm’ caution, becomes the very same demon as the aversion therapist, circa 1970. 

Instrumental vagueness.  What exactly was this report trying to achieve? A reader of it is not at first clear or, if they have a critical imagination, they realise that it is open to different interpretations. Despite the fact that aversion therapy from the past no longer exists, which is confirmed by the substance of the report itself, suddenly the ominous term ‘conversion therapy’ crops up, as if it is a grave and immediate danger to many people right now. No evidence provided of this implication or assumption. It is implied strongly in the report because of the yoking of sexual orientation and gender identity (see point 4 below). Indeed, it is considered to be so important that the report’s first page has this dramatic warning sticker, from the outset intimating the grave conclusion of a report which remember has, as its alleged focus, the past not the present. Note the blurring of the past and present, from point 1 above, and the unwarranted privileging of gender identity below, given the time period supposedly under focus:

“ Note: this report deals with activities aimed at changing gender identity and sexual orientation. It discusses psychological ‘treatments’ used in the past in sometimes graphic detail. Readers affected by this material may wish to make use of this dedicated resource: National Conversion Therapy Helpline If you are currently experiencing abuse aimed at changing, altering, or ‘curing’ your LGBT+ identity, or think this will happen to you if you come out, Galop’s Conversion Therapy Helpline is here for you. So-called conversion therapy can have a long-term impact on LGBT+ people. If this has happened to you in the past and you are still struggling with it, you can reach out to Galop’s support services. The helpline can provide a safe, confidential listening and information service to any LGBT+ person aged 13+. There are different ways to contact us. All of them are free: Phone 0800 1303335 Email The helpline is open: Monday to Friday 10am – 4pm Calls will last 40 minutes.”

Instrumental vagueness characterises the report in a range of ways cuing the next point about terminology.

The semantic trickery of eliding sexual orientation and gender identity. The compound phrase of ‘gender identity and/or sexual orientation’ is now de rigueur in public documents, when and if sex, gender and sexuality are being considered. In this report, we have the example in the warning sticker of: “changing gender identity or sexual orientation (often called ‘conversion therapy’)”. What used to be about sexual orientation, specifically, has now become an amalgam that routinely includes gender identity. This change came with the revision of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) about ‘conversion therapy’ after 2015 by transgender activists from the BPS, Pink Therapy and other therapy organisations. In 2015, the MoU only alluded to sexual orientation but three years later the document was modified, with the repeated and insistent addition of ‘gender identity’ at every opportunity. Dissenters supporting the older focused defence on gay rights, left the working group, when their cautions were rejected out of hand. Accordingly, groups like Thoughtful Therapists and Gender Critical Clinicians have emerged in response to transgender activist capture in their field of interest. In large part, these gender critical campaigning groups are responding to that capture, cueing the next point.

Transgender activist entryism. Transgender activists have been assiduous and very effective in entering policy making groups to ensure that sexual orientation is no longer the sole focus of sinister therapeutic intent, even though it is a ghost from the past. The linking of past empirically discredited practices about sexual minorities, who are now tolerated or celebrated (depending on one’s value system), with transgender phenomena, mixes apples and oranges. Homosexual orientation is about same sex desire, whereas transgender phenomena are very wide ranging. They include a minority who, like gay people after 1970, now want to completely de-medicalise their existential state and others, who want free and ready access to biomedical transition (drugs and surgery) with many steps in between. They include children and adults. They include a-sexual individuals, ‘trans-lesbians’, ‘a woman with a penis’ and autogynephiles, in various states of medically-induced body modification. Even the defining notion of ‘gender dysphoria’ moves in and out of relevance, for this mix of people with their varying demands. The ‘trans community’ is not of one voice, even if transgender activists tend to pursue a narrow policy of bio-medicalisation on demand. They decry anyone questioning that, quite reasonably, as being automatically a ‘transphobe’, or a ‘TERF’, or more modestly ‘anti-trans’ in academic discourse. The distinction between legitimate ethical debate or evidence consideration about transgender healthcare and hostility or bigotry against transgender individuals is collapsed. Moreover, the remaining and unresolved tension between second and third wave feminism is simply ignored, when it remains an important point of historical reference.

LGBTQ+ or LGB? Gay people in the 1970s recognised that they were objectively men and women, simply described, whereas Queer Theory since then has made it all about language and subjectivity. Gay people in the 1970s, as today, just wanted to be left alone to be full citizens, whereas the demands from such a variegated transgender community now are difficult at times to pin down. Some of it is about being left alone. Some of it is socially performative. Some of it is about intruding into women-only spaces, like prisons and shelters, as well as female sports, with impunity. Within this contestation about transgender politics, which should be opened up to full democratic debate, we find that orthodox exploratory psychological therapy has now been given precisely the same ethically-unworthy status, by activists, as aversion therapy was in the 1970s. This is a deliberate strategic mystification, which has shaped the position of many managers and academics alike in recent times (who may or may not have insight into transgender activist strategizing and tactics). The half-baked report from the University of Birmingham is an example of this point.

What’s in a word?

What then exactly is ‘conversion therapy’ as currently used? The definitional approach of mixing aversion therapy from the past and religious conversion practices since the 1970s, along with the discursive elision of sexuality and gender identity, is reflected in the Wikipedia entry on the topic, which is described as ‘pseudoscientific’. To confuse matters, searching ‘medical views’, linked to this entry, leads to a very strong focus on homosexuality, not gender identity. An outlier was the emergence of the National Association for Research & Therapy for Homosexuality in the USA, which contained socially conservative therapists with religious affiliations, promoting what has also been called ‘reparative therapy’. 

Whereas the behaviour therapists were rule enforcers of heteronormativity, some psychoanalysts continued to contend that homosexuality represented a perversion of psychosexual development, even if their therapeutic stance was not prescriptive. It is true then that psychological models do indeed reflect social norms and norms are open to legitimate challenge, as Gay Liberation demonstrated successfully. The question now is whether the vaguer expectations of such a diverse ‘trans community’ can be considered in the same way, logically or politically. 

Gay people being left alone to get on with their lives is not the same as the campaigns to have hormones and surgeries on demand, including for children, with wise clinical caution being confused with oppression and bigotry. One indicates a preference for de-medicalisation (the rejection of aversion therapy and a diagnosis of morbidity) and the other the very opposite (demands for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria as an immediate gateway into life-long bio-medicalisation). The expressed need for the first group focuses on citizenship, whereas for the second it is about patient-hood on demand, in the absence of physical pathology. These scenarios are like chalk and cheese.

The warning sticker on the Birmingham report above exemplifies the semantic problem of not dealing with actual or perceived threats from psychological therapists, as in the use of this type of phrase: ‘…..often called “conversion therapy”’. But who is doing the calling and on what grounds? This important question is not explored; ‘conversion therapy’ is simply taken for granted as a ‘bad thing’. However, neither its conceptual validity nor its empirical validity are considered properly. Like the words ‘transphobe’ or ‘TERF’, ‘conversion therapy’ is now a slur requiring no justification. This matters ethically and politically, if aversion therapy and exploratory psychological therapy, promoted by most formulation-based models within professional orthodoxy today, are being casually conflated. 

That casual conflation is then a tactical position adopted by transgender captured groups, such as those producing the BPS GSRD Guidelines ; it is all about challenging and defeating those who problematize the bio-medicalisation of unhappy children. The BPS affiliated and staffed MOU Coalition Against Conversion Therapy is a practical expression of the document’s campaigning intent. Moreover, the celebration in the document of BDSM and calling women ‘sluts’ just adds to the heart-sink of reading this prescriptive libertine manifesto, dressed up as professional guidance. For anyone new to this document, they will find no proper literature review and no rehearsal of contention or debate in the field, but instead a long ‘thou shalt’ approach to ‘affirmation’ throughout. The ‘no debate’ position of campaigning is replicated dutifully in the document. This then is not professional guidance from a position of equipoise and careful deliberation, but a manifesto from a group of political activists. 

The focus on children by those activists (not on adult transsexuals pursuing biomedical transition) is the very reason that we have identified a serious child protection concern inside the BPS, and we will continue to do so. Yoking aversion therapy from the past, with legitimate and ethically defensible practices in exploratory psychological therapy today, is wrong-headed if it is an honest mistake, and unconscionable, if it being done deliberately by some people in authority. To explore is not to convert. Some who have tried to defend this ethically defensible wait-and-see position in practice, such as the Canadian clinical psychologist Ken Zucker, have been punished. His service was closed down by his employers as a result of transgender activist lobbying and he is now held up as their bête noire, despite his mainstream opinions in the therapy world about best practice (Zucker et al. 2012). He was eventually completely vindicated, via the courts, and his ex-employers had to settle financially in reparation for his wrongful dismissal. However, he remains a target of transgender activist hostility for what he symbolised.

Moreover, arguably the real conversion therapy is to take healthy young bodies and sterilise them with hormones and surgeries (Butler and Hutchinson 2020; Brunskell-Evans and Moore, 2018). This accruing iatrogenic harm means that patients will be angry and feel betrayed by service providers from their past. This reminds us of the serious ethical questions surrounding paediatric transitioning, encouraged by the affirmative approach – note still endorsed by the BPS (Steensma et al., 2017). Here, for example, is an account from a FtM de-transitioner, now in chronic distress in 2019 in a conference in Manchester on the topic:

“It doesn’t make any sense to me why this is called ‘transition’ or a ‘sex change’ because it’s not, it’s castration. And now that I am trying to care for my health as much as possible I spend a lot of time on hysterectomy support sites and message boards for women. For women, because only women get hysterectomies and only women deal with the consequences of a hysterectomy. So, excuse me but what the hell are surgeons doing calling this ‘gender reassignment’ or ‘gender affirming health care’? ( ‘Livia’. Detransition: The Elephant in the Room. Make More Noise (Available from:”

These sorts of accounts from distressed patients, in the wake of an ‘affirmative’ service ideology which is proposed by the BPS still as a progressive alternative to ‘conversion therapy’, graphically expose why we need to reflect on what we mean, exactly, by the term. These angry victims of bio-medicalisation are queuing up at the doors of medical negligence lawyers today.  An irony, which will be recorded historically, is that such a medical scandal has been led not by medical practitioners but by psychologists. 

If counselling or clinical psychologists are caught up in this legal reckoning, because of their compliance with an affirmative service ideology, what advice was given to them in the recent past by the BPS and what will it give now? After complaints about the gender guidelines were made, the BPS did not withdraw them (the wise option, for a period of deliberation). Instead the BPS indicated that they were not intended to apply to those under the age of 18. However, the document (which remains on the BPS website) on page 12 still says this, contradicting that claim (and note its heavy biomedical emphasis):

“Psychologists working with GSRD youth should be aware that reproductive options and considerations may be more complex than with their heterosexual or cisgender peers. Assistive reproductive options may be needed and should be discussed openly and frankly, perhaps especially in the case of trans youth who are seeking treatments which will remove reproductive options at an age below that which people commonly consider becoming a parent”

This is a clear indication that the transgender activists driving the production of the BPS Guidelines had a view about an age cohort which cannot consent to sex or a piercing or buy alcohol. Those children are still being encouraged to enter a bio-medicalised lifelong process in the name of social justice and presumed mental health gain. Their wellbeing is being jeopardised and in some cases egregiously sacrificed at an altar of ideology. 


Our political action to expose the secretive world of the BPS has quite properly focused on poor governance in general. It did not start with single issue politics in civil society, such as the many now linked to identity politics. However, child protection has come up for us in the two ways I noted at the outset. 

In this piece, I have drawn out the contradictions inherent to the politics of gender identity. The Cass Review confirmed that we were correct to open up for scrutiny those mental health professionals, who defend exploratory psychological therapy for the good reason to protect children, on the one hand, and, on the other, the libertine transgender activists, who have captured the policy process for now, in the BPS and elsewhere.. 

The gaps of understanding between the Cass Review and the one cited from the University of Birmingham are worth exploring. Both reports should be read by anyone new to the topic who wants to demystify some of what has been going on inside the BPS. To finish on a repetition: the contention about the GSRD guidelines is a symptom of a deeper problem of poor governance in the Society. As a consequence the welfare of children continues to be put at risk from what is purported to be professional guidance.


Bean, P. (1986) Mental Disorder and Legal Control Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benn Michaels, W. (2006) The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality New York: Holt.

British Psychological Society (2019) Guidelines for Psychologists Working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Brunskell-Evans, H. and Moore, M. (Eds.) (2018) Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own BodyNewcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Butler, C. and Hutchinson, A. (2020), Debate: The pressing need for research and services for gender desisters/detransitioners. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 25: 45-47.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge

Feldman, M.P. and MacCulloch, M.J. (1967) Aversion therapy in the management of 43 homosexuals British Medical Journal, 2, 3 June 1967, 594-597; 

Feldman, M.P. and MacCulloch, M.J. (1971) Homosexual Behaviour: Therapy and Assessment Oxford: Pergamon Press. 

Haig, D. (2004) The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: social change in academic titles, 1945–2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33:87-96.

Hartley, L.P. (1953) The Go-Between London: Hamish Hamilton.

Hull, C. (2008) The Ontology of Sex: A Critical Inquiry into the Construction and Reconstruction of Categories. London: Routledge

NHS England (2022) Interim Review of Gender Identity Services for Young People (Interim Report Chaired by Hilary Cass) London: NHS England.

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. Aldershot: Arena.

Pilgrim, D. (ed) (2023a) British Psychology in Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction Oxford: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim, D. (2023b) Verdicts on Hans Eysenck and the fluxing context of British psychology History of the Human Sciences (in press).

Pilgrim, D. (2022) Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Oxford: Phoenix Books.

Steensma, T.D., Wensing-Kruger, A. and Klink, D.T. (2017) How should physicians help gender-transitioning adolescents consider potential iatrogenic harms of hormone therapy?  American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 19, 8, 762-770.

Thoits, P.A. (1985) Self-labeling processes in mental illness: the role of emotional deviance. American Journal of Sociology, 91: 221–49.

Watkins, S. (2018) Which feminisms? New Left Review 109, 2, 5-76.

Zucker, K.J. Wood, H., Singh, D. and Bradley, S. (2012) A developmental, biopsychosocial model for the treatment of children with Gender Identity Disorder. Journal of Homosexuality 59:3, 369-397

Ethics, Gender, Identity Politics

Gender: Cass, GIDS and BPS Guidelines

Is the BPS able to tolerate controversy and step up to the current debates?

Pat Harvey posts…


In 2020, I became aware of some of the extensive issues involved in this case:

“The tangled case of the brothers who became girls, aged seven and three. A couple’s own son transitioned – and within months they were given a baby to foster, who became a girl too.” (

The details of the discussion of psychological considerations presented in this court case are very disquieting. Accordingly, I went to the current 2019 British Psychological Society Guidelines (currently downloadable at ). I was naively hoping that my professional body could offer a position statement which would fairly represent  a weighing of the dilemmas that would help a court case such as this one.

The document resembled no professional guidelines or policy guidance that I had ever seen during a long NHS clinical, service manager and trainer career, or as a member of the Mental Health Act Commission (precursor to the CQC) or as a panel member of an independent inquiry.

The content of the guidelines was very brief, sketchy yet dogmatic. There was no proper respectful recognition of current controversial clinical issues or social and political context. One approach only appeared to be acceptable, that of non-questioning “affirmation”. Consent issues were not considered. Sexuality and lifestyle issues such as kink and BDSM were lumped together with gender. There were hugely important omissions, such as the dilemmas of working with people who have a sexual interest in children. The limits of the research base were ignored.

I made a very detailed formal complaint about the form, the content and what I had discovered about the process of generating these guidelines. This served to illustrate and to confirm the experience of others – that the BPS complaints procedure was neither adequate, nor was it even followed. The complaint dragged on for months, deadlines were missed, I had to deal with different individuals at different times and important points in my complaint were missed.  Unacceptable assertions about the status of evidence were dismissed with “we are a broad church”. The irony of this in the context of an “affirmation only” approach in the guidelines was lost. Only my persistence in the face of these failures got the complaint to Stage 2.

The complaint was closed with little by way of any positive outcomes. There were formal apologies for procedural failing. There was an evasive reply to the assertion I made that the members of the group which generated the guidelines had not all signed off on them. The crucial matter of their woeful inadequacy in the matter of providing responsible guidance for distressed gender questioning children was evaded by a retrospective formal addition, stating “For adults and young people (aged 18 and over)”. This was unaccompanied by any formal public announcement to members, many of who might still be working from the original, unamended version. The contents however, remained ambiguous with respect to age as with the implications that the following paragraph was applicable to minors: 

“Assistive reproductive options may be needed and should be discussed openly and frankly, perhaps especially in the case of trans youth who are seeking treatments which will remove reproductive options at an age below that which people commonly consider becoming a parent”.

Hence, since 2020 until the present time, the professional guidance for psychology practitioners and non- psychologists, provided by the British Psychological Society are still held out on their website as follows:

‘These guidelines are aimed at applied psychologists working with mental distress, but may also be applied in associated psychological fields.

The principles they are based upon are derived from both the literature and best practice agreement of experts in the field and may also be applied to other disciplines, such as counselling, psychotherapy, psychiatry, medicine, nursing and social work.”

In my view this is nothing short of a scandal, a failed responsibility to the public. The national Gender Identity Disorder Service was, after all, psychologist led.

Events since 2022, further actions

In August 2022, after the Cass interim report and the subsequent announced closure of the GIDS, I wrote to the Practice Board of the BPS. 

I am reproducing the letter in its entirety, followed by the response I finally received in November 2022, after a number of email prompts from myself.  I make no further comment beyond my letter and the response in order that the reader might make their own judgement.


Letter to British Psychological Society Practice Board

From Pat Harvey AFBPsS., C Psychol.

16 August 2022

Re BPS 2019 GSRD Guidelines

I am writing to you as a BPS member and an interested party in the process and development of BPS policy statements and the publication of guidelines for psychologists and other professionals working with clients who access services for problems relating to questioning their gender identity. 

My interest has developed sequentially from

  • Experience during 30 years of clinical practice in adult mental health services with Male-to-Female clients, then termed Transsexuals and Transvestites.
  • Experience directly related to certain high profile and media reported cases of individual families in court.
  • Engagement with the BPS complaints procedure (August 2020 – April 2021) in respect of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines and the public statements of the Chair of the Task and Finish group responsible for producing those guidelines. There are detailed responses from Karen Beamish which should be available on file. 
  • Responsibility for public content of the critical Twitter account @psychsocwatchuk
  • Articles published under my authorship on
  • A chapter authored by me on the 2019 GSRD Guidelines in the forthcoming book British Psychology In Crisis: A Case Study in Organisational Dysfunction edited by David Pilgrim. Phoenix publishers (2022 in press).

I believe that the British Psychological Society has a duty to develop policy and best practice relating to matters central to psychology in the interests of the public and to assist its practitioner members. It also has a duty to keep its members properly informed, but the BPS has a recent history of lack of openness and transparency which operates to the detriment of that those duties.  Accordingly, I am writing to you with a series of questions which I believe members have the right to have answered and to be updated on as soon as possible, even if merely to be told that a process of consideration is ongoing.

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed?

I understand that the 2019 GSRD Guidelines may be in the process of revision. I make this assumption on the basis of the twitter exchange below and because the 2019 Guidelines themselves have disappeared from the webpage  without explanation. 

Why is there no explanation or clarification? 

There have been several ambiguous undertakings made to myself, to others and on the webpage to review the 2019 Guidelines over a two year period:

  • “in the light of the outcome of the Bell vs Tavistock Judicial Review”, November 2020.
  • “These guidelines will be reviewed following the outcome of the Bell v Tavistock appeal process”  
  •  “In the meantime the Chair of the Practice Board has already put in place plans to commence a review of the gender guidelines upon the conclusion of the appeal.” (Karen Beamish to me 9 April 2021)  
  • On Twitter to an individual (see above) “following the Cass review” 1 August 2022.

This is a completely unacceptable way to keep members updated. It is also extremely confusing since the 2019 GSRD Guidelines had a retrospective caveat added as a direct result of my complaint (“we have offered to put a statement on the front of our guidelines, on our website and all points/places where the guidelines are referenced to confirm that the BPS guidelines for psychologists working with gender, sexuality and relationship diversity are for adults. We will implement this urgently”) in April 2021. However, the Tavistock cases related to issues of consent of minors under 18. The remit of the Cass review is that it is the Independent Review by a paediatrician of “gender identity services for children and young people”. So, rhetorically – to emphasis the confusion of the BPS – how are those external drivers central to the decision to review guidelines explicitly stated since 2021 as applying only to adults?

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people?

It is clear that there has been a “moving picture” with regard to external events, first legal, then with the Cass Review and now the planned closure (in the wake of criticism about service accessibility failures, failures of service integration, ideology, data collection and research evidence base) of Tavistock GIDS. That moving picture, which will undoubtedly develop, cannot preclude the provision of guidelines for practising psychologists in the meantime. The BPS has provided nothing useable for its members to date: there is not any set of psychological principles that support ethical and reflective psychological practice, principles that would weather a changing legal social and political milieu. 

The BPS should seek confidently to espouse key psychological principles in this contested area and take a lead. These principles include

  • Psychological understandings of the formation of identity within a developmental context.
  • Psychological understandings of the issues of informed and valid consent, especially in minors.
  • Heterogeneity of factors bearing down upon gender questioning in individuals, complexities and persistence or otherwise of their clinical presentations.
  • Importance of family dynamics, peer pressure, social contagion and the problem of psychological reductionism within a wider social context.
  • The pitfalls of biological and medical reductionism, e.g. “transgenderism is innate”.

None of this was addressed in the 2019 “affirmation only” Guidelines.

In recent service delivery for gender questioning and distressed children and young people, the foremost service, GIDS, has been psychologist-led. It is therefore astonishing that there have been no effective guidelines for psychology practitioners forthcoming from the BPS as our professional body. The BPS must grasp this situation and take a lead.

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity?

I raised this in my complaint. The independent investigator brought in at stage 2  did not supply a definite answer;  nevertheless he agreed this was an important question for any future revision to consider. He stated the following, reported to me in the letter concluding the complaint investigation from Karen Beamish dated 9 April 2021:

“In a future review, there should be further consideration of the issues to validate their inclusion or alternatively to provide any clarification needed…… it should be something for the Practice Board to consider under its remit to lead on the development of the guidelines.”

There are good reasons for separating the topics. Some are as follows:

  • Gender guidelines should firmly be covering the whole life span.  Sexuality and relationship diversity is largely applicable to adults with some references to adolescent development.
  • It is strongly argued by many that gender questioning should be conceptually separated from sexuality in order to allow for more complex understandings.  These understandings would allow for the very different principles of consent to be satisfactorily unpicked. Legal issues are also very different: for example, in the case of minor attracted persons (MAPS) who present commonly with very difficult challenges for practitioners where borderline illegal behaviour is involved.
  • The respective research and evidence bases are addressing different issues.
  • For political and social context reasons, gender has overshadowed sexuality in the 2019 Guidelines despite the demographics of numbers presenting in a clinical and counselling context and the differing expertise required of practitioners
  • BDSM and Kink should not receive consideration when other more prevalent clinical problems of sexuality and lifestyle such as MAPS require attention. This should not have been inserted via an inane caveat “these Guidelines do not, however, relate to anything non-consensual”.  As indicated above, consent in sexual relationships is a complex matter, not a binary “consents vs does not consent”. When clients present in a clinical setting it is highly likely that consent will be one concern in the distress or in the perpetration of abusive behaviour. A quick inspection of “Consent” on forums for BDSM/Kink indicates a much more nuanced and sophisticated understanding than the throwaway approach of the 2019 Guidelines.

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines?

My forthcoming critical review of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines leads me to suggest

  • Appointment of a Chair who is not an activist or campaigner, who can allow debate about conflicting views, and where consensus cannot be achieved can allow the conflict and current uncertainty to be ethically and helpfully represented in the text to help others navigate the difficult cultural climate. The need for a less aligned chair than the chair of the 2019 Guidelines can be seen from problematic statements made in a public academic forum on outcomes of body altering surgery: “sometimes people think there is a debate about that and hopefully I have included enough references for you to think that debate is shut. There is not a debate about this anymore” (@40mins 27 secs in). In an interview about a specialist post, she stated : ”The details of Gender Diversity can be learned, but an open and inquiring mind cannot. Bigots and exploitative theoreticians need not apply! Clever, open people who are interested in clinical practice, research, truly multidisciplinary working, and developing this emerging field are most welcome.”
  • Appointment of members with differing views including from amongst those psychologists with experience and expertise who felt they had to leave their work in services committed to “affirmation only approach” (See Cass Interim report 4.17, 4.20).
  • A more lengthy, detailed and critically reflective tone and content, akin to that of the BPS Autism Guidelines ( ). In the less than 11 full pages that comprise the body of text of the 2019 GSRD Guidelines, the phrase “Psychologists should” appears 15 times in the 27 headings and an additional 42 times beneath the headings! This is self-evidently not advisory.
  • Full discussion and critique of the current evidence and research base and inclusion of methodological problems and criticisms which can allow for readers’ insight into the current situation. This cannot wait for the longer-term findings that may come from the Cass research programme. It is needed now by those tasked to provide services.
  • Balanced consultation with users and user groups representing differing perspectives, not, as previously, just Stonewall and LGBT Foundation. Consultation should also be made with “de-transitioners”.
  • Sufficient time allowed for well-publicised member consultation, engagement and subsequent amendments.
  • All task force members should be expected to either sign off the final revision or be recorded as dissenters with “minority report”. This would indicate a move away from what is perceived as an intimidatory climate where differing views are not permitted (see Cass).

I hope you will be able to answer my questions, inform members of the current situation and produce a very much more helpful set of guidelines for the psychological work within the field of gender questioning.

To quote Cass directly:

“4.19 Speaking to professionals outside GIDS, we have heard widespread concern about the lack of guidance and evidence on how to manage this group of young people. 

4.20. Some secondary care providers told us that their training and professional standards dictate that when working with a child or young person they should be taking a mental health approach to formulating a differential diagnosis of the child or young person’s problems. However, they are afraid of the consequences of doing so in relation to gender distress because of the pressure to take a purely affirmative approach. Some clinicians feel that they are not supported by their professional body on this matter.”

This is most definitely applies to members of the British Psychological Society. It will, if not addressed, continue to deplete the pool of psychologists prepared to use their expertise to work with and help gender questioning children and adults.

Reply from BPS

Regarding: BPS 2019 GSRD Letter (August 16th 2022) 

3rd November 2022 

Dear Pat 

Thank you for your letter, we welcome the views of our members. The guidelines are designed to support and enable psychologists to work with people of diverse genders, sexualities and relationships (e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) in a way that is respectful, inclusive and upholds psychologists’ duties under the Equality Act (2010). 

Below is a response to your questions regarding the Guidelines for Psychologists working with Gender, Sexuality and Relationship Diversity. 

Are the GSRD Guidelines being reviewed? 

Yes, the 2019 GSRD Guidelines are being reviewed. All guidance documents are routinely subject to a review at regular intervals to ensure they remain appropriate given the possibility of changing contexts, legislation and evolving evidence. They may also be reviewed at any point in the case of a major change in legislation, evidence or context. As this is a scheduled interim review of the document, the original authors are leading the review process. The Practice Board will ensure the document is externally peer reviewed before publication. 

Will the supposed review result in guidelines for children and young people? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review process. The review group will take into account the recent NHS review of The Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London and the public consultation on a new service delivery model. 

The Practice Board will consider any recommendations from the review regarding additional evidence-based guidance for children and young people. 

Should revised Guidelines separate Gender from Sexuality and Relationship Diversity? 

This will be considered by the review group and peer reviewers as part of the review. 

Has the BPS reflected upon better process and outcome for reviewing the guidelines? 

We continually reflect on our guidance writing and consultation processes and welcome feedback from members and the public. We conduct all of our work in a context of continuous improvement and in that spirit we are grateful for your comments. 

Yours sincerely, 

Diversity and Inclusion Team 

British Psychological Society 

e: w:

"The Psychologist", 'False Memory Syndrome', Academic freedom and censorship, Board of Trustees, Expulsion of President-Elect, Gender, Governance, Identity Politics, Memory and the Law Group, Prescribing Rights

Legal storm clouds over the BPS

David Pilgrim posts….

For those new to the chaos in the BPS, its organisational vulnerability today is multi-layered. The Charity Commission has, until very recently, been ‘engaged’ with the Society about lack of compliance concerning governance arrangements. Slowly, maybe resentfully, the leadership in Leicester has tinkered around the edges. 

The Society’s ‘Board of Trustees’ has been a phoney structure since the 1960s, but now a few public invites are to be issued, to appoint nominally independent members. All trustees in a charity should have no conflicts of interest, not just a couple of tokens. As with other matters, the BPS leadership seems to lack insight about even the most basic principles of organisational probity (see below).

But compliance with charity law is the least of the problems for the current BPS leadership or, note, past leaders with their ongoing legacy liability. We were told via YouTube, when Nigel MacLennan was expelled kangaroo-court-style, that this has been a ‘challenging year’. This of course was special pleading from those running the Society. The wider membership had been kept completely in the dark about the corruption and misgovernance, so they experienced the lock down, oblivious to any personal pain suffered by the leadership, with its ‘challenges’.  

This glib ‘challenging year’ trope in BPS propaganda has persisted, both vague in its detail and directed at sympathy from anyone taking it seriously. Covid-19 had been a safe cover story of collective bad luck and victimhood. Whichever way the challenges in Leicester are spun to the outside world, the reality is that the BPS is in serious legal trouble.

Three imminent legal threats to the reputation of the BPS

Here are three points to consider seriously:

Nigel MacLennan’s Employment Tribunal will require that the BPS must now take the dirty washing it has stuffed in a bin bag and put in a cupboard somewhere, and empty it out on to the floor of the courtroom for all the world to see. The evasions and snail-pace adjustments, which might have worked in response to the Charity Commission, will not be tolerated in a court (which is the formal status of an Employment Tribunal). Much more could be said on this, but a sub judice caution comes into play here, so I am just reporting the material fact of what is about to happen in 2023.

Post-Cass Review and Post-GIDS closure, the BPS guidance on gender has now been withdrawn. The leadership are not responding, in a timely manner, to a dilemma shockingly new to them. In the autumn of 2019 criticisms I made of Tavistock Clinic GIDS were censored by the BPS. In the summer of 2020, representations from many BPS members about the serious inadequacies of the 2019 guidelines on gender were simply ignored. In the autumn of 2020, a detailed formal complaint concerning the form, content and context of 2019 revision of the gender guidelines was made but not upheld. Also in autumn 2020, further representations about the risks of extending prescribing rights to psychologists (which would have included hormones) were ignored by BPS leaders. In the spring of 2022, yet another multi-signed letter to BPS leaders about the risks posed to the public by the gender guidelines was simply ignored. This did not even receive an acknowledgment, let alone a considered response.

Only when the world outside was telling Leicester in stereo, and at full volume, that the game was up on the ‘affirmative model’, was action triggered. Over the recent years, its own members had been treated with total contempt, when lobbying for the withdrawal of the trans-captured gender document. The wise have kept a copy of the policy document now removed. It cannot be deleted from history, no matter how convenient that would be for all of those, from the Board of Trustees and the Practice Board to the ‘Comms Team’ and The Psychologist, who were complicit actors in a flawed policy.  

The credibility of their group-think will now fracture in the full public glare of legal scrutiny. Recently The Times reported an incipient class action, involving up to a thousand ex-patients of the Tavistock Clinic (in truth that figure may be larger or smaller). Whatever their number, the legal bill will be picked up by the NHS Litigation Authority (NHSLA). Its work is supported by top-sliced money from constituent local Trusts, so it is supplied ultimately by the tax payer. 

The Tavistock Clinic will survive, albeit embarrassed. It will be rid of a capricious historical deviation, which held the proven tradition of cautious exploratory psychological therapy in complete contempt, confusing a passing and modish social trend with a genuine ‘social revolution’. The medical sterilisation of healthy children is shaping up to be yet another ‘great and desperate cure’ in the murky biomedical history of psychiatry (and now, more importantly, psychology) (Valenstein, 1986). These children, who cannot vote, give consent to sex, buy alcohol or even have a piercing or tattoo at their own request, has been put forward by adult identity politics activists as a harbinger of social progress. 

In the censored exchange in 2019 and noted above, between me and Dr Bernadette Wren, that assumption of political and ethical worthiness was debated. As a champion of the now discredited GIDS, Wren actually described the explosion in referrals as reflecting a ‘social revolution’ (sic). I am sure she believed that, but history will surely not vindicate her position, given that her claim is already unravelling and there is a service policy push back, here and in other countries, about the ‘affirmative model’. Social contagion, yes. Social revolution, very doubtful. A passing postmodern phase of anti-realist madness, most probable.

Many liberal and left leaning people (this is not just a Daily Mail editorial frothing at the mouth) simply never bought the GIDS progressive claims. Nor did they fail to spot the trans-capture in the BPS and elsewhere, including in the Royal medical colleges, which should have known better. For example, a group have just written to The Observernoting how the leadership of the Royal College of Psychiatrists had fended off representations, similar to our own in the BPS (see under heading Trans Concerns)

This span of dissenting voices has now been vindicated.  Complex existential challenges, each with their unique biographical context, cannot be cured by crass interference with the body, but it seems that mental health professionals are still slow learners. Their organisational leaders, fawning for popular support in an age of identity politics, have for now often lost their rational capacity to assess evidence or accept material realities that are immutable (Pilgrim, 2022). 

Faced with this historical moment of reckoning, the BPS does not have the luxury of a legal fund, like the NHSLA, to fall back on. The grateful medical negligence lawyers, who are now welcoming ‘regretters and detransitioners’ through their shiny doors, will inevitably take an interest in the professional advice that supported the ‘affirmative model’, now defunct at the Tavistock. The cabal in Leicester would be wise to take their own legal advice about what is in the pipeline.  It will of course be paid for by members’ fees. It may well entail very large amounts of money.

3 And then there is the contentious memory and law group, which has been the other main arena of policy capture, afforded by weak governance. The enmeshment of the BPS and the British False Memory Society is now clear (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). However, in 2014, the editor of The Psychologist made this definitive and untenable statement: “Neither The Psychologist nor The British Psychological Society has links with the British False Memory Society.” 

This denial was at odds with the fact that the Chair (now deceased) of the BPS Memory and the Law Group was on the Advisory Board of the British False Memory Society, during the time that Elizabeth Loftus was on the International Panel of Associate Editors of The Psychologist.  She was also an advisor to the US and British False Memory Societies (The first was closed down after the Jeffrey Epstein case.) Loftus testified in defence of both Ghislaine Maxwell in 2021 and Harvey Weinstein in 2020. In the first case she asserted, with no evidence, that the prospect of financial gain could distort the memories of complainants. This line of speculation in legal settings is not peculiar to Loftus. It has been used by convicted individual abusers, as well as those claiming that child sexual abuse is a moral panic.

In this context of the serious legal considerations of sexual abuse, the biases in the BPS policy to date are very important, as is the supportive role of The Psychologist.  In May 2014, its editor provided a short hagiographic account of his interview with Loftus (he met at a conference dinner), who had ‘been voted the most influential female psychologist of all time’. It goes on, ‘Her wit and creativity shone through as she rattled through real-life stories, wrongful convictions and ingenious research that all illuminate the faulty nature of memory…. One thing seems undeniable: whatever the future brings for memory research and practice, Professor Loftus will be at the forefront of it for many years to come.’  

Because the BPS is an organisation without a memory, others have to recall the origins of its partisan policy focus. The BPS line, from their highly biased report, considering only the matter of false positive decision making, has fed defence teams hired by those accused of sexual abuse. It has offered absolutely no balancing advice about false negatives, in order to support prosecution teams. Those in the BPS, who have been concerned to expand the policy on memory, to include evidence of the social epidemiology of child sexual abuse and its proven mental health impacts (e.g. Cutajar et al. 2010) have been systematically excluded from a new working group looking at the topic. 

This scandal of biased policy formation then is ongoing. It is not just a part of BPS history, now regretted. The group recently appointed to update the document remains shadowy and has only included (unnamed) so called ‘memory experts’, from the closed system world of experimental psychology. All attempts by those BPS members interested in the clinical and epidemiological evidence (an open system feature of the world outside of the laboratory) to join the group have been blocked repeatedly. Moreover, all attempts to ascertain who exactly is on this group have been met with refusals on grounds of data privacy. It seems that the older biases to consider false positive decision making may well remain. The implausible claim that the BPS is guided by the organisational principle of transparency is also obvious here. 

Meanwhile, the BPS, as with now withdrawn gender document, seems to have no capacity to reflect on the child protection implications entailed in a lop-sided and partisan, form of policy formation.  The only sop that excluded critics have been offered is to submit papers to a minor journal, which is under the editorial control of FMS supporters. As with the case of the gender document, the temporary capture of a weakly governed Society, by a particular interest group, has to await external scrutiny to expose its bias and the dangers this poses to the public. Once again, internal dissent has been quashed at the expense of both membership democracy and academic integrity.

As the evidence now accumulates from historical inquiries into child sexual abuse, both in the UK and Australia, the BPS policy is a new potential target for angry survivors, seeking personal justice. Their lawyers will have spotted that line of attack. The current BPS position, to date, has colluded with the idea that child sexual abuse has been a trivial moral panic. The truth of the matter is that its scale has been strongly under-estimated, as is now becoming clear, in both the statutory inquiries and clinical research (Pilgrim, 2018; Children’s Commissioner’s Report, 2016).


The BPS leaders are in for another ‘challenging year’. Hiding in the dark, under the security blanket of group-think, will not make the lawyers disappear by magic. They will still be there, rubbing their hands, when the blanket it whisked away. Critics of all the three forms of BPS failing, noted above, may have been easy to ignore by the cabal. The rule of law is a different matter. If those in Leicester are not worried by now about imminent legal threats to the reputation of the Society, then they clearly do not understand what is going on.


Children’s Commissioner’s Report (2016) Barnahus: Improving The Response to Child Sex Abuse in EnglandLondon: UK Children’s Commissioner’s Office 

Conway, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2022) The policy alignment of the British False Memory Society and the British Psychological Society Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 23:2, 165-176, 

Cutajar, M. C., Mullen, P. E., Ogloff, J. R. P., Thomas, S. D., Wells, D. L., and Spataro, J. (2010). Psychopathology in a large cohort of sexually abused children followed up to 43 years. Child Abuse and Neglect 34(11), 813–22.

Pilgrim, D. (2022) Identity Politics: Where Did It All Go Wrong? Bicester: Phoenix Books.

Pilgrim, D. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial? London: Routledge.

Sutton, J. (2014). BPS – obsessed with the false memory syndrome? Editor’s reply. The Psychologist 27, 5, 303.

Valenstein, E. (1986) Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness New York: Basic Books.

Administrator’s note

All of these topics have been subject to comments on the blog. By clicking on the category immediately above the title you will find the relevant posts.

"The Psychologist", Academic freedom and censorship, Identity Politics

Class as a “Protected Characteristic”?

The current issue (a ‘…bumper edition…’ according to the managing editor) of The Psychologist[1] is promoting the idea of making social class a protected characteristic under the Equalities Act.  This campaign (surely running close to the wind as regards charity law?) is being promoted on the BPS Twitter account as well. Whether you think that this is a good idea or not, it looks to our eyes that it is feeding directly into the hotbed that is identity politics. As a consequence, the slant and positioning of the BPS cannot be said to reflect any sort of balance scientifically (or politically, for that matter). It also ignores or is ignorant about the considerable social scientific literature, which has informed debate on this contested and contentious issue over many years (I had the good fortune to have a two-year sociology subsidiary as part of my first degree).

Our own experience, as well as that of others, is that the BPS chooses to avoid debating different positions to its own ‘party line’ and either ignores or censors[2] contributions that challenge and offer reasoned critiques. For that reason we feel that the following piece from David Pilgrim deserves to see the light of day. We welcome your comments, especially from those within the BPS who are promulgating this campaign.

Peter Harvey,

Blog Administrator. 



Open commentary on the special issue on ‘Tackling Class-Based Inequalities’ (The PsychologistJuly/August 2022)

David Pilgrim


The discipline of psychology is in trouble and so is the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ignoring that current reality in the face of the policy initiative being promoted in the special issue, would be an act of complicity. My response is offered as an invitation to debate the dire state we are in as a discipline, within a neoliberal context in which the authoritarian norms of identity politics are now suffocating freedom of expression.

The topic of inequality has been of professional interest to me for over forty years, during which time I have also been an ambivalent member of the BPS. I have a Masters in sociology, as well as a PhD in social psychology and have many years of experience researching and publishing from the interface between these disciplines. This is reflected in my split career (half the time as a clinical psychologist in the NHS and the other working in health policy research as a jobbing social scientist). My academic focus has largely been in relation to mental health and inequality (e.g. Rogers and Pilgrim, 2020; Rogers and Pilgrim, 2003).

With my interests and mandate duly declared, below I address three main matters: the legitimation crisis of British psychology; the risk of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work; and the particular risk of psychological reductionism, given the capture of organisations by versions of identity politics. All of these form the embedding context of the campaign to add social class to the list of protected characteristics.  

I finish with some ideas about the modest contribution that psychology might make to our understanding of social class, within the recent constraining norms of identity politics. I also caution against psychologists indulging in identity politics campaigns. In my view, they jeopardise both our individual intellectual curiosity and our collective disciplinary credibility. They close down curiosity and merely demand that we adhere to new moral strictures in an unquestioning manner.

1 The legitimation crisis of British psychology

A view from British psychologists about anything of public policy relevance is being expressed from a position of weak legitimacy for two additive reasons. First, the body claiming to uphold academic values (the BPS) has proved itself to be neither a learned nor a learning organisation. That legitimation crisis has been evidenced by the following:

1 In recent times the BPS has lost one after another elected President and some have tried and failed to correct the evident dysfunction they encountered after their election. In 2020 no less than three departed over a two month period, with two resigning and one being expelled before their period of office was up. The last of these is now taking his case to an Employment Tribunal, which will lead to the inner workings of the BPS being exposed to forensic public scrutiny for the first time. In advance of this case being heard, those of us who have been campaigning to open up the BPS to public scrutiny, will outline their conclusions presently (Pilgrim, 2022a). We have recorded the process of the campaign on a blog and on Twitter, and these can be accessed immediately (; FakeBPSCommentary @psychsocwatchuk).

2 In 2020 a major fraud came to light, implicating a former employee. In January 2022 she was sentenced to 28 months in prison for defrauding the Society of over £70,000. She had been imprisoned in the past for a similar offence in two other organization (a total of 17 offences). The BPS appointed her despite this past record noted very publicly in the press. Since the turn of this century, other ‘financial irregularities’ in the Society have been dealt with by internal investigations and staff departures. The BPS membership has been kept in the dark about these events, with no account being offered in The Psychologist of the unfolding drama of the past two years.

3 The Charity Commission has been ‘engaged’ with the Society about its broken complaints process and its lack of adequate governance. However, to date this engagement has not ensured any observable organizational reform of substance. The Commission has received many expressions of concern from BPS members, and this pattern continues as the crisis fails to resolve. A particular challenge we face at present is that the Charity Commission itself has been ineffectual.

4 Whilst fair charges of misgovernance and corruption can be made about the BPS, these accusations have not been addressed publicly, or fairly and squarely, by the leadership of the Society. Instead, legitimate criticisms and queries have been ignored and denied.

5 For a year (between November 2020 and November 2021) the Chief Executive Officer of the Society was suspended in the wake of the fraud investigation noted in 2 above. His Finance Director was also suspended at the same time (November, 2020) but within a month he left to take up a new position at the National Lottery, while still under investigation.

6 Despite all of the above shenanigans, the leadership of the Society has failed to keep its members informed of the crisis. The BPS is allegedly a membership organization, and good practice, according to the Charity Commission, requires transparency and accountability from the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team. They have clearly failed in that regard.

7 This organizational turbulence reflects longstanding structural and cultural difficulties in the Society in recent decades.  At the heart of the problem is that the Board of Trustees is riven with conflicts of interest and it has no truly independent members (though some minor tinkering of about this basic fault has now emerged). Since the 1960s it has been a sham of a proper Board of Trustees, expected reasonably under charity law.

Not only but also…..

Even if the BPS were not a case study in organisational dysfunction (which currently it patently is) there is a second source of the legitimation crisis in British psychology, viz: the rise of methodologism in the midst of epistemological incoherence. For the first half of the 20th century, psychologists followed the tradition of British empiricism announced by Ward and Rivers (1904). For the second half it then struggled to adapt to the modish postmodern turn (Kvale, 1992). 

Squaring this circle has been a challenge for the discipline. During the twentieth century, it lurched between a positivist confidence in fact building (from a mixture of experimentalism and the actuarial approach) and a rejection of facts in preference for unending perspectives, narratives, discourses and discourses about discourses in the tradition of Nietzsche (Pilgrim, 2020). This left the discipline in a confused and confusing state, with the BPS tending to describe itself vaguely, but understandably, as a ‘broad church’. It is no longer clear what psychology as a science actually means (e.g. Smedslund, 2016; Snoeyenbos and Putney, 1980).

Today in the corridors of any psychology department that incoherence is apparent and the only remaining rhetoric of justification for a coherent disciplinary character is methodological rigour, with the compatibility of quantitative and qualitative methods being far from self-evident. Beyond ‘methodologism’ or the ‘methodological imperative’ (Gao, 2014) are a legion of psychological theories, some of which are aligned and some of which are totally incommensurable. 

Given this legitimation crisis, why should British psychologists at present have any policy plausibility or inspire public confidence? How can we appeal for the need for participatory democracy, when our own professional and disciplinary body is the very opposite of democratic? Given that those in the BPS, reporting in this special issue class discrimination, are themselves now part of middle class life, what point is exactly being made, beyond virtue signalling and special pleading?  

The meritocratic discourse of equal opportunity is unremarkable across our current political spectrum: who is formally against it in any major political party? Given that doxa in our political class, we tend to find a self-serving trope. We are offered stories of success or exclusion, which tend to centre on the moral virtue of being from a poorer background. However, it is a clouded window into understanding the complexity of social inequality. 

Like many others in my age cohort I came from a working class background and am now middle class. However, my personal experience (or anyone else’s in the same boat) really contributes very little to an understanding of social inequality. To mention it at all brings with it legitimate suspicions of hypocrisy and narcissism. It can have marketing value for multi-millionaire rock stars, who dress the part for their audiences (Womack et al, 2012). Politicians of left and right appeal to our sympathies and votes, when alluding to their humble origins. That same pattern is repeating in professional (note) organisations like the BPS. 

Asking individuals to illuminate societal functioning from their experience generates highly partial, and possibly misleading, forms of sociological understanding (Archer, 2000). Moreover, a transition from working class to middle class life entails accruing cultural power in a new position of influence, even if the cultural field is less powerful than that of the economic sphere (Bourdieu, 1984). To allude to one’s past working class credentials for current ‘street credibility’, as an oppressed person, is a form of having one’s cake and eating it. 

2 The problem of uni-disciplinary knowledge claims and interest work

Even if British psychology were not characterised by the above legitimation crisis, it would still have a remaining challenge. Psychology, like other disciplines, will be prone to oversell its relevance and encourage psychological reductionism in its own ranks, as well as for the publics it appeals to and relies upon for employment and status. The very fact that a ‘special issue’ of The Psychologist about social class was published, indicates the weak a priori authority psychologists have about it, or any other topic which is partially or wholly social, not individual, in character. 

These social phenomena can then become a bolt on consideration, with psychologists looking hither and thither for their special contribution.  This is not to say that psychology has nothing to offer (below I indicate what that is) but the pastiche of knowledge in the discipline of old fashioned positivism (pace Ward and Rivers) and the postmodern preoccupation with perspectives and narratives has led to disciplinary incoherence. What exactly is, or would be, ‘the psychology’ of social class (or any other social topic)? To answer that question, the discipline must first start with a good dose of epistemic humility, about its inner philosophical turmoil, largely un-reflected upon, and its relative ignorance about contributions from other disciplines. 

Moreover, in the latter regard, the forms of psychological insight that have been offered, and importantly have giving due weight to social context, may be little known in the ranks of trained psychologists. After all, ipso facto they are not economists, political scientists or sociologists. Their awareness of the existing and considerable literature in these other disciplines is likely to be absent or incidental. Accordingly, when outside inspiration is conceded by psychologists, then even the basic facts may be sketchy. 

This problem of the sketchy knowledge of psychologists of social and political science, is amplified by the epistemic background of those outside who, have made major contributions already to our understanding of the psychosocial aspects of social class. This has put to shame what psychologists have developed in comparison to date (e.g.Sennett, 2003). 

Moreover, the post-positivist and post-Marxian work of the later Frankfurt School speaks directly to those writing in this special issue (Habermas 1973; Honneth, 2007), while being steeped in sociological sophistication. Broadly those psychosocial insights have been offered by the incorporation of ideas from Weber, Marx and Bourdieu; three key contributors to our understanding of social class, who are not on the undergraduate curriculum in British psychology departments (to my knowledge). Some psychologists may have been blessed already with a ‘sociological imagination’ (Mills, 1959) but if that is the case, their teachers will not typically recognise and encourage its development. 

This is the epistemological context of psychological reductionism and the risks of psychology overselling its relevance, about a topic which has been explored already and over many decades by non-psychologists (Atkinson, 2015). Psychologists are not only ‘late to the show’, there is a risk that the confidence of uni-disciplinary reasoning creates an inflated sense of their own relevance or importance. 

All disciplines are prone to some extent to this mixture of arrogance and ignorance; this is not an accusation about psychology alone. It reflects the self-reinforcing role of the sub-division of intellectual labour in the modern academy, which is now an abiding obstacle to the interdisciplinary cooperation, required pragmatically in order to solve humanity’s considerable current challenges.

3 Psychological reductionism and social phenomena

A focus on protected characteristics brings with it an inherent risk of psychological reductionism. The emphasis will on individual rights and prospective victimhood. That focus became evident in Western cultures after the postmodern turn and was influential beyond psychology as a discipline. For example, the concept of intersectionality developed in the USA, within its own very particular cultural context of individualism, national exceptionalism and the demands of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 

Initially, intersectionality usefully illuminated complex social determinants of oppressions operating in synergy (Bell, 1973; Crenshaw, 1991). This was not reductionist about individuals but argued that overlapping social groupmembership placed some people at particular risk of oppression on average compared to those in other groups. Thus oppression was about supra-personal generative mechanisms in a shared social context and was thus a window into social determinants. 

However, individualism then crept in increasingly, with a shift away from intersecting socio-economic forces towards a kaleidoscope of subjectivities. Oppression then became more and more about individual victimhood and less and less about structural disparities of power and wealth. That alteration of focus, from objective complexity to subjective reporting, was encouraged by liberal third wave feminism and Queer Theory. These displaced the material focus of both old school social science and second wave feminism (Butler, 1990; Rubin, 1992).

From then on, social justice became defined by what individuals claimed about themselves. This culminated in our current context of identity politics (Pilgrim, 2022b). These have divided people against one another within an unending personalistic focus on epistemological privilege, self-righteous indignation, ‘calling out’, ‘cancel culture’, special pleading for particular groups and a morass of daily moralisations or ‘moral grandstanding’  (Tosi and Warmke, 2020).

Accordingly, our lives are increasingly governed now by what Loic Wacquant calls the ‘logic of the trial’, where we are all judge and jury but might find ourselves in the dock as well. With social media, this can lead to us being turned upon by the cyber-mob for saying the wrong thing, or even simply saying nothing (e.g. ‘white silence is violence’). Our careers can be ended and anonymous online death threats have become so prevalent that they are now unremarkable (e.g. ‘kill a TERF’).  

Equality and diversity training has become an industry on the back of this self-righteous civil chaos (Pluckrose and Lindsay, 2020; Williams, 2021) and people stopped talking calmly and analytically and began shouting at one another instead (Charles, 2020). Identity politics and their personalistic rationale have given comfort to the paedophile, the white supremacist and the feudal theocrat, not just those on the ‘woke’ left (François, and Godwin,2008; Belew, 2020; Hansen, 2021; O’Carroll, 1980; Sen 2006).

As Nancy Fraser noted in response to this unnerving scenario, there is little point in moralising angrily about what she called ‘parity of participation’ in relation to individuals, unless we also calmly consider and understand their conditions of possibility (i.e. their wider embedding social and economic divisions). This means shifting our focus from individuals to social, and even at times biological, material reality (Fraser, 1999; Flatschart, 2017; Benton, 1991). It also means returning to a supra-personal focus on capitalism, patriarchy and post-colonial legacies as social forces.  

With the emergence and new doxa of identity politics, the duality of social class as both an objective aspect of social ontology and a reported subjective experience explored by Marx, Weber and subsequently in deeper ways by Bourdieu was lost (Marx, 1859/1968; Weber, 1905/2001; Bourdieu, 1987). Suddenly the lop-sided priority was on personal experience and group membership. For identity politics this became the alpha and omega of understanding power. 

Psychological and cultural reductionism then awaits and this might cover up, not just expose, injustices, with policy makers exploiting the unending judgmental relativism of the postmodern era, with its appeal to linguistic variance.  Remember that under Thatcherism we had ‘health variations’ not ‘health inequalities’? Note how Rishi Sunak is being described as coming from a ‘humble background’ in his candidacy to replace Boris Johnson. Words alone are cheap and slippery, when we address social justice today and the postmodern turn is quite rightly also called the ‘linguistic turn’. Accordingly, here is the prescient insight of the humourist Jules Feiffer:

I used to think that I was poor. Then they told me that I wasn’t poor, I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy, I was deprived. Then they told me deprived was a bad image, I was underprivileged. Then they told me under-privileged was over-used, I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a cent but I have a great vocabulary.  (Feiffer, cited in Pilger, 1989)

A narrow preoccupation with protected characteristics and the valorisation of subjective identities and discourse, have encouraged this problem of class being unanchored from its objective context. We can easily forget that although ideas might indeed be causally efficacious, power also resides in the non-discursive realm of material reality (Bhaskar, 1997). The latter refers to our relationship to both nature and social structures.

Policy capture, consumerism and neoliberalism

A loss, or lack, of sophistication about both biological and social ontology has at times left organisations captured by group special pleading. An example here is the controversial emergence of the gender document produced by the BPS, driven by transgender activism. This has fed into the febrile and contested field of policy development about transgender healthcare (Pilgrim, 2021). 

In a similar manner, those aligned with the False Memory Society took charge of the BPS working group on memory and the law (Conway and Pilgrim, 2022). This use of the BPS as a vehicle for policy lobbying is now obvious (including in this case, the use of a special edition of The Psychologist to promote a particular cause). This scenario reflects a combination of weak membership engagement and poor governance at the centre, covered in the first section above. 

Those able and willing to put the hours in to pursue a particular policy goal can readily exploit that unhealthy structure. I have been party to such a capture myself in relation to documents on psychosis and psychiatric diagnosis. So my point here is about process not content. We all may have various preferences and value-judgements in relation to the latter but it is the process of weak democracy and poor governance in the BPS, which is at issue here.

Poor governance has also allowed those leading the organisation to make ex cathedra decisions and statements with no consultation. For example, the President of the BPS announced on social media (Ukraine flag always for now dutifully provided) that ‘we’ had decided to vote to expel Russians from the EPA. Maybe some Russian psychologists were under threat at home and maybe a dialogue with them might have been illuminating. But why bother with that sensitive approach to international dialogue, cooperation and support, which might require the effort of considered negotiations, when virtue signalling online is prioritised? Rapid fire clictivism now dominates civil life replacing proper deliberation about a complex world. As Charles (ibid) says of clictivism, in the vernacular, “it wants to be activism, but it can’t be arsed”.

In our neoliberal context, organisations (such as the BPS) are concerned to appeal to their ‘customers’ in a way that does not damage their income generation but rather improves it. More widely in the market place, the ‘pink pound’, the ‘grey pound’ and the ‘black dollar’ are precious commodities (Goulding, 1999; Matthews and Besemer, 2015; Yewande et al, 2020).

Cable sports channels can safely endorse Black Lives Matter (BLM) and ‘taking the knee’ to ‘root out racism on or off the field’ is a safe piety, which requires no critical analysis of the global soccer industry. The latter has been a place for kleptocrats to launder their money. It is a vehicle for upward social mobility for poor Africans and working class European youngsters. It has been a commercial opportunity to expand the gambling industry, which ruins countless lives. 

None of that complexity, inviting socio-economic analysis, is touched by virtue signalling from the rich and powerful to keep their customers satisfied by the marketing endorsement of BLM. After all, who would be pro-racist or admit to it publicly? Neoliberalism and identity politics fit hand in glove. This context of neoliberalism is an important driver of personalistic reasoning, the displacement of participatory or deliberative democracy by identity politics and the shift to the protected characteristics approach to social justice (Arendt, 2005). 

Apples and oranges

And if we do endorse such a protected characteristic listing of potential victimhood, then more analysis is required, if for no other reason, than it contains apples and oranges, when viewed ontologically not merely epistemologically. Under the current nine point listing two of them are fixed by biological ontology. Our sex is described (not ‘ascribed’) at birth or prenatally and is locked from cradle to grave by our chromosomes. The disadvantage then created by patriarchy, when brought up as a girl, becomes part of social ontology. 

Similarly, when we are born defines immutably the limits of our existence in time. Our life span is limited and so age is a non-discursive matter: we grow older and eventually we die.  That is a biological fact for all living organisms-we cannot talk our way out of this (Callinicos, 1993). On my deathbed, self-identifying as being alive with my last breath will not save me. As with our sex, we cannot defy the material constraints of the natural world by merely making subjective declarations, of the ‘I identify as X’ type. At this point social constructionism becomes a form of social psychosis (Craib, 1997). (The anti-realism of strong social constructionism in British psychology has been explored by Cromby and Nightingale (1999).)

However, elsewhere on the list, biology is still present but it is far less relevant. Other mammals may pair for sexual reproduction but they do not get married. They have no rich view of themselves as having a sexual orientation and your pet dog will have no religious identity or ever become a jihadist (Bentall, 2018). Our capacity for meta-cognitions and meta-statements bequeathed by evolution, given our enlarged cerebrum, affords our capacity to be both moral agents and rule following interdependent beings. Normativity is complex and shifts over time and place but it always exists as a driver of human societies. It is the source of political ideologies, which argue for the retention of current inequalities in a social order, or seek to transform them (Savage, 2000).

Thus, this nine point list contains items which are not ontologically equivalent. Social class if added, like race, is ambiguous because it is both a social ascription experienced personally as a matter of standing, status, honour or self-respect and it is derived from supra-personal socio-economic disparities (Wacquant, 2022 a&b). Psychology potentially has something to say about the former but it might be wise to leave expertise about the latter to social and political scientists and rapidly learn from them about what they already have had to say. 

Does psychology have anything meaningful to say about protected characteristics?

Given my criticisms above, this question remains pertinent. The contributors to the special issue on the one hand confess the ‘scant evidence’ in psychology and yet there is a massive failure (wilful or from ignorance) to concede that other disciplines have already addressed the topic at length. The ambivalence about positivism and perspectivism also is evident. There is angst about being able to measure social class as a fixed variable (the old positivist’s dilemma) but also a discursive focus on the stories that people tell about their lives and their possible identity confusion over time (the postmodern norm). 

These tensions are there too in social and political science more widely, but the difference is that they are directly acknowledged as both a theoretical question and one of methodological options. This has led then to a higher order discussion in sociology about reflexivity (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992; Donati and Archer, 2015). Such a higher order discussion is surely now required in psychology. At present that has started in a very personalistic place, tinged heavily with special pleading, i.e. psychologists reflecting on their own class position over time and talking about access to the discipline. However, this is a start of sorts.

For now, with their angst about measurement on the one hand and story-telling on the other, psychologists still have something to offer, as the contributors to the special issue make clear.  I would add some other opportunities from within. Social psychology has provided some useful material on new social movements, group dynamics and prejudice (e.g. Leyens et al 2000; van Zomeren, 2014).

Evolutionary and cognitive psychology inform us about slow and fast thinking. The latter is part of the current problem of binary reasoning in the dead end of identity politics, with its moral grandstanding (Dutton, 2020). The sub-text of special pleading by the various fractions of identity politics is one of ‘inside good, outside bad’ binary logic: ‘My group and I are virtuous and vulnerable but those outside are bad and guilty, until proven innocent, of victimising me’. 

Binary reasoning begets moral absolutism, which could be a topic of interest for psychologists, as moral philosophers have already noted (Neiman, 2011). The splintering divisions of identity politics ensure hostility not solidarity and these invite psychological description, interpretation and possible explanation, as social psychological phenomena. This might augment, empirically, the arguments made by those such as Neiman cited.

Psychologists might also put their own house in order (from the undergraduate curriculum upwards) about construct clarification and validity, especially in relation to biological and social attributions. For example, in relation to my point about apples and oranges on the nine point list, disability subsumes biological impairment (affecting the functional capability of all animals, not just humans) but also the normative evaluation of those impairments. The ‘social model’ of disability, with its emphasis on enablement and stigma, tends to focus on the social construction of disability but this is a matter of contention. 

Its application to mental health is even more problematic and note that the elephant in the room about the list is that psychiatric patients have their citizenship habitually constrained lawfully and without trial under ‘mental health law’, so called (Pilgrim and Tomasini, 2012). How is the Equality Act relevant to, or compatible with this, routine authoritarian override from agents of the state? Transgender politics are fraught and unresolved, with advocates of sex-based rights complaining about those politics reflecting a patriarchal “men’s movement” (Brunskill-Evans, 2020). Black feminists did not take kindly to the excesses of secessionist black power in the USA, dominated by a form of religious patriarchy (Allen, 1996; Collins, 2006). 

These are some examples, amongst many, of the divisiveness of identity politics and the zero-sum game of competing claims of personal oppression or victimhood. Psychologists may wish to research the character of those claims and the people who are making them. Despite the risk of psychological reductionism, my view is that complex research task warrants more, not less, psychological understanding. However, the latter requires the co-presence of a moderating and genuine sociological imagination. Without that, psychological reductionism will inevitably follow. 

The wide differences of point of view in the current chaos of identity politics and our ‘culture wars’ warrant considered personal exploration. Also surveys by political psychologists might offer information on fluxing views of the popularity of sub-group opinions today. If psychologists are genuinely interested in the topic of living with inequalities then campaigning for one sub-group will overly narrow their intellectual responsibility. 

Class more than the other nine pre-existing protected characteristics is tautologically about inequality (the clue is in the name), though some feminists make a similar argument and designate sex as a class. If the term inherently signals discrepancies of power, wealth, ownership and standing, then surely psychologists should also be interested in the rich and those in the middle, not just the poor and the powerless. For example, the very rich experience and express personal insecurity (Frank, 2008) and even our royals, with or without cynicism, episodically signal their psychological vulnerability. (In Britain in recent times we have witnessed one prince selling the Big Issue and another campaigning about mental health problems.) 

The search for connectivity with others and the wish to be seen as ‘ordinary’ is common in the super-rich, which is psychologically intriguing and warrants more research. A good role model about being open-minded in our research curiosity was the early work of Marie Jahoda, who included Nazis in her social psychological studies of prejudice. Studying all-comers about living with inequalities is surely our academic duty, which might be clouded and diverted by single issue public policy lobbying. 

Thus there is plenty for psychologists to work with, while retaining their tenuous disciplinary unity with its compromises about methodology. My view though is that before that exercise, psychologists should take a peek into what other disciplines have already achieved in relation to psycho-social insights, so that wheels are not re-invented. More importantly, in this case they may wish to reflect carefully on the risks of being swept along by the current norms of their own wider context, with its confusing wrong turn into the conservative cul-de-sac of identity politics. 

Studying identity politics (or the psychological character of ‘protected characteristics’) on the one hand, and embracing a campaigning loyalty to them as citizens on the other, are different matters. If they become conflated then surely the latter will undermine the former. Empirical detachment is particularly challenging in human science, because we are part of our own embedding context. The task is not impossible but it is difficult. This is the very reason why we need to reflect upon the best way to maximise its limits, when producing knowledge claims and defending respectful free expression about their merits. 

Today self-censorship in the academy has mirrored the wider acceptance of the suppression of freedom of expression, which might create a sense of temporary virtue but is not healthy for either knowledge production or democracy. Reflexivity includes humility, not certainty, and requires us to respect those we do not particularly like, as a focus of our academic curiosity. By contrast, identity politics demands that traditional cautions about ad hominem reasoning are dismissed and then actually inverted, with epistemological privilege, ‘perspectivism’ and the ‘logic of the trial’ now defining legitimacy. If we wish, as citizens, to indulge in identity politics campaigns that is a personal option. However, we do so at our peril, if we also want to retain credibility as human scientists.


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