The reaction was so cruelly disproportionate and unjust, Dr Katie Alcock felt like a criminal.
She was interrogated as if by the ‘secret police’ then expelled from Girlguiding, an organisation to which she’d devoted ten years of loyal, unpaid service.
Friends shunned her in the street. Some called off her daughter’s playdates. Katie, the sort of resourceful, intrepid, independent-minded person we’d entrust with our children’s care on outdoorsy adventures long enjoyed by Brownies and Guides, became a social outcast.
‘It was as if I’d been embezzling funds,’ she says. ‘I was afraid to speak to anyone in case I burst into tears. I was expelled from the Girlguiding unit I ran not long before my daughter was due to join it.
‘It was really distressing. Other mums who’d put the world to rights with me suddenly blanked me completely and cancelled playdates. I thought: Do they think I’m such an awful person; that I’ve done something dreadful?
‘I was treated no differently from a child abuser. Yet all I’d done was say that safeguarding children in Girlguiding should come before anything else.’
The reaction was so cruelly disproportionate and unjust, Dr Katie Alcock felt like a criminal. She was interrogated as if by the ‘secret police’ then expelled from Girlguiding, an organisation to which she’d devoted ten years of loyal, unpaid service
Katie, who led a flourishing unit of Guides, Brownies and Rainbows, is the latest in a series of women who have been pilloried and spurned for daring to speak out against the transgender rights directives.
However, this time it was not trans-rights lobbyists, but the eminently traditional and long-established organisation, Girlguiding (formerly the Girl Guides, founded in 1910), that had produced the regulations on transgender issues she’d had the foresight to question — with such calamitous consequences.
In a four-year battle, Katie brought a legal action against Girlguiding on the grounds that she had been discriminated against for her ‘gender-critical views’. And last week she reached an out-of-court settlement with the organisation, which had accrued a reported £100,000 in legal fees defending the case.
They agreed to pay a proportion of Katie’s legal costs and invited her to re-join the charity from which she’d been dismissed four years earlier.
‘Girlguiding has issued an apology of sorts,’ says Katie today, ‘and I’m relieved it’s all over. But I’m not enthusiastic about running a unit any more. In fact, I feel quite cynical about the organisational side of Girlguiding.’ As well she might.
Katie, in her 50s and a senior lecturer in psychology at Lancaster University, is married to Glyn, a civil servant, and is mum to a seven-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son.
Her concerns first surfaced in 2018 when, without consultation, Girlguiding instituted new policy directives on trans rights. As well as welcoming trans-women and girls into the organisation as patrol leaders, Guides, Brownies and Rainbows, worryingly it stated that these trans members could ‘share accommodation’ with girls and women.
To be clear on this directive — and Girlguiding was singularly opaque about it — they were referring to individuals born male who had transitioned or who identified as women and girls, even if they still had male genitalia.
This rang alarm bells with Katie, who had by then run her own unit of Guides, Brownies and Rainbows — welcoming 100 girls from all social and ethnic backgrounds and religions — in Lancaster for a decade.
Had she been less passionate about the movement she might not have pursued the case with such fervour, but Katie’s affiliation with the organisation goes back to her 1970s Warwickshire childhood when she joined the Brownies. She is pictured third from left on the front row
She felt that it could potentially allow a situation to exist where her charges could be put at risk.
‘When I found out that men who said they were women could sleep in the same tents as girls, share the same toilets and use the same changing rooms if they went swimming, I was really worried. I thought Girlguiding had made a mistake.
‘But when I contacted them about it they insisted they hadn’t. They said they had consulted Stonewall (the LGBT rights’ group) for advice and were following the law. As far as I was concerned, they were throwing the safeguarding of girls out of the window.
‘I don’t believe trans-women should face discrimination, but I don’t think they can change their biological sex. And I think, for the safeguarding, privacy and dignity of girls and women, they, or their parents, should be allowed to decide if they share spaces with someone of the opposite sex.’
She was also concerned that the policy effectively excluded from Guiding girls and women such as Muslims who needed to be in single-sex environments because of their religious beliefs.
Had she been less passionate about the movement she might not have pursued the case with such fervour, but Katie’s affiliation with the organisation goes back to her 1970s Warwickshire childhood when she joined the Brownies.
She revelled in its brand of robust, adventurous activity: it fostered initiative, self-reliance and independence. Indeed, it helped shape the person she is today.
Her mother was a teacher; her father an academic, ‘and Brownies was across the road and became my second home,’ she says. ‘We ran around a lot, made telephones out of tin cans, baked scones; went on pack holidays. Then I moved onto Guides and, as well as the cooking and sewing, there were lots of outdoor activities and camping. We were given lots of freedom. It was low-cost adventure, accessible to everyone.’
After school, she took a degree then worked in Zambia as a secondary school teacher. A PhD in psychology at Oxford followed then she worked in Tanzania on a research project before spending two years researching in the U.S..
Returning to London, she began helping at a Brownie group, setting up her own unit in Lancaster in 2007, having moved to the city three years earlier.
In keeping with the movement’s ethos, she set great store by inclusiveness: girls from Muslim, Hindu and a diverse range of other religious faiths were embraced. There were girls with learning disabilities and others referred by Social Services rubbing shoulders with grammar school pupils.
‘Many people think Guiding is predominantly white, middle-class and Christian, but it isn’t,’ she says. ‘It has a long history of being an inclusive movement.’
And her unit, next to Lancaster Castle — a working prison until 2011 — was far from exclusive: it shared its premises with a drop-in centre for relatives of prisoners.
However, comprehensive though her welcome was, she was deeply concerned when she discovered, through talking to other leaders early in 2018, that Girlguiding had unobtrusively slipped into its policy documents new directives on trans rights.
While happy that trans members should be welcomed into Girlguiding, she was deeply perturbed about sharing facilities. Indeed she had always been scrupulous to segregate girls and boys on overnight stays.
‘Even when I’d taken my then four-year-old son to camp we’d slept in a separate tent from the girls,’ she says, ‘And he’d go to the male toilets while I waited outside.
‘Then I found out that no separate arrangements were being made for biological adult males who said they were women; that they’d be sleeping in the same tents as Rainbows (aged four to seven), Brownies (aged seven to ten) and Guides (up to age 14).
‘I was really worried because predatory male paedophiles will go to any lengths to gain access to young girls. Girlguiding had an almost zero rate of child sexual abuse. It had never happened. Any abuse had been by adult men in Scouting. But now it seemed they’d be opening the door to the possibility — and blatantly throwing the safeguarding of girls out of the window. This shocked me.’
Keen to challenge this, Katie wrote to Girlguiding’s HQ and asked why there had been no consultation on such a contentious issue — but was told, emphatically, that the rules had been set and there would be no further communication on the subject.
‘I was told, ‘We’re not changing anything. You just have to put up with it.’ I felt utter shock and disbelief.’
In spring 2018 she set up a private social media group, inviting nine other unit leaders who shared her concerns. ‘I wanted to discuss the matter because I felt many leaders didn’t fully understand the implications of the new trans policies.
‘We wanted to evolve a strategy: how would we talk to parents about this? I pointed out, too, that Girlguiding was a single sex group, but how could it continue to be if it admitted members with male genitalia?’
However, so febrile was the atmosphere around the debate that one Guide leader, who had infiltrated the group, made a complaint about Katie’s views. A four-month inquiry followed during which Katie was interrogated by the organisation’s human resources investigator.
‘It was like being questioned by the secret police in some totalitarian state. I felt like a criminal,’ she says.
The inquiry concluded she had breached the organisation’s social media rules by airing her concerns online; even though she had only done so to a small, closed group. It also ruled she had broken Guiding’s ‘code of conduct’ by refusing to adhere to its equality and diversity policy on transgender inclusion.
In September 2018 she was duly summoned to a meeting with the organisation’s County Commissioner for North-West Lancashire. Faced with an ultimatum — to back down or lose her unpaid post — she refused to rescind her views and was duly expelled.
The atmosphere in the meeting room, at a Lancaster hotel, was forbidding and punitive.
‘I asked if I could bring a friend and was told I could, but she couldn’t speak. I was told I could take notes, but not take them away with me. It was like having my crimes read out in a secret court with no right of reply.
‘I said I’d follow all the trans policies as long as they didn’t conflict with safeguarding. I thought I’d done the right thing in not speaking out on a public social media site and that Girlguiding would applaud me for being concerned about safety. But they objected to both those things.
‘They read a letter out to me saying I was expelled and I wanted to leave the room immediately. I couldn’t hold it together. I was shaking, fighting back tears.
‘I was due to have a meeting of a new Rainbows group the next day — my daughter had been looking forward to joining — and I rang one of the parents in tears and said, ‘Don’t come.’
‘For years other leaders had been telling me I was doing a great job, encouraging girls who wouldn’t normally go into Guiding to join; organising the sort of adventures for them I’d loved as a child and mentoring young leaders.
‘Then suddenly I was being told I couldn’t attend meetings any more; even if my daughter was there.
‘Parents are the backbone of every unit; their help is crucial. And I knew my daughter wouldn’t be confident enough to go to Rainbows without me, so she was effectively barred, too.’
Katie was shunned by friends; other leaders spurned her. ‘I was distraught; struggling to function or talk to people. If they asked how I was I started crying.’
In January 2019 she lodged an appeal against her expulsion. It failed. Her distress began to turn into anger. She was determined not to back down and resolved to pursue a discrimination case against Girlguiding.
Backed by employment lawyer Peter Daly of Doyle Clayton and buoyed by the generosity of crowdfunding supporters who donated more than £50,000 to help fund her case, she brought her legal action.
It was finally settled out of court last week and she has pledged to return surplus funds for the use of gender critical litigants fighting similar battles to hers.
But, she concludes, the organisation is still ‘tying itself up in knots’ over its trans policy. Certainly its statement to this newspaper seems to bear this out: it is anything but clear, transparent and accessible.
‘Girlguiding hasn’t changed its trans-inclusive equality and diversity policy,’ it states.
‘As a girl-only charity we accept members who are biologically female (under the protected characteristic of sex) and those whose gender is a girl or woman (under the protected characteristic of gender reassignment)
‘Girlguiding remains proudly trans inclusive,’ it goes on, ‘with our trans-inclusive equality and diversity policy grounded in the Equality Act 2010. We will continue to review all policies regularly, in line with evolving guidance and the law.’
It has also agreed with Katie, that as part of its ‘diversity and inclusion strategic plan’ it will, ‘engage with new members, volunteers, parents, carers and girls to ensure our inclusive policies and procedures, and what they mean in practice, are easy to understand.’
A victory of sorts, perhaps. Meanwhile Girlguiding has lost a dedicated leader and an impassioned proponent of the rights of girls to develop into adventurous, independent and free-thinking young women.