By Aspel Brown and Natalia Jorquera, ITV News
An ITV News investigation has found an increasing number of transgender people are turning to crowdfunding websites to pay for surgeries because the NHS waiting times are so long.
Our study has found thousands of people across England are facing over three years of referrals and appointments before they can even start the process for surgery.
In a group where mental health issues are so prominent, many are using online communities to fast-track the system and help them feel comfortable in their bodies.
Melz Yaa has never wanted to be bracketed as a man or a woman and considers themselves non-binary in gender.
They started transitioning over a year ago and was quoted a two-year wait for their first appointment at the Leeds Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) - the services offered to help treat and support people for issues relating to gender.
“I could be waiting up to five years plus since my referral before I can actually have the top surgery that will actually change my life so much,” Melz told ITV News.
Despite knowing they were transgender from a young age, Melz faces the prospect of being 30 before even meeting a surgeon who can remove their breast tissue.
Turning to the online community to crowdfund presented itself as the only way to fast-track the process and pay for a private surgeon.
More than 3,000 transgender people have also followed the same route on the popular website GoFundMe.
Under the search ‘transgender surgery’, a fifth of the top 1,000 pages were by people from the UK.
Those people are asking for as little as £250 to help with consultations and up to £32,000 for facial surgeries.
Transgender people can face over three years of referrals and appointments before they start the process for surgery.
The Leeds GIC - where Melz is registered - is currently four-fold oversubscribed, with 100 new referrals a month compared to the 27 patients they are able to see.
There are seven NHS GICs across England and their replies to ITV News showed the most recent average waiting times can vary from region to region:
Devon: 22 weeks
Leeds and York: 100 weeks
London and South East: 56 weeks
Northampton: 86 weeks
Northumberland Tyne and Wear: 53 weeks
Nottingham: 93 weeks
Sheffield: 56 weeks
”It only took me 15 days to raise the money for my surgery which was literally mind blowing considering the amount of money, I genuinely didn’t think it would happen, let alone in that short amount of time.”
After being told he would have to wait two to three years for a first appointment, Stephan Kyriacou set a £5,000 fundraising goal online - an amount he exceeded in just a few weeks.
With a recent study from Stonewall finding around half of transgender people have considered taking their own life, the lengthy wait for surgery can lead to mental difficulties, according to the people who spoke to ITV News.
Stephan said: “My dysphoria was pretty bad, but it was almost made worse by the fact that I knew that I was going to have to wait even longer when I'd already been binding for five years and wanted top surgery the whole time.”
It’s a feeling Luke Levine recognises from before he successfully fundraised for his operation this year.
“I couldn't face going out into a world where everyone saw me as the gender that I knew that I wasn’t,” Luke told ITV News.
NHS England told ITV News it’s attempting to reduce the current waiting times and have almost doubled investment since 2015, from £2.6 million to £5.7 million.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “Demand for gender identity services continues to rise as more people feel able to come forward for support and treatment, and we’ve increased investment to respond to the rising demand for these services, with staff working hard to reduce waiting times for patients.”
But Doctor Eli Joubert Clinical Psychologist at Leeds and York GIC thinks funding alone is not enough.
”It is not just having more money to have more staff, it’s also that there aren’t sufficiently trained and experienced staff,” he said.
“We need to be realistic about this demand nationally and internationally - to my knowledge - it’s not plateaued yet - it’s an increasing demand, even if we have our dream scenario, it would ideal for a short period of time.”
But for people like Melz - who has now raised over £8,000 in just over three months - the idea of transgender people continuing in this way will become the norm.
Melz said: “I’ve now booked consultations with top surgeons that I'm interested in going with and that would not have been the case if I was still on the NHS waiting list.”
“It’s not cosmetic surgery, it’s lifesaving surgery.”