I was delighted this month to have two pieces published in Beyond the Binary, an online magazine for non-binary trans people. The first of these addresses the over-simplification of trans people’s experiences, and how when we are training in this subject this can actually be alienating for the audience. The article can be found here.
“people get a much better connection to trans issues in general if non-binary is properly included, and they are not sold a simplified version of trans realities”
Much of the trans awareness/cultural competence training I do is in educational settings – schools, colleges and universities. Last week I found myself at EMFEC training staff from a number of institutions alongside the impressive and trans-famous Lee Gale. My job was to take the afternoon slot and help the assembled professionals think about best practice.
My background as a school and university counsellor gives unique insight into the impact of structures and practices on trans students.
I promised the attendees I would pull together what we had learned into a “10 tips” document for education similar to the one I did for the workplace. Here is that document in handy pdf poster format, and below I give a more in-depth look at these recommendations:
Thanks to all the professionals present who got involved in the exercise to consider the needs of trans students , and to Lee for live Tweeting the whole thing. Here are my 10 tips in full:
1. Education, Education, Education
Or more precisely, training. Cultural competence takes work, and without cultural competence, people will either blunder badly (unconscious incompetence) or walk on eggshells (conscious incompetence). Trans lives are not well known about and there is a lot of misinformation out there. As always, go to credible sources and promote knowledge in any way you can. Remember, harm can be done through well meaning ignorance. But even trans people know we can never know everything – we are all still learning.
Recommendation 1: Mandatory training for all staff (because not all trans students will be known to you) and governors. Gender variance talked about competently and in a non-pathologising way in classes such as PHSE, psychology and sociology. Intersex conditions learned in biology. Trans people visible – on posters, in the curriculum, books in the library.
2. Celebrate trans people and gender variance
A celebratory culture challenges all its assumptions about gender and applauds those who see things differently. It makes space for people to be different. Trans people are only a “problem” if we don’t accommodate them, and trans kids only have a frighteningly high suicide rate because of the way society treats them.
Celebrate anything that challenges gender stereotypes and remember to talk about the trans community during LGBT History month. Share words and images of how gender and gender variance is expressed differently in different cultures across the world.
3. Reduce gender segregation
Trans girls, (assigned male at birth but living as girls), should be allowed to use girls toilets (and vice versa) if they want to, and it would be discriminatory to prevent them. However, gender segregation remains a headache for trans people, causing untold anxiety – particularly for non-binary trans people, but not only for them. Research also shows that emphasising sex differences can lead to girls under-performing.
Recommendation 3: Reduce segregation as much as possible. With sports, toilets, dress codes and roles there are often ways around the traditional way of doing things. Don’t wait for a trans or non-binary student to show up before you make those changes, because they will benefit everyone and undermine sexism.
4. Be conscious of what story your language tells
The papers tell stories of trans women who “used to be men”, of “sex change” and “having the op”. People often fixate on what is between trans people’s legs and possible medical changes we might make, rather than who we are and how we experience the world. Medicine and psychology treat being trans like an illness that has to be cured. For most trans people, these are narrow and inaccurate stories about a complex and varied experience.
It’s important to allow people to use different words to express their experience of gender without recoiling from “all these labels”. The more stories we hear, the more nuance we allow, the better we will understand.
Recommendation 4: Be aware of the diversity of language, stories and experience that exist within the trans community. Learn what language hurts or fails to describe trans people. Gender neutral language is a must; find alternatives to expressions like “boys and girls”. Assume nothing about the gender of the person/group you are addressing. Here’s my handy trans language guide.
5. Don’t “out” trans people
Never assume that a trans person wants their trans status to be shared, and that “outing” them may cause harm, as well as contravening legislation. Students may be “out” in some parts of their life but not in others – to family but not to school, or vice versa.
Recommendation 5: Be clear with a trans student exactly what they want shared and with whom. Consider ways in which they could be accidentally outed – e.g. in letters home. Ensure historic name changes and other details do not resurface to expose transitioned students. Know your duties under equality and data protection law.
6. Use inclusive admin systems
Some admin systems are the bane of trans peoples lives: Boxes that ask us sex rather than gender; options that are limited to male or female; insistence on titles (even though these are not legally necessary); and systems that make it difficult or impossible to change our names. These are not small issues because they continually invalidate who we are.
6. Recommendation: Use best practice guidance from Scottish Transgender Alliance on monitoring forms and where gender needs to be asked. If a student cannot legally change their name yet, make sure their “known as” name is what is used. If they have a deed poll, this is a legal document and should be accepted. Alert students to potential issues with exams and certificates – think ahead, and draw up protocols.
7. Rethink Safeguarding
Trans young people are extremely vulnerable to bullying and abuse, including sexual abuse. One of the main reasons for this is that social isolation makes it easier for trans people to be victimised – they are less likely to have people looking out for them, less likely to be listened to, more likely to be seen as attention seeking if they try to speak up about something that has happened.
Because of this, it is essential to re-orientate your thinking – stop thinking of trans people as risky, think of them as at risk and centre them. Support, inclusion, and open lines of communication are far better tools for keeping young people safe than mere vigilance.
7. Recommendation: Don’t isolate trans people – encourage them to form peer support groups and have people to talk to, allow trans kids to be accommodated with their identified gender as much as possible. Focus on the known safeguarding risk (high risk of abuse and suicide for the trans person) rather than imagined risk (trans person somehow overcoming their social stigma and marginalisation enough to have the power to harm other students).
8. Zero tolerence for misgendering and transphobia
Transphobia comes in subtle and blatant forms and is sometimes overlooked by people who see being trans as a choice (hint: it’s not). Trans students who get ridiculed, bullied or excluded are not “asking for it”, and are not somehow extra brave and able to cope with stares, slights, insults and violence.
Misgendering can do a lot of harm, even though it is mostly unintended. Examples are referring to a group that includes a trans boy as “girls”, using incorrect pronouns and gendered words about a person. Though it may seem harmless, it indicates to the trans person the way someone else is thinking about them is at odds with the way they see themself. This undermines the trans person’s sense of self, particularly for non-binary people who have little recognition. As it happens time after time, it can be very damaging.
Recommendation 8: Set a continuous tone of accepting and including trans people, even if trans students are not visible. Act swiftly in response to any transphobia, don’t let it slide. Actively correct any misnaming or misgendering – if it’s you, apologise and move on quickly. Don’t make a big deal about it.
9. Use a person-centred approach
It’s all too easy to make assumptions about what is right for someone else, but really we are all the experts on our own lives, and trans people are no exception. When we think we know better than trans people we make the fatal mistake of thinking our lack of understanding is caused by a flaw in their thinking rather than a flaw in our understanding.
Remember also that trans people may be dealing with multiple issues – a higher incidence of autism, a higher incidence of mental health issues due to trauma, isolation and abuse, as well as all the other things people have to deal with in life. To misquote Dr Stephen Shore, if you’ve met one trans person, you’ve met one trans person.
Recommendation 9: Listen. Take the time to find out what feels safe and comfortable to the trans person. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t assume you know better.
10. No Gatekeeping
It is unbelievably hard to get treatment as a trans person, despite the fact that overwhelmingly the evidence indicates treatment for those that want it (not all do) is beneficial. This is particularly true for trans children.
Once a trans person gets to a gender clinic, they will still have a very long wait and face a lot of “gatekeeping”. During this wait, some may be suffering as their hormones change their body in ways they don’t want. Extra delays can cause real harm.
Let trans people, including kids, do their thing; it is likely to be harmful to put extra barriers in their way, or be resistant, disbelieving or disapproving. Some trans people experiment with identity before hitting the right formula – that’s okay too, there should be room for diverse self-expression and exploration. It’s healthy.
Recommendation 10 : Just allow the trans person to live as they want to live, and make the necessary referrals as quickly as possible. Unless you’re a highly qualified expert on trans people, it is probably best not to make your own judgement about them or try to intervene in the process they are undergoing.
Last Wednesday I gave a talk to a local ACAS Equality and Diversity Forum about the challenges of being trans, and particularly non-binary, in the workplace. Here are my top tips to help employers make their trans staff and customers feel safer, happier and more productive.
Too long to read? Download a quick 10 tips poster in printable format here:
When at most 1 in 200 people are trans, it’s understandable we are not well understood. Increased visibility is in some ways making this worse, as misinformation is being shared widely in the media. People tend to think they know more than they do. In fact, gender identity is such a complex subject even trans people like myself have to study hard to become competent to talk about the diversity of our community. A lot of listening is required, and a lot of challenging assumptions, complacency, and the unconscious biases we grow up with around gender.
Some people worry about “walking on eggshells” around trans people. One way to avoid this is for trans people to never correct mistakes and to just smile when people get things wrong. Another perhaps better way is for people, including trans people from different groups and communities, to educate themselves and learn to listen.
Recommendation 1: Trans people are different and have different needs, which require learning. Treating people all the same is not enough (see picture for what that looks like).
Go to credible trans sources for information – not the media, not just the trans person you happen to know, and not LGBT organisations (e.g. Stonewall) who may not have yet become culturally competent on trans issues themselves. see the resources section of this website for some ideas.
2. Language matters
Language tells a story about how the world is – the wrong language can be powerfully misleading. The most common misuse of language with trans people is the idea that we change from one thing to another – “sex change”, “used to be a man”, “born a girl”, and other common phrases used in the media tell a story of ordinary people “changing themselves”. Although we have not all known forever just exactly who we are, for most trans people the experience of being and feeling different is lifelong, and any process of transition we go through is more about becoming visible as ourselves than it is about changing from one thing to another. For non-binary people, transition can be complicated and not have a clear end “goal”, but our experiences and how we express ourselves are just as valid and authentic.
Recommendation 2: Treat a trans person as if they’ve just revealed their secret identity, and that’s who they always were. Even when you talk about them in the past, they were that person, you just didn’t know. Stick to the right names, gendered words and pronouns all the time.
3. Does everything really need to be gendered?
It’s worth checking in with the findings of the recent parliamentary Transgender Equality Inquiry to understand the challenges trans people face, particularly non-binary people. One recommendation of the enquiry is that we don’t actually need to enshrine gender in law the way we currently do. We don’t enshrine other differences, such as race or other physical features, into a legal identity, and we don’t have to put those differences endlessly onto forms. Yet we can still protect people on the grounds of those differences.
What if we just ditched the M or F, the Mr, Mrs, Miss, and treated people as people? This helps make for a less sexist workplace, too.
Recommendation 3: Review all the ways you record gender and all the gendered practices of your organisation. Ask yourself critical questions about why they are needed. Write the answers down. Do they bear scrutiny? Clothing rules and uniforms that are gendered can be difficult not just for trans people. Do we really use titles enough these days to need to include them on job application forms? Monitoring gender and gender identity are, of course, fully legal and highly recommended, see the Scottish Transgender Alliance guidelines.
4. Misgendering Matters
Misgendering happens in lots of ways. From telling a trans man he is a “mother” to asking a trans woman not to use women’s toilets, they are subtle and unsubtle ways of reminding a trans person they do not fit someone’s idea of what a man or woman should be. It’s even harder for non-binary people who don’t want to be gendered, but just as important to get right. Most misgendering is accidental rather than malicious, and comes in the form of slip-ups about names and pronouns. What’s important to understand is that even though no harm was meant, these incidents can be deeply hurtful and humiliating for a trans person. For a start, they happen a lot, so they have that drip, drip, drip effect, and for second, they remind the trans person constantly that the world really struggles to adjust to and accommodate the reality of trans identities.
Recommendation 4: Take misgendering seriously and realise the pain it causes. If you do it accidentally, apologise and move on. If it happens maliciously, treat it as the transphobia it is. And understand that trans people try to be easygoing about this stuff, but sometimes when it’s happened for the 1000th time, we snap. We don’t mean to. Please be kind and let it go if we do.
5. Don’t assume it’s going to be a problem
I was once asked in an interview how my clients deal with me being transgender. It has actually never been an issue, let alone a problem, with any of my clients, but clearly my interviewer was anticipating some difficult reaction – this in itself was a highly stigmatising experience for me.
Recommendation 5: Don’t anticipate problems, and set an accepting, congratulatory tone (rather than worried/shamed) to model a positive response. If a customer or colleague does have a problem, don’t centre their needs and prejudices.
6: Work Can be a sanctuary
Transition can sometimes throw families and relationships into turmoil. Trans people face higher levels of domestic abuse, estrangement, lack of acceptance and relationship break down. They also face problems with hate crime and abuse in their communities. Their workplace can be an oasis during this time. Or if not handled well, it can just be another place where they feel like a problem and not fully accepted.
Recommendation 6: Commit to being supportive, kind and understanding. Regular meet-ups to check in and an open door policy work wonders. Appreciate the mental health impact of being trans. Understand the employee may be openly trans at work but not at home, and allow them the facilities, such as space to get changed, to allow them to do this.
7: We are not all about surgery
Trans people, whether binary or non-binary, sometimes have surgeries, and sometimes don’t. Sometimes we take hormones, and sometimes not. There are lots of different surgeries and treatments. Sometimes we have them to feel more comfortable with our bodies, and sometimes we have them to be more socially accepted. Sometimes it’s a bit of both. What’s important to know is that surgery and hormonal treatment does not make us who we are.
If we are prescribed treatment on the NHS, it should also be understood that qualified doctors have decided that treatment is in our best interests and may well save our lives.
Recommendation 7: Treat all medical leave in the same way you would if an employee was being treated for cancer. Do not assume what treatment, if any, they will have. Do not wait until they’ve had treatment to consider them fully as who they say they are. And hopefully it goes without saying, never talk about a person’s genitals, they’re called private parts for a reason.
8: There are trans people already here, you just don’t know it
You can’t always tell someone is trans just by looking at them. Many trans people make a decision not to transition, or live lives where they are out as trans in some parts of life, but not at work. Many transitioned trans people live quietly as themselves without anyone knowing they have a trans history.
Recommendation 8: Make sure you have policy in place for trans people – they should be explicitly mentioned in E&D policies, and you should follow best practice guidelines such as these, released by the government. You also need a protocol ready for when a staff member comes out. Such a policy should take you through things like putting regular support in place, how and to whom any change will be communicated, name change, legal requirements, and eliminating their previous identity fully from documents and IT systems. Also have a best practice policy for trans customers/clients – for instance, not gendering people over the phone by voice alone, and not using sir/madam or other gendered greeting words unless you know how a person identifies themself. This makes for a trans-positive environment for customers and workers.
9: Understand the challenges trans people face in the workplace
Total Jobs recently did a survey that came up with some alarming findings about how things are for trans employees. It also highlighted particular difficulties for non-binary employees.
Recommendation 9: Digest and reflect on the survey findings, and ask how your organisation can learn from them. Be aware of the kinds of subtle micro-aggressions trans employees might face that can easily be dismissed as harmless or irrelevant, but may add up to a pattern of bullying and marginalising.
10. Celebrate Diversity
Stonewall says “We know that people perform better when they can be themselves”. What better way to signal that a workplace allows people to be themselves than one that is trans-positive? Happy, content trans employees are an asset. They signal: It’s ok to be ourselves here; We are a forward thinking organisation; We want to get the best out of people; We value difference and diversity; We are a kind employer and a comfortable workplace; We think outside the box.
Recommendation 10: Be celebratory of difference, let everyone know it as an asset that will make your organisation stronger.