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.
The following is a transcript of my talk at the Five Leaves Bookshop event on LGBT Hate Crime. I would particularly like to thank Onni Gust for their assistance in my research and structuring of the talk, the US organisation Against Equality for their excellent resources on the subject, and Dee Fairchild for her proof-reading and encouragement.
This talk is going to be challenging, and I also want to give a content warning for discussions of various kinds of violence, including sexual violence. I spent a lot of time researching what I have to say today, and I hope to boost perspectives from parts of my community that have less of a voice.
I want to focus on the experiences of the trans community, but most of what I have to say is applicable to other minorities who experience hate crime.
When you are part of the trans community, hate crime becomes an everyday thing. Most of the trans women I know, and many of the trans men and non-binary people I know, have experienced hate-motivated violence – stabbing, beating, sexual assault, corrective rape, having their doors kicked in, vandalism and offensive graffiti on their homes, to name but a few. What is alarming is that most hate crime towards the trans community goes unreported. We know that reported hate crime against trans people is disproportionately high – government put it at 1% of crimes reported. That doesn’t sound much but when trans people represent more like only a quarter to a half percent of the population, that’s a lot. We also know from research by London LGBT charity Galop that as much as 80% of crimes against trans people go unreported.
My own personal experience of hate was of being driven close to suicide due to online harassment and defamation of character. This was from organised and socially powerful individuals who campaign tirelessly against the rights and recognition of transgender people. At one point things got so bad I did turn to the police out of desperation. They were kind but unhelpful and uneducated on trans issues. I learned that there is no such thing in law as hate speech against trans people, and no protection for us against incitement to hate crime.
“there are no incitement provisions around the stirring of hate towards trans people, but yet there are those provisions for other groups. Interestingly there aren’t provisions for disabled people either, so it’s very much the trans community and people with physical and learning disabilities who are left out of the equation when it comes to the incitement of hate.”
He goes on to say:
“It’s frustrating that on the one hand we tell the trans community that we’re there for you, come and report your incidents and somebody will listen to you and that we want to learn from your experiences, but on the other hand we don’t have equivalent hate crime provisions as we do for the other monitored strands.”
So one of the barriers, then, is a lack of parity in law. But it gets more complicated still, because all the laws in the world will never put any but the most extreme and marginal figures before the courts. Trans people are currently in a position where most people are ill-informed about us, disrespectful reporting is standard, and academics and media representatives can say the most outrageous things about us without any loss of reputation, let alone other sanctions. In fact, it is becoming quite popular to take verbal pot-shots at our community in order to boost a waning academic career or increase ratings.
Our community’s surge in visibility and initial gaining of rights and recognition is double edged in this respect, as this shift in power we have experienced can be seen as threatening to some. That we have gone from utterly powerless to only slightly less so is not the point, the point for some is that we have shifted out of our place in society, and those people seek to put us back in our place.
It is this general climate of disrespect that is the background to hate crime against us, which can leave us sometimes feeling as if the general society message is that it’s socially acceptable to make fun of us, disrespect us, delegitimize us, look down on us, just so long as nobody steps over any lines.
“Those people we’ve spoken to through our research who’ve experienced transphobic hate crime have talked about there being a direct relationship between media representation and their experiences of hostility, discrimination and even violence. I think that’s where real problems are when it comes to media reporting and can have some serious consequences for people. I do definitely believe that there’s a correlation between representations through the media, and even political representations, the language we use, the normalisation of stereotypes, I think there’s a direct link between that and experiences of hostility.”
Meanwhile, media representation of hate crime often also subtly manipulates our attention towards other vulnerable communities, pitting us against each other. Last year a friend of mine was in local news following a series of hate attacks. What’s wrong with the people of Mansfield? Was the question asked on local radio about her experiences. They problematised this poorer and more insular community. When in a related radio interview I tried to turn the tables on the media for their representation of trans people, they simply did not put my piece on air. But I feel the media hold structural power in this situation far more than the street-level folk of Mansfield, and it is their influence that perpetuates the problems we experience.
That great thinker and renaissance man Akala has something similar to say on the subject of race:
“all this nonsense about people being racist because they’re frustrated about their lives is totally classist, what we’re saying is only working class people are racist . . . racism was not invented by working class people, it was invented by elite academics . . . and perpetuated as part of political policy – from the top down, not the bottom up”
I think what he says is equally true of transphobia. It is academia, government and the media that support the structural inequalities that make hate crime possible.
Another concerning phenomenon to me is the way the media presents LGBT hate crime overseas. We often ignore the way our own culture has framed and intervened in the countries where homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are rife. We disregard the fact that war stirs up other kinds of violence, so that for instance we talk about oppressive crimes under ISIS or in Afghanistan in the context of Islam rather than the context of a war torn country. Meanwhile the media largely ignored the rounding up of trans people into camps in troubled but then right wing and Christian Greece in 2013. We talk about India and Uganda’s attitudes to LGBT people without mentioning it was the British Empire that exported those attitudes. In doing this, we reinforce our rights to intervene in these countries or judge them. Hate crime is exploited to reinforce Western dominance and superiority.
Is it possible that our focus on hate crime legislation also serves to pit the vulnerable against the vulnerable in a similar way?
I am reminded of my former work in domestic violence. I quickly learned that those brought before the court to answer for their attacks on women do not accurately reflect the structures of power that are in place against women. When I went to observe the domestic violence courts in action I was shocked to see a parade of vulnerable, generally young men, many with poor mental health, many of them black, almost all of them from deprived backgrounds. True power does not get itself caught up in the justice system. It knows what it can get away with and it also makes the laws and runs the structures that govern us.
We know that many marginalised minorities are over-represented in the prison population. For trans people this is no different, and the reasons are complex and multi-layered. Trans people suffer disproportionately from poor mental health which is directly related to lack of social support, discrimination, poor healthcare, poor housing, unemployment and psychological trauma. Trans people are less likely to be in employment, and more likely to be harassed or discriminated against at work. Trans people are even more likely than other LGBT people to become homeless or be poorly or vulnerably housed. Massive health inequality was recently flagged up in the Government’s Transgender Equality Inquiry as a major issue for the trans community. As with many oppressed communities, drug and alcohol abuse are issues within our community. Some of our medicines, if not prescribed to us, are considered class C drugs, and of course some of us in desperation turn to illegal markets for the drugs we need. Trans people are more likely to live in poverty. Trans people are more likely to find opportunities through sex work when there is a lack of other opportunity, and when we are sexualised and objectified. Trans people are more likely to experience sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Trans people’s experience of domestic violence is disproportionately high. We are often, as with other LGBT people, considered the aggressors if we defend ourselves against attack, simply because people look on us with prejudice.
So, like most other minorities, we are thought to be over-represented in the prison system, and we might not always feel that prison is the answer in the way others who have never brushed with the law might feel. And we might not feel safe and trusting to approach the police. We might not expect a fair hearing. We don’t always act like the model minority and our sometimes messy lives may invite more judgement than sympathy.
If we are people of colour, if we are from deprived areas, if we are sex workers, if we have poor mental health, if we are asylum seekers or immigrants, then we may be even less likely to feel the police are there to protect us.
We might also feel that sending hate criminals to prisons when many of us are in those prisons is not going to reduce harm to our community, and so we might feel ambivalent about enhanced sentences for hate crime. Particularly when we know that 75% of prisoners reoffend when they come out. Particularly when we know that non-custodial sentences can be better at reducing offending. Particularly when we know that the legislation is not actually reducing crimes against us.
When it comes to the police, many of us in the trans community are sincerely grateful for how much things have changed for the better. But there’s still a long way to go. Some of us are white and able and middle class and have never felt ourselves to have a complicated relationship with law enforcement. Those people often have the biggest voices, too. But we need to really work at understanding how different the experience is for those of us from even more marginalised communities. Those of us who have mental health difficulties or are neurodivergent, those from communities of colour, those who are sex workers, those who are vulnerably housed and homeless or live in poverty, those who are addicted to substances, those who have uncertain immigration status or are seeking asylum. We need, as a community, to protect and include those vulnerable people and that means putting their needs first and foremost, including showing understanding that they may not view the police as a protective presence.
The hard work has to come from the police and not from us, and the police need to be big and strong enough not to be upset and offended when we are critical. Or when we ask for them to do better for those most vulnerable, or listen to us more, or not put themselves into the middle of our social organising until we’re sure everyone feels safe about that.
Some, such as academic Wendy Brown, have argued that hate crime legislation creates an illusion of equality whilst in fact reinforcing structural power. It increases the power of the state over its citizens. It justifies the need for greater law enforcement and increased incarceration. At the same time it devolves power away from the community and towards the state, asking the community to trust and look up to its protection, even as the state continues to perpetuate legislative inequalities.
This may be an extreme way of looking at things, but at a time when we seem to be questioning whether we can afford to look after our vulnerable citizens I find it somewhat puzzling that we still feel we can afford to incarcerate them.
Prison is expensive. The yearly cost of just one inmate could fund a full time school counsellor. The cost of incarcerating one person could fund two full-time workers raising awareness of trans issues in schools and colleges. As prisons become privatised, we start to suspect that our traumas are being exploited to create inventory for these businesses, while tackling the underlying issues that create our traumas is deemed unaffordable in these times of austerity.
At the same time, we do not seem to be able to provide adequate support to the victims of hate crime and their loved ones and communities. Many of my trans friends suffer from PTSD and access to therapy for this is extremely patchy.
“Against Equality”, an organisation in the US who gave me much to think about in my research, have this to say:
“Hate crimes don’t occur because there aren’t enough laws against them, and hate crimes won’t stop when those laws are in place. Hate crimes occur because, time and time again, our society demonstrates that certain people are worth less than others; that certain people are wrong, are perverse, are immoral in their very being.
“Creating more laws will not help our communities. Organizing for the passage of these kind of laws simply takes the time and energy out of communities that could instead spend the time creating alternative systems and building communities capable of starting transformative justice processes. Hate crimes bills are a distraction from the vital work necessary for community safety.”
So where does this leave us? On the one hand, of course, I want trans people to feel safe to report crimes against them and for those crimes to be taken seriously. Particularly as it is those most marginalised people I mentioned previously who are also most at risk of hate crime. I want to overcome the barriers – the fear of being outed, the fear of making it worse, the fear of not being taken seriously or not being understood or treated well. The lack of trans awareness within the police that reflects that of the general population and the media.
My own work has focussed on awareness raising and community building. I have found through experience that giving our community a voice and building relationships and understanding with the wider community is more powerful than any legislation.
“We are unconvinced that hate crime legislation is an appropriate tool for combating transphobia due to its poor record as a deterrent and low engagement from the trans community. We believe a focus on education, awareness and combating medical neglect is more appropriate a response to transphobia”
The work I and others have done in Nottinghamshire to create a set of Safer Space Guidelines is I believe at the core of how we go forward. Instead of people who aren’t trans telling us what we need, it’s time, respectfully, that people began listening to this community. The guidelines, which can be found on the Notts Trans Hub Website, set out ways in which people can consult us and consider how they interact with us.
One of the repeating themes the trans community face is that everyone has the freedom to speak how they like about us, but when we respond with criticism our own free speech is deemed “too much” for people. I agree, it’s a big adjustment to even begin to adapt to our needs and treat us fairly. But society won’t be equal when everyone who hates us is locked up. Society will be equal when people see no reason to hate us.
It was an odd experience, delivering trans awareness training at Nottingham Women’s Centre. I had spent many, many hours within those walls, and one thing you could always rely on was “man in the building” signs when somebody male was invited in for a meeting, training or other work.
“Should we put up “genderqueer in the building” signs?” I agonised, knowing I was walking into a building I am increasingly less comfortable to be in.
The timing was strange – the very next day I would be starting on hormone therapy, a therapy that will probably in time make me look and sound more male. Since making this decision, I am constantly being challenged that I am “really a trans man”. I try to explain to people – I am currently read as a woman, but I am non-binary. In future, I may be read more often as a man, but I will still be non-binary. I may acquire some privilege for passing as a man, but given how out I am, my gender experience will continue to be complicated.
What complicates things further is that I have a lot of experiences in common with trans men, and don’t always want to be excluded from that category. This leads me to somewhat simplistic statements like “I’m a non-binary trans guy” or “I am masculine of centre”. At the same time I still feel a great deal of shared identity with women too. I do not believe there is a clear, neat line that divides our experience or sorts us neatly into boxes.
Gendered language was not made by or for trans people, and one of the key elements of this particular training was to look at how language limits our ability to tell an accurate story about ourselves. Trans language is evolving with our empowerment. We no longer speak about “sex change” and are more keen for people to understand we were always trans, that becoming more visible and/or congruent is not the same thing as becoming something we did not used to be.
For non-binary people in a binary world this is a complex subject. While I was keen to centre the experience of trans women, who face the worst violence because of the double jeopardy of transmisogyny, the toxic interplay of sexism and transphobia, it was important to acknowledge they would not be the only gender variant people using the Women’s Centre. People like myself, who find ourselves in the uncomfortable no-person’s land between genders, may well find sanctuary there, as I once did.
I suggested to the trainees that we can often resolve conflicts by grasping a “both/and” principle and throwing out our belief in either/ors. “When I say I’m non-binary, for me that doesn’t mean I have no gender”, I tell them “for me personally, and this is different for others, I have a lot of gender, a complex relationship with both being a man and being a woman and sometimes something else entirely.”
Gender variance has always been treated with suspicion, and feminism has fought hard to normalise the idea of women expressing their gender in less constricted ways. As we explored language together at the training, we realised that “woman” is a wide category (“Ladies”, not so much). It is absolutely possible to include trans women and non binary folk who live predominantly as women (regardless of birth assignment) in the fold. Folks like me? Well, I don’t feel I would turn to women only spaces for support, but that’s a personal choice, and one I hope is never inflicted on anyone based on some constructed idea of how one should be a “proper woman” or “woman enough”.
The worst disservice is, of course, that gender variant people assigned female at birth have been pitted against trans women as if one or other deserves protection and inclusion but not both. But the truth is we all experience misogyny, or misplaced misogyny, in different ways and we all belong in the rather larger box labelled “those oppressed because of their gender”. The realisation is growing that the centre can be welcoming and supporting of a diversity of gender variant people, and that, rather than worrying about people forcing their way into the centre, which never actually happens, the true issue is that after a decade and a half of trans inclusion, the service is still very under-used by trans women, who are disproportionately affected by the very issues the centre is there to support, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.
Equally, gender variant folks assigned female at birth are also vulnerable. The isolation and marginalisation that comes with being transgender makes all trans folk vulnerable, and across the board within the trans community, we see increased issues related to assault, mental health, rape and childhood sexual abuse as well as domestic violence. People who feel woman enough to use a women’s centre should simply not have to worry that they will be quizzed at the door as to whether they should be there. For those concerned about safety, in all the years of trans inclusion, there have never been any incidents of cis men trying to gain entry to the centre for nefarious reasons by pretending to be trans. Cis men have other more direct ways, sadly, to violate women’s safety, and part of the learning here was to move away from imaginary panic-based scenarios and to focus on the facts of the vulnerability and need for safe space of members of the trans community.
But how do we deal with the reactions of other building visitors? Another concern. Well, how do we generally deal with people’s prejudices and put them at their ease? How did we get to the point that lesbians are accepted into women’s spaces? The process is no different here, one of modelling good practice and language, displaying comfort with trans visitors, and making trans people visible in literature and displays.
I put up a picture of Harnaam Kaur, pictured right, to explore further. Harnaam is a cis (not trans) woman, but often in my training her image brings to the surface a lot of issues of prejudice – if this person wants to be a woman, I often hear, well they should make the effort to look like one. What does a woman look like? Well in this case, she looks like Harnaam Kaur, a Sikh woman who has decided to keep her natural facial hair.*
I’m thankful that the lovely workers at the centre get it, and show no prejudice. “This person is who they say they are”, is their response to the picture, and “we will use the pronouns they ask us to use and give them a welcome if they self-identify as belonging here”.
It really is that simple, a kind solution but also one that works. We struggled a bit with how to deal with non-binary folks, but in the end the solution is equally simple and elegant – if a non-binary person feels comfortable using the Women’s Centre’s services, which many of us, myself included, wouldn’t, well then they can be there, because identity is complicated and in the end we choose the spaces and boxes and words that best fit us and avoid the ones that don’t.
With thanks to the open-hearted women of Nottingham Women’s Centre for their warmth and understanding.
*Edit: I used this image because Harnaam herself has desired these images to be used to challenge perceptions, and I chose a woman of colour rather than similarly bearded white women to bring into focus the issues of hairiness that exist for brown women. However, I have had feedback (from white people) that I am “using” a woman of colour’s story for my own purposes. I hoped I was educating people on diversity, but perhaps there’s some truth in that, so I have decided not to use this image again.