Last night saw the broadcast of episode 2 of My Transsexual Summer. The narration is still pretty ropey — as if someone at C4 is trying to be respectful while also catering to those viewers who have tuned in for a freak show — but the cast continue to endear themselves to the nation. I spotted one troll on Twitter this morning saying that they should all be shot, but the vast majority of the messages have been very supportive. That’s really positive.
The issue that caught most people’s imagination last night was the sequence in which Drew applied for a job at a bridal store and was turned down in a fairly insulting way. This led to a lot of discussion on Twitter about employment legislation and how easy it is for trans people to find jobs. That’s what I’m planning to address here.
There are two principal pieces of legislation of interest here, the Gender Recognition Act of 2004, and the Equality Act of 2010. The former deals specifically with trans people, and the latter brings together many different forms of anti-discrimination legislation under one umbrella.
The first thing to note is that these laws are very much mired in the view that the only trans people deserving of protection are “classic” transsexuals. The Equality Act reads as follows:
A person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.
Drew is on hormones, so she’s probably protected here, but I can see it being argued that unless she’s on a specific course of treatment intended to lead to surgery then she’s not covered. Certainly someone who is simply living androgynously would not be.
There are also a bunch of specific exemptions to the legislation, primarily involving religious organizations and the armed forces. More relevant here, however, is that the bridal store is probably a very small business and if they have fewer than (I think) 5 employees then they are allowed to discriminate in various ways when hiring employees.
As a small business owner myself, I have a certain amount of sympathy here. If you are running a very small company there are all sorts of legal requirements that you don’t have the time or resources to follow. The government likes to encourage small businesses, and gives them exemptions from legislation to help them get off the ground and grow. On the other hand, there are basic issues of human decency to be considered here. I’ll get back to them later.
Before I do that, however, there is one final aspect of the “Equality” Act that deserves mention. The Gender Recognition Act basically stated that anyone who had gone through a full gender reassignment process was legal a member of their desired gender and should be treated as such. The “Equality” Act, however, has a section on “Occupational Requirements”. What it is trying to do here is define jobs in which it is a requirement for the applicant to be either a man or a woman. In doing so it effectively contradicts the GRA and states that trans people, even after surgery, are not legally members of their preferred gender.
This language was, I believe, introduced to allow the military and the church to continue to use gender-based requirements to exclude trans people, but the door is also left open for other employers to argue that gender is an occupational requirement. Even worse, as Zoe Imogen notes here, the guidelines about the Act issued by the Equality & Human Rights Commission appear to add a requirement that the victim must be “visually and for all practical purposes indistinguishable from a non-transseuxal person of that gender” in order to be fully protected.
Which brings us back to bridal stores. Is it an occupational requirement that staff involved in things like fitting women for their bridal dresses be women, and by “women” does that mean someone assigned to be female at birth, or does it also include trans women? As no one has yet brought a test case, no one actually knows. And if such a ruling was made against a trans person it would certainly be challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. But the fact remains that the UK government has gone back on the idea that trans people can legally change gender in all respects. Although the Act was passed by the current government, it was drawn up by the previous Labour administration, so this is cross-party back-stabbing we are talking about here.
The store owners, of course, clearly believed that it was inappropriate for brides to be served by someone who, as every tabloid journalist would have it, is “really a man”. Their “what would the customers think?” excuse was one that has been used to justify discrimination down the centuries. One tweeter noted that it was equivalent to saying, “I’m not racist, but my customers might be”. Farah noted that it was just an excuse, and suggested that the store owners should “own their bigotry”. Both of those responses were granted “top tweet” status, which I think means that they were re-tweeted lots.
One of the owners singled out Drew’s fairly prominent Adam’s Apple as an obvious giveaway, and said that could never be altered. Well of course it can. There are surgeries for that. And here I want to note that the frequent tabloid articles raging about how the “cosmetic” nature of trans surgery means that it should not be paid for on the NHS. Now sure Adam’s Apple reduction sounds cosmetic, but here’s Drew being told that she can’t have a job because of something that a relatively easy operation could fix. That’s no longer just cosmetic then, is it?
It is easy to be angry at the store owners here, and I hear that they had to shut down their Twitter and Facebook accounts within hours of the broadcast being shown because of the volume of negative attention they were getting. But they are also right, in that their customers are transphobic. Or at least a substantial proportion of them are, because despite the legislation transphobia is very much socially accepted in the UK. You can argue that they lacked courage and moral decency, but there is no doubt in my mind that if they had given Drew a job then sooner or later they would have to deal with some idiot who raised a stink about being served by “a man”. The customer’s case would be taken up by the Daily Malice. They’d lose business over it.
So by all means be angry with the store owners for their cowardice, both in being unwilling to stand up to bigoted customers, and being unwilling to confess to their own prejudices. But remember also that they exist in a social climate created by tabloid newspapers, television “comedians” (update – see below), radio shock jocks and the like, all of whom bombard them with the message that trans people are freaks who should be despised and hated. Those are the people we should really be going after.
I’d also like to question the whole set-up of that job interview. It is easy for us to forget, when watching television, that the camera is there, because that’s exactly what drama programme makers want us to do. When watching documentaries, however, we should always remember that they are being filmed. There appeared to be at least two camera involved in that shoot. They could have been hidden, but that would have involved manufacturing an excuse for two other people to present in the interview, or to have had them planted secretly. So presumably the store owners knew that something was up. They may even have known in advance that Drew was trans, and taking part in a documentary about trans people. And if they didn’t they may well feel that they were set up.
I have no doubt that Drew would be absolutely brilliant working in a bridal store. But I do have to question why, in following her search for work, the programme zeroed in unerringly on one of the few jobs where a) she probably could be legally discriminated against, and b) where a large number of people were likely to think that the store owners had a point. It strikes me as a piece of artificially manufactured drama, and that causes me to have less faith in anything else I see on the show.
The final thing that I want to discuss is the reality of trans employment issues. Laws are all very well, but without the support of the general public they can’t work in practice. So while it might be illegal to discriminate openly, it is very easy to do so quietly and subtly in such a way that the victim doesn’t stand a chance in court.
I have a certain amount of experience of this. I have been kicked out of two very well paid jobs, once in Australia, where I don’t think I had legal protection, and once in California, where I did. In both cases what the employers did was carefully designed to make it look like my being trans was not the issue, but it very clearly was. In Australia I tried to transition on the job. The Aussie staff were largely very supportive, but head office in the UK insisted that they get rid of me. The Californian company hired me knowing that I was trans, but when they were bought up by a larger, East Coast organization it quickly became clear that HR was looking for an excuse to get rid of me. I quit when I realized that they were encouraging other staff to make complaints about me so they would have a case if I tried to argue I was being discriminated against.
These days I don’t bother applying for jobs. I’m stuck in the UK, and the number of people involved in my chosen career is sufficiently small that word would quickly get round if I did so. It is actually a criminal offence for one employer to warn another off an applicant by revealing that the person in question is trans, but to prove such a case you would need written evidence. In any case, I’ve been very open here about my background, so I have no protection there.
In addition the various disruptions to my career that have been caused by my transition mean that I have never managed to rise to the level of management that would be expected of someone of my age. Even if an employer didn’t know that I was trans, I’d be viewed as having been a failure at work because of my lack of seniority. And age discrimination is rife. Employers know that older people are not prepared to work the 10-hour-day, 7-day-week schedule that younger people put themselves through in search of advancement in the consultancy business.
As it happens, I can keep myself going with self-employment. I had a meeting with my bank manager yesterday and she’s still happy with me, despite the ongoing losses at Wizard’s Tower. But it has been a rough road. There have been years when my net income has been well under £5k, I’m in rented accommodation, and I have very little in the way of pension provision. I would not have survived this long had it not been for the love and support of my mother and Kevin. Sooner or later I know that my luck will run out.
On the other hand, I have been lucky enough to live in a time when great strides have been made in the area of human rights. This morning I listened to a radio interview with Jocelyn Bell (the lady astronomer who discovered pulsars). What she had to go through, starting a science career back when I was a kid, was in many ways as bad as what trans people have to go through these days. The situation for women in science is now a lot better, though by no means perfect. I very much hope that the situation for young trans people like those on My Transsexual Summer will be better than it was for me, and I think that their being so open about themselves on national television will do a lot to bring that about.
Update: I’ve been hauled up on Twitter by trans comedian, Bethany Black, who objected to my putting the word comedians in inverted commas. Beth is one of a small number of trans people making a name for themselves on the stand-up comedy circuit. She’s very good. I’m sure the others are too. They’d have to be. Sadly a lot of the people who get on national TV still appear to be the sort of people who like to go for easy laughs by pillorying the vulnerable. There are exceptions, of course (hello again Tim Minchin), but it is a serious issue for trans people because it establishes an environment in which we are seen as people to be laughed at. I certainly wasn’t intending to tar all comedians, and my apologies to Beth and others if it seemed so.
Beth also notes that if people laugh at a joke then it is indeed comedy, and she has a point. I guess I’d counter that some things appear funny only because there is a social climate that deems them funny. Years ago you could raise a laugh from mocking people because of the color of their skin. Ricky Gervais still thinks it is funny to mock Downs Syndrome people. I’d like to see us get to a point when the mere fact that someone is not wearing “gender appropriate” clothes is not seen as funny.
Update 2: Beth tells me that Ricky Gervais has apologized for the recent upset. Good to know. More progress.