How Not To Engage With Government

As Twitter followers will know, I spent today in London at an event run by the Government Equalities Office. They wanted to hear from trans activists about our thoughts on the media. Interesting, you would have thought.

Of course the event was in London, and started early enough in the morning to ensure that anyone coming from outside the city either had to pay a fortune in peak hour fares or get a hotel room for the previous night. Even then the fares aren’t cheap. I wouldn’t have been able to go if I wasn’t able to stay with friends (thanks Karo & Tommi), and if LGBT Bristol hadn’t offered to help with the cost. Now I’m feeling guilty about putting in an expenses claim, because the event was a total waste of my time.

That wasn’t because of the government people, who spent the morning either listening respectfully or asking useful questions. Nor was it the fault of Vicky from the LGBT Consortium who organized the meeting. Rather it was because of the relentlessly negative attitude of some of the other attendees.

OK, I know I don’t have much experience of talking to national government. But here are a few things I would think are obvious.

1. If you are asked to provide some positive suggestions of ways forward, don’t spent the entire time moaning about things that don’t work, especially if the things you are moaning about are things that the civil servants you are talking to can’t do much about.

2. If other people put forward positive suggestions, don’t immediately jump on them and dismiss those suggestions.

3. If you are lucky enough to have a local authority offering significant amounts of money for trans people to take a role in local decision-making, don’t tell the national government people that the initiative in question is a waste of time because trans people don’t come forward to take part.

The first half of the morning was actually quite good. We went through the really quite heartwarming amount of media coverage of trans people that is going on. Only yesterday it was announced that a trans actor was being cast in a trans part in Eastenders. That’s huge. Of course there are always things that can be done better, but the improvement over the last few years (basically since My Transsexual Summer aired) has been dramatic.

There were good points made by people like Jane Fae that the national media isn’t making programs for trans people, it is making them for cis people. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t tweak the language, and the narratives, to present trans people in a better light. Sense8 did this very well, and Jane herself came up with some great ideas for how trans characters in soaps could be involved in trans-related plots without everything having to be a transition story.

I was also pleased to see that some people had noticed that the US media do a rather better job on diversity than the UK does, rather than just assume that British is Best. More of this later.

The second half of the morning was where Vicky wanted us to come up with some ideas for going forward, and it was moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan, moan.

Sometimes that’s the only thing you can do. Meetings with the NHS tend to go that way. That’s partly because we are talking directly to the people responsible for treating us appallingly, and partly because there’s nothing much we can do to work around the issue. The media situation is different.

I quite understand that people like Helen Belcher and Jane Fae are sick and tired of beating their heads against the national newspapers and getting nowhere. The regulatory regime that we have now is, if anything, worse than we had before the Leveson inquiry. But that’s not just us. Even the Prime Minister can’t stop the Daily Mail writing malicious articles about him. What chance do we have?

In any case, complaining doesn’t work. These days any company or public body worth its salt employs teams of people to ensure than customer complaints are deflected. That’s either passively through endless bureaucracy, or aggressively through legal threats. Again, that’s not just us. Everyone has this problem. There’s not much that anyone in the Civil Service can do to fix it.

Equally we are not going to have much luck with the national TV companies, or with Hollywood, unless we have money (like the Wachowskis) or can pitch them ideas they find attractive.

The reason that the Americans do much better than we do on diversity is that they have a bigger market, and can make money with diverse programming. We don’t have that in the UK. We have local media. The problem is that they can’t make money. Community radio, community TV, operations like Bristol 24/7, all rely to a large extent on volunteer labor. It is the same in publishing. The big multi-nationals are obsessed with finding the next best seller, while small presses do a much better job on diversity.

By working with community media we can get trans people involved in program creation, and even presenting programs. We can also get stories that are much more trans-positive. It’s not sexy. It’s not glamorous. But it makes a difference, and it can be done for comparatively small sums of money. Frankly, most community media companies are so strapped for cash that if they government were to offer small grants for diversity-related programming they’d find people queuing up to apply for them.

However, if I want to make that happen it is pretty clear that I’ll have to do it my myself, or with the help of supportive cis people.

11 thoughts on “How Not To Engage With Government

  1. Just started to read…and commenting before i’ve even got to the meat of the piece. Yes…fraid that was my first thought, too.

    Courtesy of our glorious privatised railways, any meeting in London that starts much before half ten costs me £34 to attend as opposed to £16 after that time. I am what you would probs classify as a “cheap activist”: i don’t have much of an income nowadays…and every single event has to be measured in terms of whether i feel that the return in terms of influence or usefulness weighs appropriately against the cost of attending.

    On an average month, that usually means i will self-fund attending two…at most, three…London events. Everything else needs to be covered by someone else.

    I suspect a half ten start would not have helped you…or maybe it would have done away with the overnight? But totally agree that London peeps either need to think about this or…am i the only person who has ever managed one of these? …run an informal pooled fares scheme for those attending.


  2. And i’ll take issue with your take on the second half…though i think you can be forgiven for viewing it as “moan, moan, moan”.

    My own view is that things are unlikely to change unless/until the costs and penalties for businesses that discriminate become greater than the costs of “managing” complaints.

    I want to see…and over the next year hope to help make reality…a situation in which people move very quickly from being fobbed off by the standard complaints letter (“we are very sorry that on this occasion our service fell short”)…to just taking the company to court.

    Because little else is likely to make people sit up and take notice.

    Therefore, the point i was making to the GEO and other government types was that all this focus on “positives” was all very well from a position of privilege and NOT having to worry on a daily basis about whether you were going to have a credit card stopped, or be called out by a call centre because of your voice…but it was pretty useless for a lot of trans peeps.

    Therefore, they should be less focussed on training the activists over and over in what was meant by discrimination (i think i can give you a textbook explanation of that any time you care to ask)…but in supporting people who have been victims of it, helping them to take cases to the courts, and being a lot hotter on helping people deal with the two other legs of the Equality Act: victimisation and harassment.

    1. You are totally right about the flaws of the Equality Act, but that’s a much wider issue than just trans, and a much wider issue than the media.

      1. It became clear in the second meeting exactly why the Equality Act was driven by a limited number of “protected characteristics”, which was because that was the way Government has decided to break itself down – with LGBT and gender being under GEO, but race and religion being under DCLG, and disability being under DWP. It was also clear that intersectionality simply doesn’t appear in a lot of Government thinking – you are either trans or black – the idea that you can be trans AND black seems outside their thinking, because they don’t have the structure to deal with it.

        The meeting was never going to be about Government actually providing money. Instead it was always going to about Government trying to find direction. At least they were listening (or pretending to listen) rather than simply deciding they know best without any consultation at all – although dealing with Government is always a long, slow, chipping away at things.

        Certain parts of Government are also still struggling with the concept that not everyone is within 30 minutes of central London.

        Yes, the problems are endemic across Government and have wider implications than just trans and/or media. But unless those issues are voiced in meetings which Government cannot claim they didn’t hear, nothing will change.

        1. Well Government was certainly given direction. It was told repeatedly that there was no point in doing anything for trans people because they would not put themselves forward to take advantage of it. And it was told that we had nothing positive to offer.

        2. Two points. Historically, the Equality Act was modelled around the idea of several protected characteristics because during the interminable early consultations (before the bill was even drafted) the top international comparison models were framed that way. One example in particular was the Canadian legislation, which is structured in a way that new protected characteristics could be dropped into the surrounding framework in the future. A sort of future-proofing to ensure we didn’t slide back into the situation of accumulating 9 acts of parliament and 100 sets of regulations again. The idea of intersectionality was very much a part of the Equality Bill … which contained sections on combined discrimination. This was mostly viewed in terms of the intersection of female gender and race. This was one of the first parts of the legislation which Theresa May decided not to bring into force after the May 2010 election. (The other parts left to rot were equal pay audits and the category of social deprivation as a characteristic)

  3. i’m still unclear as to who owned the meeting…government or :GBT Consortium.

    Whichever, i think i am going to put my hand up to do pooled fares at future London meets where expenses not paid. They are very simple to do…and they remind Londoners that getting around the UK costs money…

    1. You should probably talk to Vicky about that. If it can be done it would be good to have it offered to everyone who signs up.

  4. One thing you might want to consider pushing for is getting future meetings out of London. Completely different area, but I had some success getting the DOE, as it was then, out of London for regional meetings. If you choose places with good rail links, the meetings can cover surprisingly large areas and it is always cheaper, mile for mile, not to go to London. Meetings tend to be smaller too, which gives more people a chance to have their say. It also has the additional benefit of getting the civil servants out of their London bubble which is always a good thing.

    1. The trouble with out of London is that the way the rail network is constructed means that for most people the meeting is harder to get to. I would much prefer afternoon meetings in London.

  5. Interesting to read your feedback, thanks all.
    I would like to note something which hasn’t been mentioned, and that is that LGBT Consortium organised the venue and timing for this event, not the GEO and it is only this one day of round table events was in London. LGBT Consortium are a national organisation and as such all our other round table events are spread across the country as best we can; Manchester, Bristol, Leeds and Birmingham, this is where there are large concentrations of our Members.
    I would also like to note that we did in fact offer up the fact that we had small bursaries available for our Members, which some of them have taken advantage of.

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