Friday, August 23, 2013

Chelsea Manning - A Brave Heroine

What an interesting day. 

Bradley Manning, a 23 year old US army private,  having just been sentenced to 35 years for leaking 700,000 military documents to WikiLeaks, promptly announces that she is female and now wishes to be known as Chelsea, specifically requesting that in future she is referred to by female pronouns.

This is how the Washington Times reported that information
“I am Chelsea Manning. I am female,” he wrote. “Given the way I feel and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.

 “I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun,” he said. “I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.”
To be fair it was not just the Washington Times - the BBC got it wrong as did most of the US media reports I have read.

Personally I was a little surprised at the news - I know how badly US prisons have treated trans people in the past and I wondered how she was going to cope. Within hours Department of Defense spokeswoman Catherine T. Wilkinson told ABC News that "there is no mechanism in place for the U.S. military to provide hormone therapy or gender-reassignment surgery for inmates."

So she will serve her sentence in Fort Leavenworth, an all male military prison with a decidedly poor reputation for their treatment of gay and trans prisoners. I have delivered Transgender Awareness Training in a number of UK prisons and I know that trans people frequently get raped.

Here in the UK however we do provide access to gender reassignment treatment. Trans people are allowed to wear female clothing while in a male prison, they can have hormone treatment and even gender reassignment surgery. If they qualify for a Gender Recognition Certificate - then they will be transferred to a female prison, no matter what the crime.  This was established in a House of Lords decision a few years ago.

The US had no such policies - that is until last week. In reading the latest reports a came across this really interesting article in the Atlantic.  Although first passed by congress in 2003 the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was enforced for the first time week, requiring every state in the US to demonstrate compliance with the new set of federal regulations.

My research indicated that trans prisoners have a very high suicide rate, and that at least a third were subjected to sexual violence.  Most trans people have needed to adopt one of two strategies to avoid being regularly gang raped. Strategy one is to "get married" to a prison godfather. That affords them full protection in exchange for them undertaking their duties as a wife.
Strategy two is prostitution - usually with the same prison godfather now as their pimp allowing both to become prison rich.

That all said I was surprised to learn from a former prison inmate that not all gay and trans prisoners are sexually assaulted. Apparently a small and very effeminate gay man was assaulted on one occasion by a huge beast of a man. A day later the beast of a man had a 10 gallon container of boiling fat poured over his head and was never seen again.  The gay man was never assaulted again - by anyone.

But this may all be a thing of the past.  The new regulations mean that every case now has to be considered on its own merits and a decision made on the safest way for someone to be incarcerated. The fact that Chelsea still has a male body will not exclude her from that treatment - which will be about time.

The most shocking thing I read about Chelsea manning is the way she was treated before the trial.  Over 1000 days in prison, and a substantial amount of that time in solitary confinement. This report in the Daily Beast makes depressing reading. In Quantico, Virginia she was held for nine months in solitary, and unheard of length of time, deprived of sleep and clothing and ritually humiliated on the grounds that she was a suicide risk.

Chelsea leaked the documents to WikiLeaks because she was uncomfortable with the way she saw the US army treating people in Iraq and Afghanistan.  WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange believes that it was Chelsea Mannings leaked reports and videos more than anything else that brought and end to the war in Iraq - which is why she is seen by so many as a hero.  Ironically, once arrested she was then subjected to the very same type of treatment that had prompted her actions in the first place. 

I have been quite shocked by what I have read today. Chelsea joined the army to try to suppress her female gender identity.  It didn't work - and so many of us have tried that approach and failed. It also seems that the announcement today was not much of a surprise.  Chelsea had told her bosses in 2010 but was viewed as gay then at a time when she was not permitted to be openly gay.

I am pretty sure that this is not going to go away. There are countless advocacy groups with a strong interest in keeping this alive whether it is to promote trans and gay rights or human rights.  I suspect that we will never forget Chelsea Manning, a brave young soldier who took on the might of the US military - and despite everything is still fighting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Human Rights Approach to Life – Treat Everyone with Dignity and Respect

I am a great supporter of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) because it has been one of the main drivers behind the transformational changes in equality law over the past decade. Why this government and some of our media, want to replace it is a bit of a mystery bearing in mind it was the British in 1949/50 who were the main architects of the European Convention on Human Rights. 

The role of the ECHR is to provide a final court of appeal to all citizens of Europe if they believe that basic human rights are being violated by the state. In the UK however since the Human Rights Act 1998, most human rights issues are now dealt with in the UK courts with only about 10 cases each year actually being heard in Strasbourg. 

Whilst Human Rights law itself is quite complex and applies only to the way the state treats its citizens, the basic principle is simple and one which we should all try to live by in all our dealings with other people.  If we could, I believe that thousands of pages of legislation could be dispensed with. 

Treat Everyone with Dignity and Respect

That's it. Simple - but is it?  When I ask people on my workshops if they could live by this basic principle most immediately say yes... 

Until I emphasise the important word in that statement.  Everyone – murders, drug dealers, paedophiles, sex offenders, rapists, terrorists... 

“Ah – everyone except... ” I hear people say.  But we can’t do that. The principle of Human Rights has to apply everyone.

Who gets to decide on the exceptions? If the issue is a matter of national security, do we give someone the right to withdraw human rights from people in secret?  There can be no exceptions. 

After I changed gender I had a few minor problems with children in the area bringing their friends to “see the local trannie”.  And if I was nowhere to be seen they would shout, knock on the door, or throw stones to get my attention.  I put up with this for a few years and then in October 2008 things took a turn for the worse. 

First thing I noticed was a hole in a window where a stone had been thrown too hard. I ignored it, until the next week when another window was broken, so I called the police and reported this as a hate crime. Nothing was done and the next week things got even worse.

I thought at first it was a hail storm, till I opened the French windows and realised that a gang of about 20 kids were all throwing stones over my back fence.  And that was just the start.  Every night between 5 and 20 kids aged about 12 to 15 attacked my house from the rear and the front throwing stones, mud and abuse before disappearing into the dark back ally’s.

I called 999 no fewer than 11 times in the next two weeks and lived in constant stress.  All the windows, including the French windows were broken and I had had to board them up to prevent further damage.  Police were around my house every night in cars, on bikes and on foot, but the kids still evaded them. 

I had no idea who they were, because many of them were wearing hoodies and balaclavas to avoid being recognised.  I was terrified to leave the house at night in case they were able to get into my house and spray paint the interior, something I knew had been done to other gay and trans people in the city. 

Finally it reached a crescendo. They were riding past the front of my house on bikes hurling mud at the walls and windows and I lost it.  I grabbed a retractable washing line prop and went out to confront them – I was ready to take their heads off with heavy aluminium pole.

“Come on you little Bas****s,” I shouted.  All thought of treating them with dignity and respect was gone.  One young lad stood there, mud in hand.  “Come on then”, I yelled, then added “Why are you doing this to me?”
 “Well, are you a man or a woman?” came the reply.

I threw away my weapon and started to answer his question.  He dropped the mud he was holding and came forward and before I knew it he was joined by others, all firing questions as me.

Five minutes later I found myself on the green outside my house delivering a transgender awareness workshop to about 20 young people and as they removed their balaclavas I know it was all over. 

I spent about 10 minutes talking to them before the police arrived and they dispersed but I never had another problem after that.

It was over because I did "Treat Everyone with Dignity and Respect".

If I had hit one of them with that pole I would have been arrested and the problem with have escalated, with parents adding to the problem. 

Treating people with dignity and respect does not mean that we do not put people in prison or punish them for crimes or deport them to their country of origin; it means that when we do those things, we do it with dignity and respect, even when they have failed to treat others that way.

If you take this approach in all your dealings with people, especially colleagues at work, customers and service users, even our neighbors, you will never fall foul of equalities law and the world around us will be a much nicer place. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How Do You Deal With Hidden Prejudice?

“How do you cope with it?” said my colleague leaning forward so as keep his voice down. 
“Cope with what? I said.
“All the people staring at you, talking about you, sniggering... ?”
“Where?” I said, turning in my seat to survey the people sitting around in the hotel lounge, apparently getting on with their own meetings.
“Oh, they’ve stopped now you’ve looked,” replied my colleague.
“Who was making comments?” I asked, raising my voice a little.

“Leave it” he said quickly raising his hand a little, obviously mortified by the thought that I might make a scene and further embarrass him.

I relaxed.  “I cope with it because I don’t see it,” I said.  “People do it behind my back – they hide their prejudice.”

That was a real incident 10 years ago when I first changed my gender and started on my journey to change attitudes by delivering Transgender Awareness Training. Since then the law in the UK has changed beyond recognition and most public sector organisations have in place equality policies to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and protected from discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

People have learned over the past decade not to be seen to discriminate and rightly they will be disciplined if they behave inappropriately.  Unfortunately changing the law does not change attitudes and beliefs.  That is much more difficult and the challenge organisations face today is the unconscious and hidden bias and prejudice that is impacting the way people are treated every day.

My experience over the past decade has confirmed to me that the people hold prejudices mostly through ignorance. Many have never met and spoken to anyone who is trans or gay, and they have been hugely influenced by homophobic and transphobic comments from friends, family and the media.  They see and hear trans and gay people and their friends being humiliated and ridiculed, often behind their backs, and feel bullied into silence.

My voice is still very masculine so I always have challenges on the phone, but I also have problems day to day.  A few weeks ago I attended a workshop and had made a point of dressing in a way that was unmistakeably female.  Yet despite that the taxi driver referred to me as “sir”, as did the clerk at the rail information desk.

My partner also has a bad time. She sees people laughing behind my back; she sees staff in shops and offices making faces at each other when they hear my voice. A friend had to endure a transphobic rant from a cashier in a store who felt that I should not be allowed to use female changing cubicles and female toilets. She lost her job the following day.

Prejudice is often very subtle. I see people actively avoid me or not make eye contact, or make aside comments to a colleague and laugh. Often I find I am not given the same level of customer service, even refused service on the phone because my voice did not match the gender on my customer record.

And it’s not just me; often my friends and family find themselves being subtly treated with prejudice simply because they are with me.
I know some people talk about me behind my back, refer to me a “he” instead of “she”, point and snigger when I pass but I seldom see or hear any of it.  My friends, family and acquaintances do. Where people hide their deep prejudice from me, they openly show them to people who know me, even confronting them for being with me.
What they don’t understand is that my friends, family and acquaintances are just as hurt and upset by their behaviour and comments as I would be if they didn’t hide it from me.  And this could also be happening every day in your organisation.
Sometimes when people are the victims of this subtle discrimination and prejudice they complain – mostly we don’t.  We just don’t go back, and we tell our friends about it.
And remember that it is the organisation that gets a bad name for homophobic and transphobic behaviour, not the individual members of staff.
The solution is to make sure that everyone receives transgender awareness training – and as far as possible training delivered by people who have the protected characteristic being addressed. I have seen some amazingly entertaining trainers who are trans, gay, have cerebral palsy, are burns victims etc.
Just talking about prejudice is not enough – we have to confront our hidden prejudices in order to address them.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why Is Transgender Awareness Training So Important?

When the plans for extensive public sector cuts were first announced by the UK Government in 2010 it was the ”soft” areas like training and equalities that bore the brunt of the initial cuts. 

Unfortunately when organisations stop investing in these soft areas for too long people start to make mistakes that can cost more than the saving that resulted from making the cuts.

Let me give you two examples from July 2013 of the consequences of the lack of investment in equalities awareness and training:

A local authority started proceedings to evict a trans woman from her house. The tenant had informed them of her change of name and gender and the records were updated but the tenancy agreement was not reissued. Court papers for the eviction were issued in her new name but added “Formally known as” and then her previous male name, the name still on the tenancy agreement. 

A Social services team became involved in supporting a vulnerable teenager where one of the step parents is a trans woman. The case report, sent to all parties, referred to the trans woman as “the stepfather” and used male pronouns throughout.  This was interpreted by the natal father as supporting his transphobic language and behaviour and information in the report was then used in a derogatory manner when shown to other friends and family.

These may seem innocent enough mistakes but - Section 22 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 makes it a criminal offense to disclose information about a person’s change of gender without their consent. 

Now whilst it is only a criminal offense if the trans person has a gender recognition certificate, there is no requirement for them to disclose that information, so no way for anyone to know. That means that from a good practice point of view you have to assume that all people who appear as if they may be trans have a gender recognition certificate.

Both of these incidents breach the Equality Act 2010; both have caused considerable distress to both staff and service users; both were the result of staff not receiving appropriate equalities training. These errors cannot be undone. The documents were both released to members of the public and by the time the mistakes were noticed the damage had already been done. 

One of these incidents may lead to a criminal prosecution.

One has resulted in disciplinary action against an officer.

Incidents like these often result in extensive investigations involving highly paid officers in long meetings, investigations, reports and expensive legal costs. The real cost of a single equalities complaint can easily exceed a reasonable budget for equalities training.

Changing the law and changing attitudes are two very different challenges but remember that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.  The fact that staff had not received adequate training will not prevent them from being liable personally to a criminal prosecution – but that may result in them taking their own action against the employer.

Many of us are still celebrating the fact that The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 received royal assent in July, but the debate over than legislation really highlighted the homophobic and transphobic attitudes that still exist in the community and even amongst MPs and Peers.  We have had equal pay and sex discrimination legislation for 40 years and are still a long way from equality.  In fact there has been a disturbing increase in reports of sexual harassment just this last year.

In the past there were not that many transgender people accessing services but that is a big part of the problem. Because front line staff and managers do not have much contact with trans people they are often not sure how work with them and therefore the risk of mistakes is high.  More importantly, because of the huge changes in law, more trans people are now finding the courage to transition so the chances of contact are increasing

Government research quoted in the 2011 Transgender Action Plan shows:

  1. Nearly half of transgender employees experience discrimination or harassment in the workplace
  2. 88% of respondents said that ignorance of transgender issues was the biggest challenge they faced in employment
  3. Transitioning at work was highlighted as one of the most significant triggers for discrimination
  4. More than half of respondents said they suffered discrimination in accessing public services because of their transgender status
  5. Between 2009 and 2010 transgender related hate crime increased by 14%
I have noticed over the past few months that equalities training is beginning to get a bit more attention and I suspect that after two years of austerity, even though there is still more to come, most organisations are now getting back to some sort of normality and hopefully Transgender awareness training is high on the agenda.

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