“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.