Declaring Identity

There has been a great deal of comment in the press about government proposals in England for self-declaration of gender by transgender people. Something that strikes me in all of this discussion is how little the people expressing hostile views know about the whole business of identity and what these suggestions are all about.

Currently a transgender person wishing to transition (start living in a gender different to that given at birth) will typically start to adopt the dress, behaviour and name appropriate to their new presentation. They may, or may not, approach doctors to seek help in the form of counselling or hormone treatment. All of this is something they can decide for themselves.

If help is sought from a Gender Identity Clinic then there will be a point where that person is asked to undergo a period of living full-time in the new gender. This will involve changing documents relating to name and adopting the lifestyle appropriate to that gender. Typically it is expected that they will do this for a period of at least two years. Hormone treatment does not usually commence till the person has already started this period of what is known as RLE (Real Life Experience). It is a test, are you sufficiently committed to live that way before physical treatments and changes occur.

RLE is a difficult time for a transgender person as they must risk ridicule and hate from people they meet as they try to live in role. But they will be expected to live that way fully.

The Equality Act (2010) gives rights to non-discrimination to anyone who is transitioning. And that covers those who begin a process of transition or make a statement that they intend to transition. This covers access to facilities appropriate to the gender they present as. In practical terms that covers places like public toilets and other gendered places such as changing rooms in shops. Now of course there is a caveat here in that the person’s presentation must be appropriate to the situation. But all of this is essentially self-declaration under current legislation.

What the government is looking at is something quite different. A transgender person can obtain things like passports and driving licences as part of the transition process I have described above. The one thing they cannot have is a reissued birth certificate. For that they must apply for Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). To qualify for GRC there is another long process to go through which cannot start until you are in a position to prove to a court body that you have lived in role for more than two years. Detailed evidence must be provided including dates of all document changes. Furthermore there must be statements from two appropriately qualified doctors that you had gender dysphoria (or similar) and that transition was medically supported.

Due to the difficulty of the process many transgender people do not apply for GRC. It is this process that the government are looking to reform by allowing people to self-declare their gender. They will still have to meet qualifying criteria and will have to make an oath to a court that they are changing gender in what is intended to be a permanent way. It is a process that is already in place in other countries such as the Irish Republic and Argentina.


Breast Screening

This afternoon I went along for my breast screening appointment. It was in a mobile unit parked behind my GP surgery and luckily there were plenty of parking spaces left still. I was a bit nervous, not about the risks of breast cancer or of the reports of false positive results, but more about actually going in to have it done.

It was all very friendly and efficient though. I simply went in and was treated just like any other woman there. In fact my being trans was not mentioned in any way though I assume they could see that is the case. The squashing part is not comfortable and it takes a bit of doing to stand in just the right way. It pays to take a cardigan to these things too as you can cover up with it while waiting after taking off top and bra.

It is recommended that all transgender women who have been on HRT go for breast screening. There is absolutely no reason not to.


A steep learning curve

When a transgender person decides to transition into their new gender role and identity there are very many things they will experience that they have not always anticipated.

At first there will be a focus on the most immediate issues of how to dress and organise themselves to cope with a new everyday existence. This mean that clothing choices and body maintenance occupy a great deal of time. Worries about how people will react also occupy the newly transitioning person.

Eventually all of that will pass and we can simply go about those things that we must as a part of our work role. But the first time we decide to pop out at lunchtime for some necessity, a meeting at a different location or with a new person, talking on the telephone, dealing with changing seasons and many other things can cause us to have momentary doubts.

When I first started at work I was very much thrown in at the deep end. There had been trouble overnight with some of our patients and the first thing I had to do was enter a meeting to calm things down and remind them of their responsibilities and agreements. Oh, and by the way, here is Rose who is the maths and science teacher. After that it was lessons, meetings, new patients, trips to see other hospitals, taking patients to the cinema, bowling, careers fairs and so on.

It all settles down quickly and before long a trans person is simply another member of the team.

The passing problem

One of the things that most transgender people will worry about is the question of whether they “pass”. It is an issue that can prevent them from coming out in the first place as they fear being seen as a freak or oddity by others. But this whole concept of passing can mean different things to each individual and can certainly change over time.
When a transgender person starts to talk about possibly transitioning at work many colleagues will also start to worry about that person “passing”. Will they look ridiculous? Will they upset other staff or customers?
But what can passing really amount to? At first there is a temptation to think the trans person must flawlessly look like any other of their chosen gender. Good enough that nobody will ever know that they were not born that way. This is usually not realistic for those transitioning later in life (or any time after the full onset of puberty). There are some who can achieve this sufficiently to go “stealth” so that their past need never be guessed at. But these are a lucky few in reality.
For most of us the most important thing is to fit into the world in such a way that we do not draw undue attention to our differences. How any person appears to others comes from a mixture of visual and other cues. Size, proportion, shape, clothing and hair all play a part. Hair seems to be a very important factor and is noticed very quickly. But other things can actually matter more. How we move, behave and interract with others greatly affect how we are perceived by people we meet. Voice can have an impact too. I know that when speaking to someone in person I can pass but when that voice is taken out of context on the telephone I am often addressed as “Sir”.
I have lost count now of the number of people who tell me I must not have any difficulty passing. This perception by others does not match my own self image in which I see myself as obviously trans. But I do live in the world with confidence and purpose. And confidence seems to be the key to acceptability here.
I have been asked why I dress in a very mainstream female way. I could wear jeans and comfortable shirts more after all, much as I did when presenting as male. this question made me think for a while and then I realised that I had always attempted to dress appropriately to people’s expectations when male too. At work it matters whether you follow the accepted norms for your gender in that place. It makes passing, or at least acceptance, so much easier. To dress with a more individual style would leave me fighting two battles at once and can make passing that much more difficult.
Today many are asking whether transgender people should feel pressure to pass at all. After all why can’t we simply be who we are without this pressure to fit in with a society that was not created to accomodate us. I suppose it depends on what you want from life. For now I will still advise transgender people to look carefully at how other people present, at work or when out and about, and to try to match those standards as much as possible.

Job applicants, unconscious bias and fear

What happens when you receive a job application from someone who is transgender?

Like other trans women I notice that I have a much lower success rate, in terms of progress to interview, than I did with the same skills and experience as a man. This is not unusual for those people in society who experience discrimination by the world of work. It affects people of different race, gender, sexuality, disability and age all the time.

There are practices and workflows that aim to remove as much discrimination and bias as possible from the recruiting process. But at the end of the day one person is being selected by one or more other people. Issues of unconscious bias, conscious bias and fear must be factors in all recruitment. It is often said that we make unconscious decisions about a person within seconds of meeting them. But it seems that we also make these decisions even before we first see them in person, we make them when reviewing their job application.

I suspect the bias against transgender people arrises most often when a potential employer is considering them for a customer facing role. All sorts of fears will be present concerning how customers will react: will the image of the organisation be adversely affected; would it be impossible for them to meet targets due to negative reactions. Of course the employers should be selecting on ability and relevant skills, and they should be acting in a way that does not contravene anti-discrimination legislation. But we all know this isn’t the way it works in most cases.

To some extent we select customer facing staff on appearance. I have always been conscious of looking “right” for the job I wish to be doing. And I remember working for one company who issued a copy of the book “Dress for Success” to all sales staff. There was a time when several US companies specified that they would not recruit men with beards in the UK. But think back to those people who have left a lasting impression on us in business. Was it the corporate, grey uniformed and otherwise unremarkable person? Or was it someone who, to an extent, stood out from the crowd? There are of course limits to this and a point does come where “different” can become inappropriate.

I remember a particular business trip to Seattle where my team from a global corporation were visiting a supplier. We received a presentation from one of their Senior VPs. He turned up in the clothes he always wore at the office, a sports shirt and shorts. His presentation was hard hitting and competent, and we all remembered it long after the trip was over.

So should we really be worried about recruiting obviously transgender staff? I do recognise here that many trans people are not obvious and may well never have to reveal or acknowledge their past. The potential employer will never know. But for others they cannot avoid it being known what they are ahead of anyone looking at who they are. I argue that trans staff in customer facing roles can be a unique asset.

Workshops to look at how we react to the unusual applicant can help here. Challenging bias, fears and assumptions are an important tool when training people in the recruitment process. Role play with a transgender person in particular can be valuable.

How do your staff react?

We like to think that the people we work with, those we have recruited and trained, will treat customers and business contacts appropriately. For the most part that is true and the more training they have had the better they will be. But sometimes they will react differently when something surprises them, something new or unusual.
The thing that is said to me most often when I talk to people about transgender awareness is how important it was to them to actually meet a transgender person and to talk me. The other comment I receive is that I am surprisingly normal. It dispells many of the preconceived notions people may have had beforehand. It also shows that in a work setting we all are just professionals working towards a common goal.
Despite increasing visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people it can still be a novelty for us to see someone in our own workplace. Reactions can vary considerably in this situation. Those who see us most often, such as in retail, usually understand that they simply have another customer. But in other areas it could cause issues that may result in a difficulty with either a potential customer, colleague or contractor.
I like to visit an organisation before giving one of my training sessions. It can be interesting to see how receptionists or front of house staff react and more valuable if I walk through office areas too. Even better is to arrange to formally visit either as a customer or visitor to gauge the way staff react when they realise someone unusual is present. Sometimes these visits are known as “secret shoppers” or “walkthroughs” and they can be very valuable when followed up by a training session on transgender awareness. Suddenly the training becomes less theoretical and much more real and relevant to those involved.

Transgender awareness in schools

The recent report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee on Transgender Equality pointed to several areas that could improve in terms of transgender awareness and inclusion. One of these areas was in schools who have a role in tackling everyday transphobia. The report notes that schools often do not know how to deal with tansgender issues.

“More needs to be done to ensure that gender-variant young people and their families get sufficient support at school. Schools must understand their responsibilities under the Equality Act. They must abide by their legal responsibility to ensure that all staff receive
sufficient training to ensure they are compliant across all protected characteristics, including that which relates to trans people, especially gender-variant young people. In its review of initial teacher training, the Government should consider the inclusion of training on the protected characteristics.”

Although the report concluded that schools must understand their responsibilities and ensure staff training most will find it difficult to find a good source of such training.

I was recently invited to give some initial information to a meeting of leaders from local secondary schools. There was genuine interest in finding out about the issues that might affect their schools. Some had experience either of gender variant students or staff but generally it was clear that most had little idea about this subject and their responsibilites and liabilities.

As a teacher myself I will continue to offer training to school staff. One of the difficulties is that many see it as simply a PSHE topic and don’t realise that it can affect how they deal with students, issues of bullying, staff retention and parents.

Appearance is everything?

Sitting in a pub with friends recently the conversation turned to the situation with a club we know of. It seems that a transgender man has joined it and that this has caused them problems. The conversation illustrated some popularly held views of what transgender is about and who qualifies.
Now I know all the people who were in the discussion and they have been very accepting of my own position. They were not being unkind to trans people and almost certainly did not understand why what they were saying drew my own interest. But the conversation moved on to whether the person involved was really trans or just someone dressing as the opposite gender. There seemed to be a general agreement that they did not look sufficiently like the gender they were intending to present as and therefore were not properly transgender.
This is something we see to some extent in media portrayal of trans people too so it is understandable that my friends should reflect the same views. To many people, a transgender person has in some way to become acceptable in appearance and have been, or are about to be, surgically altered to match their gender presentation. In effect, trans people must look right, and if not then we are not the real thing.
There is an underlying truth to this of course. For most of us it is important to fit in with the norms of appearance both at work and in our chosen social circles. We dress according to the standards of what we do. If we fail to do this then we stand out. Sometimes that can be a good thing but for most people most of the time we like to be seen to be like the others around us. Though I don’t wish to stifle individual expression I would usually advise trans people to blend in with the way others dress and behave when at work or out in public.
We can of course extend this to encompass the modern world’s emphasis on appearance in general. This affects men and women, girls and boys. Women often comment on how they face pressure to look “right” and conform to a certain idea of what is correct and acceptable. It is part of a wider issue.
An aspect of my presentations and seminars is a discussion on transgender terminology and the spectrum of the transgender world with all it’s variants. This is often something that people comment on as most useful in understanding transgender people in general. All transgender people go through a journey and do not start out fully formed and conforming to the appearance standards they really would like for themselves.

Exclusion from not being born the right way

I started to write this as I was angry, and that is never a good reason to write anything. Yesterday was a very mixed day but it left me feeling that people can be both good and bad at times. But as I thought more about the strange mixture of experiences that had come my way in the space of that one day I decided that it illustrated why I offer to help organisations deal with transgender people in a better way. The route to that conclusion may be roundabout but I hope it is worthwhile staying with the journey.

It was Sunday and I was planning to combine two things in one trip to town. First of all I had a transgender support group meeting to go to. It is quite unusual for these to be held in the middle of a busy shopping centre at a weekend but I wanted to find out more about it. It also gave me the opportunity for a shopping trip with my daughter.

The week leading up to this quite ordinary shopping outing had been difficult. I have followed the controversy over comments by Germaine Greer about trans women. The arguments over this left me feeling less confident, a common thing in trans people of all types. I don’t attract much attention but will always look slightly odd to those who look closely. On this day it seemed more people than usual were looking. So stepping out into a busy shopping centre I was not quite as strong minded as I would like. A man shouting at me in the middle of the shopping crowd didn’t help this one bit. Such things are unfortunately all too common and on this occasion my daughter was, I think, prepared to confront the man if she could have found him.

First stop was to John Lewis where I wanted to buy a new home telephone. The staff there are always very good and in this case were especially helpful. That their customer is quite clearly trans doesn’t matter to them. I suspect that is the result of good training and management. After my meeting we continued to do some clothes shopping. In one shop the assistant almost visibly lit up when she passed close to me and realised I was trans. She was very helpful and chatty. Perhaps she will win in the “who had the most interesting customer” discussion later on. She might even have been pleased to put into practice training on dealing with different types of customer. Either way I never mind that sort of recognition as it is well intentioned.

Back at home I continued to read reactions to the Germaine Greer story. One lengthy comment on social media played on my mind more than the rest. This was the source of my later anger. The writer was in fact putting her argument well though it was a viewpoint I could not agree with. Essentially it was about how she does not regard trans women as women since they have not experienced womanhood and its trials from birth. She cited experiences such as PMS, childbirth, fear and wariness walking in the street of potential rapists and similar such points. In a way she has a point but there was an underlying principal that was worrying me. It suggests that to be part of a community, in this case that of being a woman, you had to have accumulated sufficient common shared experiences from birth. So I started to think about how that principle might apply to other groups of people. Can you not be regarded as properly deaf unless you were born without hearing? Or are you not sufficiently disabled if you are wheelchair bound as a result of a car accident instead of being born without legs?  Even worse, does a woman who has not suffered some of these things not count as a real woman?  I may not have been born female but my chances of being sexually assaulted are just as high. Abuse in the street is a constant hazard as I found while out yesterday. And I have to learn about these things in just as hard a way now as a teenage girl might do, with some additional problems thrown in for good measure.

I am lucky in that I am not particularly prone to depression, and I have the support of friends and family. But the day left me in a very low mood. I will bounce back quickly, but others will not. I know what I am but would like others to see who I am.

So what was the conclusion I promised at the beginning of this article?  We teach the staff in all organisations to respect diversity both within the workforce and in our customers, patients and clients. We learn to look at who someone is and not what they are. This is important as we start to understand that this brings benefits to everyone involved. The staff in the two shops were good examples of this. Attempts to exclude people from our community simply because they did not start out a particular way seems to be a very bad way to go. This is the reason why I offer help for organisations to understand transgender issues.