Sean Bean as Trans Woman in Jury

Calling Trans Women “Sir” – When is that Harassment?

Labour MP Kerry McCarthy raises questions in parliament about security staff calling trans women "sir"Sometimes when I read a news item I think “what is all the fuss about”. This week Labour MP Kerry McCarthy has spoken out in Parliament about house of commons security staff calling trans women “sir”.  OK it is annoying and it happens to me about once a week on average but I have never considered approaching my MP to have questions raised in parliament about it.  And my first reaction was that this is going to get all the trolls out in force.

And of course that has happened with lots of transphobes using this as an opportunity to have a poke at us generally.  However as I read the various reports the real story started to emerge – and that, I believe, is a story of blatant transphobic harassment by security staff  employed by the metropolitan police.

Anwen Muston complained about security staff  - Calling Trans Women "Sir" Anwen Muston and Sophia Botha, both officers for LGBT Labour, attended an LGBT History Month event at the house of commons. On separate occasions each was called sir by a member of the security staff and quietly corrected them. On both occasions the security staff continued to repeatedly addressed them as sir and according to a commenter who was also there, one security guard then said “I call everyone sir” – which was blatantly not true as he had just addressed a woman as madam.

The definition of harassment in the Equality Act 2010 is very clear

Harassment occurs when someone engages in unwanted behaviour which is related to a relevant protected characteristic and which has the purpose or effect of:

  • violating a persons dignity or
  • creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

What the security guards seem to have been doing was to attempt to humiliate the trans women in public or make fun of them, and that is quite clearly harassment.

I was conducting a Transgender Awareness Workshop recently where a trans employee had complained that staff were repeatedly using the wrong pronouns and previous name when referring to him. The other staff have always argued that because they have know the trans man for many years they do find it difficult to change, but that they seldom make this mistake. During the workshop I brought this topic up and in the course of the following 15 minute discussion the trans man was referred to by the correct pronouns only once. When I drew their attention to this, the staff admitted that they had not even realised they were doing it.

Time and time again I pick people up on mis-gendering and am met with outright denial or lame excuses.

The government response from John Thurso was ” We take these matters very seriously and we are determined to make sure that this is not repeated. ”  He then added, “All House staff dealing with the public are expected to undertake mandatory diversity and inclusion training, and the same standards are expected from all service providers, including the Metropolitan Police Service.”

The problem with this is two fold – First, most mandatory diversity training is delivered by people with limited personal experience of most of the protected characteristics and it is generally a broad based training covering all aspects. When I deliver Transgender Awareness Training it takes a half day to address this topic sufficiently to make a real difference in attitudes.  Since 2010 the public sector has drastically cut the amount of training that takes place, especially the more detailed equalities training.

The second problem is that in my experience it is men who have the biggest problem with this and men are far less likely to attend specialist training. On my Transgender Awareness Workshops around 80% of participants are female – unless the training is mandatory. More recently I have been involved in some debate and discussion around gender inequality and again men seem to feel that there is not really any problem now. I think from my experience that gender inequality is currently worse than it was a decade ago and a brief read of the comments on the everydaysexism facebook page will confirm that.

We may have changed the law, but clearly from this incident, there is a long way to go before we change attitudes. If staff who have apparently undergone mandatory equalities training are still calling trans women “sir” in such a public place as the House of Commons, it seems to me that we still have along way to go before trans men and women will be allowed to simply be themselves and get on with life free from ridicule and harassment.



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Posted in Equality and Diversity, Transgender Awareness and tagged , , , .

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