Aggressive Secular Workplace Discrimination?

There seems to be a growing view amongst some in various religious communities that asking them to comply with equalities legislation in the exercise of their job or public service, or asking that they not impose their religion on others, constitutes some form of discrimination.

I view this as absurd. It is absolutely not the purpose of anti-discrimination legislation to protect the right of groups to themselves engage in discrimination. This much is self-evident; anti discrimination legislation which tried to accommodate this would be an absurdity and constitute an unworkable collection of cascading self-contradiction. Just imagine:

You can’t discriminate against the gays unless you find them really, really icky, and really want to.

Because for some reason, this always seems to come back to some sort of obsession with homosexuality. Personally, I think thinking about gay sex as often as some of these people seem to is really unhealthy, and I say that as a homosexual person, but I digress.

There’s a new report out. It’s called Clearing the Ground and it’s published by “Christians in Parliament”, who are apparently “an official All-Party Parliamentary Group”. The report is described as a, “preliminary report into the freedom of Christians in the UK”, and is the result of the committee being “tasked with considering the question: Are Christians marginalised in the UK?”

Anyway, flicking through, as one does, one can find the following gem:

The Department of Health’s practical guide on religion and belief offers the following guidance:

“Members of some religions … are expected to preach and to try to convert other people. In a workplace environment this can cause many problems, as non-religious people and those from other religions or beliefs could feel harassed and intimidated by this behaviour… To avoid misunderstandings and complaints on this issue, it should be made clear to everyone from the first day of training and/or employment, and regularly restated, that such behaviour, notwithstanding religious beliefs, could be construed as harassment under the disciplinary and grievance procedures.”

Dr Richard Scott gave evidence to the inquiry which suggests that the implementation of this guidance is not always applied with consistency, and sometimes with greater restriction on religious belief than envisioned or permitted under the law. There is also a lack of logic in the guidance because someone who is prevented in the workplace from manifesting their belief, either through prayer or witnessing, may consider themselves harassed on account of their beliefs.

Let’s examine this. To my mind, the DoH’s guidance seems eminently sensible. If you’re working together in some sort of workplace, where your religion is incidental to the task at hand, asking your co-workers if they want to “talk about Jesus” or making a show of praying is likely to make people uncomfortable, and make them feel like you’re pushing your religion on them. In an entirely hypothetical situation where someone who is repeatedly singled out for being asked if they want to talk about Jesus, and happen to be the only out gay person in the office (I’m sure this never happens), they might reasonably feel harassed, and would likely consider taking the issue up with HR.

However, the response seems to be saying that this guideline doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray overtly or engage in unwanted proselytisation in the workplace at all. It’s clear that myself and Dr Richard Scott are seeing this, apparently simple, guidance and coming to two completely different conclusions. Given that Dr Scott got into trouble with the GMC for proselytising to a vulnerable patient, this is perhaps not entirely surprising. Let’s look at what Dr Scott says again:

There is also a lack of logic in the guidance because someone who is prevented in the workplace from manifesting their belief, either through prayer or witnessing, may consider themselves harassed on account of their beliefs.

This looks like a clear case of wanting equalities law to treat religion as a special case, where it has carte-blanche to do unto others as it would not wish to be done unto itself.

Do these people simply not understand that equalities law applies to everybody? I’ll make this as simple as I can:

  • I’m a gay woman (protected by equalities law).
  • In private, I sometimes have sexyladytimes with my partners
  • Note this is in private
  • If I tell my co-workers in detail about my sexyladytimes, that is inappropriate, and I would expect disciplinary action for it.
  • If I go round asking random women in my working environment if they want sexyladytimes with me, that is sexual harassment and I would expect to be subject to disciplinary action, and possibly arrested.

If I don’t get to force homosexuality on you, you don’t get to force religion on me. I have to wonder if people who think like Dr Scott really don’t understand this, or whether they understand it entirely, and are just raging hypocrites.

Hunting Trans People For Sport, Profit, Charity and Teh Lulz

My phone apparently knows who I am

A few things happened to me this week which, together, encouraged me to write this post. First is a little toy app I downloaded for my iPhone. It goes and looks at tagged images on your FaceBook and then tries to identify people in them if you point the camera at them. It works surprisingly well – the image on the right is the result of holding the phone up and telling it to use the front facing camera. The image follows me around in real-time.

The second was a revolting advertising campaign by Irish bookies, Paddy Power. They have created an advert which invites people to “spot the stallions from the mares” at the Cheltenham Ladies’ Day, where “stallions” refers to transgender women in the crowd. I won’t go into why this is problematic – Paris Lees has written an excellent analysis at Pink News and I would urge you to read it. She goes straight to the crux of the matter:

The problem with “spot the trans lady” though is that, for one person in the game, it’s really not that fun. Ask any trans woman. Most of us, at some stage, have faced the humiliation of strangers playing it on us – Paris Lees

It has also transpired that in an apparent collusion with the Beaumont Society, who are doing well with own goals at the moment, they’ve arranged for numerous transgender women to be planted in the crowd for Paddy Power’s punters to spot. Hilarious laddish fun, especially for those who happen not to be aware of this “game” and are unwittingly dragged into it. If they’re lucky, all they’ll face is humiliation, but these things can turn nasty very quickly.

The third is the unveiling of a high tech advert by charity, Plan UK, which shows a video to people standing at a bus stop at Oxford Street, but only if it determines that they are women. It does this by using biometrics – distance between the eyes, jawbone shape, nose size and shape, etc.. Essentially it’s looking for the absence of what testosterone does to a skull.

Plan claim it is “90% accurate” at guessing the “gender” (they mean sex) of the person standing in front of it. I suspect their tests were using mostly, or exclusively, cis people. Given the stated biometrics are those which can often give trans people difficulty, and which many trans women endure harrowing surgery to rectify, I can imagine the accuracy of the guess is significantly below 90% for trans people.

In other words, this advertising gimmick doubles up in function as a trans person outing device.

Quite apart from the transgender angle, I can’t imagine what Plan UK were thinking. Really, the scene in Minority Report where the protagonist walks through a mall and is recognised by electronic adverts which call to him by name and try to sell him things was, I suspect, penned as a cautionary tale and not an aspirational one.

Imagine if when this technology becomes widespread – a world in which billboard adverts guess the gender of the person looking at them and then try to target ads based on that guess. While this may sound like an advertiser’s dream (I note that gender seems to be the key determinant when targeting ads online – I’m quite sick of sites that know I’m female trying to sell me diets), it’s pretty much a nightmare to trans people, who rely on relative anonymity in crowds to live a tolerable life in a world which is really quite a hostile place to us.

These ads will misgender cis people too, but for trans people, their constant misgendering will serve to confirm the suspicions of the sort of people who still stare at me even now, after six years of oestrogen HRT (at least they mostly just stare now – it wasn’t always limited to that).

This and the Paddy Power stunt seem to be confirming that when it comes to advertising, no idea is too bad, nor too vulgar, nor too invasive of privacy, nor too unpleasant to vulnerable minorities to run. Trans people are an obvious target – a society as neurotic about gender as ours finds us hilarious, possibly as a way of coming to terms with just how much it feels disgust at existence and what we represent. If we can’t hide in plain sight in the safety of a crowd, then we’re easy prey for those who would abuse and assault us.

Putting all this together suddenly caused a light to go on in my head. Technology isn’t inherently good or evil; its what you use it for that matters. It seemed obvious though that we were only a small step away from smartphone apps which didn’t just recognise your friends; they would soon be able to guess the sex of total strangers, based on the same sort of technology that Plan are using. Furthermore, given the obvious public appetite (so well demonstrated by Paddy Powers) for humiliating transgender people by outing us in public, such technology would soon be used to bully people suspected of being transgender.

And then a second light came on – what if I wasn’t just worried about the future? In trepidation, I had a look in the app store. Yes, a “gender scanner” app already exists, and apparently there’s one for Android too. I’ve tested it out on myself, and what it said is perhaps less important than the possibility that it will be used to bully people suspected of the terrible crime of Being Trans in Public.

Along with Paris, I’ve been the subject of “games” of “spot the tranny”. I’ve been photographed on trains by groups of older kids who seem to find the presence of a trans person hilarious. It was pretty humiliating. I fear that the immorality of advertisers and the relentless march of face-recognition technology are only going to make life harder for us, perhaps in ways we can’t fully anticipate yet.

Is it House-Trained? Does it Bite? Has it had The Surgery?

Yesterday, my dear friend, Paris Lees of Trans Media Watch appeared on Breakfast TV, prior to Trans Media Watch making a submission to the Leveson Inquiry. Now since Paris runs a WordPress blog, she’s able to see what sort of search terms people are using to find her, and yesterday lunchtime she tweeted this:

“paris lees before he was a woman,” “is paris lees post op” & “paris lees on the game” – just a few of the Google searches done on me today.

As an aside, this is a WordPress blog too, so if you got here by googling about my genitals, I’ll know and will be daydreaming about doing unpleasant things that you won’t enjoy, even if you are kinky.

Anyway, this got me thinking about how many cis people think very differently about etiquette around the subject of trans people, our bodies and our identities, than someone embedded in the trans community tends to. I appreciate that I probably used to before I consciously identified as transgender too, but that was a very long time ago and I can’t really remember it very well. As a result, when this difference is thrust visibly into my path, it can cause a moment of cognitive dissonance.

See, I’m a trans woman, and I have many trans people as friends, as well as many people who also have trans people as friends. Generally these people observe a sort of etiquette around bodies and identities that I would regard as “polite and healthy”. I’m not attempting to formalise this in any way, but roughly it’s like this:

  • You don’t ask someone about their genitals.

  • You don’t ask someone what their old name was.

  • You don’t volunteer the old name of someone else.

  • Or yourself.

Obviously there can be exceptions, and they usually involve people who know each other very well, and well understood and/or negotiated boundaries.

Lots of cis people (and actually some trans people) don’t seem to follow this etiquette, however. I generally regard this as “rude and unhealthy”, but it does, alas, seem to be common.

Lots of people know my old name. Sometimes they use it. This makes me feel violated..

Lots of people who I don’t know very well ask me about my genitals. This makes me feel violated.

People have asked me what the old name, or surgical status of one of my friends is. This makes me feel awkward, like I’m being ask to violate someone else.

People have revealed the old name of a mutually known trans person, or if they’re trans, have revealed their own old name without asking if it’s OK to do that. This feels like a violation of one or both of us.

The last two perhaps bear some explanation. I know a lot of trans people. Some I know the old names of (mainly because I knew them pre-transition), most I do not. Some I know the genital surgical status of, some I do not. What seems to come as a surprise to many cis people is that I don’t want to know what the old name or surgical status of a random trans person is.

With surgical status, it’s usually just a case of it being not relevant; it’s something I don’t care about (unless we’re about to have sex). That said, I’m usually happy to discuss surgery with other trans people and sometimes, cis people, on my own terms.

When it comes to old names, it goes beyond me not caring – I actively do not want to know.

Many cis people seem to find this attitude odd. Even people who have a morbid curiosity about trans people seem to mentally respect the fact that someone else might be indifferent. What seems harder to grasp is the idea that being told someone else’s old name is something that leaves me feeling violated.

When someone reveals their old name to me, I appreciate that’s their prerogative, but I’d really rather not know and my first reaction is, “pass the brain bleach!” Actively forgetting something is quite difficult, in a not Losing The Game kind of way. Sometimes people have had their old name blurted out by their parents or something, and that’s really awkward. For the avoidance of doubt, you generally shouldn’t do this.

Imagine if you and I were good friends, and we were sitting down in a cafe chatting, and we’d got to dessert. I’m eating a lovely steaming chocolate fudge cake. As I take a mouthful of runny chocolatey gooey goodness, you suddenly and in a high level of detail, describe your previous bowel movement, complete with telling me about how it had bits of undigested sunflower seeds poking out and everything.

Two things would happen. One is that I’d probably not finish my dessert. The second is that I would decline our next meal date.

I appreciate that I wrote a LiveJournal transition blog, and that it was quite popular, and in it I revealed my old name a few times. I’m sorry about that – I didn’t realise how one can come to feel about this, and I can only apologise. In my defence, most people reading it at the point where I did reveal that info already knew it. For anyone seeking out my transition blog, be aware that it does that (I’m not going to retroactively censor it, but if I ever transfer it somewhere else it might get edited a bit).

Anyway, the take home message here is, please don’t casually toss around surgical status and old names, because these things are likely to upset people, and make them feel violated, and hurt. If you continue to do so with the knowledge that you’re probably hurting people, that’s your choice, but I probably don’t want to know you.

Phew, that was heavier than I intended. To lighten the mood, I’ll finish with an anecdote that this called to mind, about how trans women can develop a very odd attitude towards genital surgery ourselves (those who’ve sat in on a bunch of drunk post-op trans women talking about surgery will appreciate this). Last year, I bumped into my own erstwhile surgeon at a meeting in London. The person with whom he was chatting made to introduce us:

Third party: Do you know Sarah?
Me, interrupting: Yes, extremely intimately, although I was asleep at the time.
Surgeon: It’s OK, I’ve just about forgiven you for that.

Few things make me go bright red and giggly, but that did.

UniLad, Rape Culture and Regrets

Online magazine, UniLad, which describes itself as “A place for university lads to share friendly banter. Not to be taken too seriously.” on its Facebook page, seems to have got itself into a bit of a pickle.

In advice (or, as the magazine seems to prefer, “banter”) for “lads” hoping to land a date, UniLad recently explained:

If the girl […] won’t ‘spread for your head’, think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported. That seems to be fairly good odds.

As one might imagine, quite a lot of people were very upset about this, and it got the online magazine (temporarily?) shut down. The Facebook page, however, remains. The “banter” has continued there, only it’s turned into a fight between those condemning the endorsement of rape culture and “lads”, many of whom are reacting negatively to the sort of exposure they’re getting.

And by “reacting negatively”, I mean “retreating into extreme misogyny, up to and including threatening to rape and kill their critics” (seriously!)

Here’s a particularly egregious example: Someone called “James Bedford”, in a comment thread, told a women:

If i came across you i wouldn’t hesitate in raping you, I would have to kill you first though.. so you didnt struggle.

Nasty. Very nasty.

This got me thinking back to when I was at university, as a sexually frustrated, hormonally confused, 20 year old. I’m in an “interesting” place here because at that point, to all outward appearances I was male. I wasn’t a “lad” – indeed, I’d not long escaped a schooling where those who were fully signed up to what’s now recognised as “lad culture” made my life a living hell. That doesn’t mean I didn’t engage in objectifying and misogynistic behaviour though, because I did. I guess I had some of the traits of what is often described as a “nice guy“. The thing is, “nice guys” aren’t actually all that nice – they tend to approach friendships with women with an ulterior motive, and then become angry when those women become tired of the clumsy and inappropriate pressure to have sex with them, and move on.

I appreciate that I was young and emotionally immature, and in the 18 years since I’ve grown considerably as a person (and, perhaps, also been afforded the opportunity to experience misogyny rather more directly than most 20 year old “men” ever will). I don’t regret that I had a whole lot of growing up to do; what I do regret, 18 years later is knowing that in gaining the life experience I now have, I have hurt people.

People come and people go, but what I’ve come to learn is that the losses that tend to carry on pricking my conscience forever are the ones where I wronged someone, and quite often that wronging took the form of misogyny or objectification. I’m not just talking about friendships ruined because I tried to push them into being something they weren’t; there were more casual encounters too where I behaved like a dick towards someone. I remember several, and I regret them all.

We all leave footprints as we go through life, and it’s inevitable that some of the places where we tread are places where we leave damage. Living with ourselves as we look back and survey that damage is part of being an adult. I do know, however, that when I look back at my footprints, none of them involve me threatening to murder and rape people.

Those on the UniLad Facebook page threatening women with sexual and other violence, dismissing our humanity and even threatening to kill us; they will have to live with themselves 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now. Some of them will look back at what they said and did to women who didn’t deserve it, in the name of “banter”, and have to imagine it happening to their own future teenage daughters. Misogyny and rape culture don’t just demean women; they demean all of humanity.