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TRANS issues have become mainstream in recent years and they remain high on the news agenda, even in the midst of austerity, an NHS in crisis and an education system at breaking point.
But while press coverage is generally very positive, some commentators — for example Sarah Ditum and Janice Turner — have raised concerns and questioned the impact of trans rights on women’s rights.
Sadly, but perhaps predictably, the effect has been to further inflame a debate that was already polarised and toxic. Suspicion and mistrust have taken root, playing into the hands of those who oppress both women and trans people alike.
There should not and need not be any conflict between trans rights and women’s rights, so how did we get into this mess and, more importantly, how can we get out of it?
Life was very different when I was growing up in the 1980s. While drag artists such as Danny la Rue and Barry Humphries provided light entertainment on Saturday evening television, transvestites and transsexuals remained in the shadows.
The former suffered widespread ridicule while the latter were generally regarded with pity. Legal protections were non-existent, so both groups kept a low profile, fearful of a press eager to expose and shame anyone who challenged gender norms.
Today we may be far more knowledgeable but understanding is still weak, and ill-defined terminology exacerbates confusion and misconception.
The transsexuals and transvestites of 30 years ago have been joined by non-binary and gender non-conforming people under an all-encompassing transgender “umbrella.”
This is certainly inclusive, and it does generate an effective base for campaigns against prejudice and injustice, but — to those outside — it can create an image of a distinct homogeneous group, separate from the rest of society.
Consequently, while trans issues may have become mainstream, trans people themselves remain marginalised. Whenever they become visible they are also labelled, and trans rights can be dismissed as minority group interests.
Being visible without being labelled is a conundrum with no easy solution. My compromise is to tag it onto the end, almost as an afterthought: I am a teacher and a trade unionist who just happens to be trans.
I teach physics, and what matters is my ability to engage my students in my subject, nurture their interest and curiosity, and foster their learning.
The fact that I am trans is irrelevant to any of this, and it is not an issue to my school, my colleagues or the students I teach. Certainly I perceive no conflict between my rights and those of my female colleagues.
Meanwhile, my experience as an NASUWT workplace representative would be familiar to shop stewards across the country.
My time is filled with casework, advocacy and training; I scrutinise policies and procedures, advise members and respond to consultations. It is staple trade union work.
This weekend, at NASUWT national conference in Manchester, I will be joining fellow delegates from across the UK to debate issues that affect us all: workload, pay, pensions and the deleterious effects of government policy on teaching and learning in schools.
It would be disingenuous, though, to suggest that trans issues were irrelevant to my trade union activities. Equalities are at the heart of trade unions, and I actively support the campaigning of both the NASUWT and the wider trade union movement. It is vital work.
Only last year, a recruitment agency survey found that 60 per cent of trans workers experienced transphobic discrimination.
Some of this was outrageous. For example, one respondent was told that “people like you shouldn’t be able to work with children.”
Other examples were more subtle. Bias, some of it not even conscious, has a pernicious and chronic effect on the careers of trans people.
Respondents seeking work reported being rejected for spurious reasons and when an interview panel claims that “on this occasion another candidate had more experience or better qualifications,” how can a trans person prove otherwise?
When they do secure work, trans employees find that they are kept away from public-facing roles, and promotion opportunities are limited.
This type of discrimination blights lives but it is very difficult to prove and, when it costs £1,200 to take a claim to an employment tribunal, the law is rarely tested in any case.
To secure the protections we need, we need to change society, but a distinct group campaigning on a single issue is unlikely to do that.
One current buzzword is intersectionality, but words are futile if they do not lead to action. Trans workers need to find common purpose with women and other groups who face discrimination, including those from ethnic minorities, people of faith and those with disabilities.
We need listen to each other and commit to working with each other. Because when those groups speak with a single voice, their concerns can no longer be dismissed as minority group interests.
Trans campaigning groups have an essential role in advocacy, lobbying and public education, but the trade union movement provides a unique vehicle for true intersectional campaigning on behalf of working people. Trade unionists can be proud of what has already been achieved, and they can be optimistic about the future. If we stand together then the voice of the labour movement will be heard across society and trans people like me will secure protections not because we are trans but because we are people.
- Debbie Hayton is a teacher and NASUWT activist and is a member of the TUC LGBT+ committee.
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