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Are the police institutionally transphobic?

After the violent arrest of a trans woman in Soho, Jane Fae looks at the police's interactions with the trans community.

Photograph: Getty Images

It is tempting – exceedingly so – to read this week’s sorry tale of apparently awful treatment of a trans individual as evidence of something larger:  institutional transphobia, f’rinstance. 

Tempting, but most likely wrong. In two respects.

First off, the police, mostly, are nowhere near as bad as this incident suggests. As for the badness that does happen being down to “institutional” transphobia? No: while experience suggests that pockets – sometimes quite large ones – of transphobic behaviour still exist, the problems, mostly, do not stem from the top, or from the institutions of policing.

Though police culture is another matter entirely.

Let’s start with the police’s alleged failings. One cannot, as I do, write for any length of time about the trans community without encountering tales of awfulness: from basic disrespect of individual identity, through to misgendering, verbal abuse and, rarely, actual physical attack.

It’s a tip of the iceberg thing, and hard to expose through the layer of justified cynicism and fear that afflicts the community. Why complain, when complaining won’t change anything – and may have unforeseen repercussions for you later on? Trans folk may sometimes appear a little paranoid, but, as the old saw has it, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean the world isn’t out to get you!

This may get the “political correctness gone mad” brigade reaching for their gold-nibbed angry pens, but: it's not easy being trans.  There’s the fight to be recognised, fight for medical support, fight, sometimes, for the simple right to walk down the street without abuse.  Along the way you may have lost job, partner, home.

No: this is not oppression Olympics. Rather, it is recognition that trans folk, alongside other minorities, have good reason to be touchy about things, a sense that translates a simple street stop into an inevitable “is it because I is trans?”

Many police officers get this. Just as they get that there are cultural issues in dealing with different ethnic groups; or even that a large burly male officer questioning a woman about domestic violence MAY not always be a good call.

They get that approaching a trans woman and starting the conversation with “Sir?” is a sure fire way to get a rude answer, or no answer at all.  Against those who argue that the police can’t be tiptoeing around every sensibility they might possibly encounter on the street, I’d suggest the opposite: they are paid to interact with the public – not to dominate them.  Yet far too many police officers still seem to think their job is the latter.

That’s a bad start to any encounter – in non-trans speak, imagine an officer hailing a West Indian with a cheery “hey, darkie!” – likely to lead to a bad end. Its not a good attitude to have: although, absent evidence to the contrary, I’d suggest it is an all-purpose bad attitude, mostly not directed at any one group. Though I am sure some officers do have particular issues about “teh tranz”, or gay folk, or non-white individuals.

Which is why I am fairly sure that we are not talking institutional transphobia. For in force after force across the UK, the guidelines on interacting with trans people are good. The sentiments expressed from the very top are positive – and I have no reason to believe them disingenuous, as alongside the bad, I also encounter reports of good policing. Positive policing. Trans-friendly policing!

Its just… well, I’ve seen this all before, a few years back when I made a small trade out of covering ludicrous and ludicrouser police interventions on street photography. 

The guidelines were good. The top-down intention was good. It just didn’t always translate to street level. Indeed, it was the same old story as now, with some police officers seemingly just taking exception to any member of the public displaying anything less than total forelock-tugging obedience: and a much smaller proportion who just appeared to dislike persons with cameras. Period.

Still, there is one aspect of this story where the police powers-that-be deserve criticism. Wednesday’s arrests took place not just in Soho, but in the heart of London’s lgbt space.  Which is what makes the police reaction so bizarre.

For just as you might expect police in muslim areas to be taught a little about Islamic sensibilities, so you’d expect those working lgbt areas to learn a little about lgbt sensibilities. Or at very least for the most egregious transphobes and homophobes to be transferred quietly elsewhere.

Yet the evidence suggests that has not happened. It's not so much institutional transphobia as a failure of management.