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.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jane Fae is a feminist writer. She tweets as @JaneFae.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle