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.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage