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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue