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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser