If you spend much time around social media in the trans world, you will find your fair share of activists for various causes associated with us. For many of them the activism consists not of loud online proclamations but of real-world involvement, getting their hands dirty so-to-speak at the grass roots of whatever arena they have chosen.
People are drawn to activism for many different reasons. A few seem to do it to make a name for themselves, some come to it through deep political or religious conviction, while for many the call to arms comes through personal experience.
In my case I can blame the last of those stimuli. When I transitioned I had a difficult experience that led me to workplace rights activism and the regional LGBT committee of my trade union. I can be found helping advise union officers about trans issues, and on most weekends in the summer I will be at one of the many Pride events in my region trying to get workplace rights leaflets into the hands of as many of our community as I can. My twenty-years-ago self would be shocked to find me serving on a trade union committee, but then again there were so many things the me of a closeted past had yet to learn about life.
I won’t pretend that it’s not a huge amount of work, but along the way I’ve made a lot of friends in all corners of the LGBT community, and in turn done my bit to help make the T more prominent. It’s noticeable for instance how over the last decade the trans visibility at a typical Pride event has increased significantly, we’re coming out of the shadows.
Another comparison with Prides past is the nature of the event for lesbians and gay people. When I first encountered the LGB community in the early 1990s a Pride was a political event, a protest through visibility. Gay people had faced violence and discrimination on a daily basis then weathered the AIDS epidemic, and to come out en masse was a daring statement. By comparison a typical Pride today is more of a celebration than a demonstration, the fairground and the bands are more important to many visitors than the fight for equality. The gay and lesbian community have been normalised in society, they have gained the acceptance and rights for which they fought for so many decades. Thus though there is still much left to achieve, the need for protest is less acute for many Pride attendees.
We’re At The Sharp End
Meanwhile we in the trans community are still at the sharp end. It is almost as though we are the last minority that people still think it is safe to discriminate against. We will all have seen deplorable stories about trans people in the media, and in the workplace we’re too often seen as a group that can still be picked upon with impunity.
It’s a depressing situation, especially given the many pieces of equality legislation that are supposed to protect us, but sadly it’s a story you’ll hear in the transgender community with an almost monotonous regularity. The employer sounds very positive before transition and everything looks as though it will go perfectly, yet in the period after transition the transgender employee finds themselves increasingly sidelined and marginalised. Their job is whittled away with other employees being given their responsibilities, and before long and they end up with a shadow of their former responsibilities. It’s called constructive dismissal, and the hope on the part of the employer is that by marginalising their transgender employee they can cause them to lose hope and move on of their own accord. It’s very unpleasant, and it goes without saying that it’s illegal. Doubly so, for not only is it illegal to constructively dismiss any employee be they cis or trans, it’s also illegal to discriminate against a trans person on the basis of their gender identity.
Of course, the snag is for us that while it might not be legal it remains extremely difficult to prove at an employment tribunal without a so-called smoking gun, a provable discrimination paper trail. Other employees miraculously “forget” things they may have seen, and normally efficient HR departments mysteriously lose important paperwork, or miss deadlines. Often the best an employee in this situation can hope for is a settlement and a quiet exit, which unfortunately brushes it all under the carpet and does little to solve the problem. All the workplace protection legislation in the world is revealed as of little use if its enforcement is rendered so difficult as to be nearly impossible.
Education, Education, And An Uncompromising Stance
Having outlined the problem then, how might we proceed? We take the view that education is the way forward. Both soft and hard education, first ensuring that both transgender staff and their employers have all the information they need about the law and their responsibilities, and then when a rogue employer behaves badly towards a transgender employee, ensuring that the consequences are maximised such that they are not tempted to do it again. The first can be achieved by ensuring that information about workplace rights lands in front of as many eyeballs as possible, while the solution to the second lies with pursuing it most vigorously when it happens. If a hefty price in both publicity and monetary terms can be put onto a rogue employer by taking them through an ACAS grievance procedure and an employment tribunal, it will provide a significant incentive to deter them from ever following that path again in the future.
So how can you protect yourself, and stop this happening in your career? You might expect me to say that you should join a trade union, after all I’ve just laid out some of the work that unions do in this field. But the purpose of this piece is to talk about workplace rights for trans people rather than to recruit. It’s understood that while there are plenty of people involved who like me are in it for the workplace rights, trade unions are by their nature also political organisations and thus not for everyone.
Help Yourself, And Help Others
What you can do is learn about your workplace rights as a transgender person. At the bottom of this page is a list of resources on the topic from a variety of organisations that I suggest you download, print out if necessary, read, and share with as many of your friends as you can. Every transgender person or ally who receives this information is forearmed to do something about discrimination when they see it in the workplace, and if everyone in our community has it we will stand a chance of stamping it out. A couple of years ago at Trans Pride Brighton I delivered my union’s segment from the stage and held up a copy of our trans rights booklet, within twenty minutes we’d handed out our entire stock and earned a mild rebuke from our head office. We were unrepentant, for every transgender person who has a copy is someone less likely to be treated in the way I have outlined above.
It would be very easy to read this page and come away depressed, particularly if you are approaching transition. The truth is though that while this does happen to more people than it should it doesn’t have to happen to you. A huge number of people transition without any workplace problems at all because they have good employers, and I hope you’ll be one of them.
With every passing year the situation gets better as more rogue employers are bought to book and more of us both have the information and the courage to stand up to it when discrimination happens to us. In twenty years time maybe this will all be behind us, and no employer would even think of following that path. That can only happen though if we ensure we have the tools to fight it, so here follows a collection of resources on transgender issues in the workplace as PDFs from a variety of organisations. Please download them, read them, print them and share them with everyone you know.
Civil service: The Workplace and Gender Reassignment
NHS Lothian/ LGBT Health & Wellbeing: Transgender Workplace Support Guide
Unite: Trans Equality at work
Cover image by Pabak Sarkar, CC-BY-2.0