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The transgender gap in Brighton and Hove
A special report has uncovered secret discrimination and hate crime endured by trans people in Brighton and Hove. Bill Gardner examines its findings.
Brighton and Hove has a much-trumpeted reputation as a city of tolerance, understanding and respect.
For decades, transgender people have flocked here from around the world to avoid discrimination and hate crime.
But a panel set up to explore trans issues in the city has revealed that beneath the surface, things may not be as rosy as they seem.
The Trans Scrutiny Panel was set up by Brighton and Hove City Council in March 2012, when it was agreed that a cross-party trio of councillors sitting alongside two experts would examine issues facing transgender people in the city.
The panel’s mission was clear – to find out what needs to be done to make it fairer for trans people to live, work and socialise in Brighton and Hove.
Scores of trans people came forward to talk about the difficulties they face finding a job, finding a house and staying safe.
Many said they encountered deep-seated discrimination everywhere from sports facilities, banks, shops and pubs and clubs.
The panel has since published a wide-ranging list of 37 recommendations to remove barriers to equality in Brighton and Hove.
They included “removing the need to identify as male or female” when arriving at a doctor’s surgery, more training for council staff, police and health workers and providing trans toilets in public buildings.
Already, NHS and housing services have committed to training their staff and the non-gender specific title ‘Mx’ has been added to council tax forms.
It recommended that a lead officer should be appointed as a ‘Trans Champion’ within the council.
They would have responsibility to commision the trans needs assessment and to develop a city-wide Trans Equalities Strategy.
In its opening statement, the council apologised for letting trans people down in the past.
It said: “We are very conscious that as a council we have not been as trans-aware or trans-inclusive as we should be and should endeavour to rectify this situation.
“Change is required before trans people can feel they are able to live their lives as they wish in Brighton and Hove.”
Councillor Phelim MacCafferty, the chair of the panel said: “I am incredibly proud to be part of this pioneering piece of work. It really is testament to the council’s dedication to providing services that deliver for the needs of all the city’s residents.
"Through the recommendations of this report, I believe we will be setting out a blueprint for organisations to follow and develop best practice for training and awareness on trans issues.”
Nick Douglas, the coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health and Inclusion Project, said: “We are delighted to see the publication of the panel’s findings.
"The way in which the panel, the council communities and equalities team and the trans community came together to work on this is a model of good practice in progressing the |equality agenda for local trans people.”
Health services in Brighton and Hove came under fire for failing to deal with trans issues.
The first point of contact for anyone questioning their gender identity is their GP.
But the panel heard there were mixed standards for GPs – some fantastic, some not helpful at all.
One person said they felt that some doctors did not want to get involved and could get “freaked out”.
Another trans person said: “There are often inappropriate reception processes and people are often not handled in a sensitive or respectful manner.
“Trans people often find themselves arguing in a public place with someone who doesn’t understand.”
The issue of check-in at GPs surgeries was also raised. Some trans people complained they had to indicate if they were male or female.
In response the panel said it could “see no reason why this cannot be amended to so people do not have to indicate a gender, or for this part of the check in to be removed entirely.”
Single-sex hospital wards were also cited as problematic for trans people who would prefer to be able to choose where they feel most comfortable.
One of the starkest statements in the report was that trans people are twice as likely to have had serious thoughts of suicide, more than three times as likely to have attempted suicide in the past five year, and over five times as likely to have attempted suicide in the past twelve months.
Traditionally, the NHS pathway for trans people has been mental health treatment – but a number of people expressed concern that this approach was too narrow and was often inappropriate.
The report said: “There was a perception that this leads to trans being seen as a mental illness.”
Many trans people said they found it difficult to find a home in Brighton and Hove.
The panel heard trans people are often housed in areas of the city where they do not feel safe - but find it difficult to move.
As house prices rise, people are forced for financial reasons to the margins of the city, where they may not have chosen to live.
One person said: “It’s very difficult to live as a trans person in some places. For example, you can get unpleasant things put through your letterbox.”
Another person told of “problematic neighbours who had an unhelpful attitude during transition”.
Others complained that trans people are often discriminated against when looking for rental accommodation. They said private landlords and housing associations were not always welcoming to trans tenants.
The older generation
Ageing trans people face increasing isolation in Brighton and Hove, the panel heard.
Ruth Rose, of the UK Advisory Panel on Ageing, said many go into sheltered housing or a hospice to find that other residents have “uninformed views”.
She said trans people who had been deserted by their family often had no one to look after them as they get older.
Without people they know to take care of them, she said carers may not understand trans bodies or trans needs.
And with in-home care, there were concerns around people coming into their homes.
The panel recommended: “The council needs to look at what positive steps can be taken to bring a better social acceptance of trans people among the communities of older residents in sheltered accommodation and residential homes.”
Many trans people who contacted the panel said hate crime had blighted their lives.
Combined with a lack of awareness and a fear of reporting crimes, many trans people are finding it difficult to live safely in Brighton and Hove.
They said it was often visitors to the city who were the worst perpetrators.
One person said: “It is particularly bad on Friday nights, especially as the clubs are opening. There’s a surge of macho men in the streets at that time. I don’t go to West Street at all now.”
The panel were told that more needs to be done on training and trans awareness for pubs and clubs in the city.
It recommended: “When the council is looking at licenses for premises in the city,there is a case to be made for ensuring that premises – and the staff that work in them – are fully open to all individuals.”
In October 2009, transgender sex worker Andrea Waddell was strangled and set on fire in her own home by satellite TV installer Neil McMillan.
The panel also heard of incidents when people had been wrongly assigned a gender by police officers when they called in to report an incident.
This sometimes led to “upsetting and insensitive handling of that individual” when they arrived at the police station.
The issue of domestic violence was also raised, with many trans people pointing out there were no safe spaces or refuges for them in the city.
In response, a new antisocial behaviour and hate incident reporting line has been set up on 01273 292735.
Young trans people in Brighton and Hove face prejudice and discrimination, the panel was told.
One person who attended Transformers, a support group for young trans people, had never felt safe enough to go on a residential school trip.
Elliot Klimek of Transformers said there were issues around toilets, PE, changing rooms and competition in sports.
He said teachers could be nervous around the law on trans people taking part in PE lessons.
Sam Beal, from the city’s healthy schools advisory service, said their workload was increasing.
She said: “Young people transitioning in school communities or between schools or with a trans parent are increasingly asking for help in a visible way.
“More people have made contact over the last eighteen months.”
The panel found that pubs, clubs, council buildings and sports centres did not have the right facilities for trans people.
It said there was “a lack of general awareness”, in particular a lack of gender neutral changing areas.
One trans person said: “Huge amounts of money have been spent on redeveloping parts of King Alfred Leisure Centre.
“It should have been easy to include suitable facilities – changing areas, toilets, showers – for trans people. That would make a big difference to me.”
The council’s sports and leisure team has started to explore the option of trans only swimming sessions in St Luke’s swimming pool.
The panel recommended that there should be provision for accessible and gender neutral toilets “in all areas”.
It said: “The council should take the first step, with consultation with trans individuals, to ensure gender neutral and accessible toilets are available in public buildings.
“Where appropriate, this process should involve consultation with other groups affected such as disabled people who may have a view about widening access to toilet facilities designated as accessible for disabled people.”
Mr & Mrs
Many trans people said they were being unfairly pigeonholed when forced to choose between Mr and Mrs on official forms.
The panel’s report said: “One of the most upsetting things for a trans person, leading to mistrust and misunderstanding, is the misuse of pronouns.
“It can create an unnecessary sense of exclusion and frustration to be forced to accept a title that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender expression.”
One person gave the example of being unable to complete a form for a bus pass without identifying their title– an identity they did not wish to have.
Others reported problems in banks when staff insinuated a trans person was trying to defraud the bank by using another person’s bank account details.
Since the panel’s first meeting, the council’s revenues and benefits team has added the non-gender specific title ‘Mx’ to its forms.
The report recommended that “all online forms are examined to look at the possibility of additional options, leaving blank or entering the title the individual feels is appropriate to them.
“People alter their gender presentation because of a profound and inherent conviction that this is their identity. Using the correct pronoun and respecting an individual’s choice is paramount.”
People don’t understand our lives. We need to separate the T from the LGB
The panel heard from scores of anonymous trans people who said they felt misunderstood and discriminated against.
One said: “People don’t understand our lives or experiences and don’t know how to respond. People need to have information on how to talk to trans people to save the awkwardness.
“There can be very subtle discriminations, such as a raised eyebrow.
“When I explained to a company call centre that I had transitioned and wanted to change my contact details, they told me to call back ‘when he comes home’.
“We understand ourselves best. We don’t need someone to tell us who we are.”
Another said: “The health services seem to me like gate-keepers and I’m always made to feel as if I’m trying to queue-jump.
As a guy I can’t self-medicate because testosterone is not available and I could be arrested for possession. But oestrogen can be taken.
“We know the health risks. But there is no proper system of informed consent and we have to try to jump through hoops.”
Another said: “It will take a long time for change. But this is a fantastic opportunity for Brighton to be a real star in separating out the T from the LGB. Normalisation is key.”
This article appeared in the Friday, January 19 edition of The Argus.
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