William Eichler 08 June 2016

How local government can improve transgender equality

Brighton recently issued primary school application forms urging parents to support their child in choosing ‘the gender they most identify with’. Rather than restricting the form’s gender options to ‘male’ or ‘female’, the council wanted to be clear children did not have to choose one or the other.

The aim was to create a more inclusive environment for gender questioning children. There was, however, a predictable media backlash with one Tory MP branding the move as ‘utterly ridiculous’. I spoke to Brighton & Hove City Council’s lead member for equalities, Cllr Emma Daniel, about the thinking behind the decision and ways in which local authorities can address transgender issues.

She began by clarifying the circumstances that provoked the fleeting media uproar. ‘For those parents where their child has a gender issue we were giving guidance that they can support their child’s decision or feelings at that point in time.’ Despite the impression formed by the ensuing furore, she says there was only one complaint before it became a story - and that was made to the press.

The guidance in question was a footnote on a school application form. It read: ‘We recognise that not all children and young people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or may identify as a gender other than male or female, however the current systems (set nationally) only record gender as male or female. Please support your child to choose the gender they most identify with. Or if they have another gender identity please leave this blank and discuss with your child's school.’

Transgender people feel the gender assigned to them at birth is not the one they identify with. They feel as though they were born into the wrong body. This can create tensions - known as ‘gender dysphoria’ - which causes an individual accute mental distress and can lead to depression and, sometimes, suicide.

The idea behind the advice, Cllr Daniel explains, was to send the message to anyone contemplating gender identity issues: ‘You have the right to this service. You have the right to an education.’ It was a way of ensuring nobody felt excluded from the public services they and their families pay for.

The Tory MP who took exception to the council’s decision was not keen on this. He said: ‘Schools should be teaching kids to read and write, not prompting them to consider gender swaps.’ Aside from the fact that Brighton was clearly not doing the latter, this misses the point that local authorities do have a duty to ensure their services are inclusive and cater for the needs of all the communities in their area.

Public organisations are expected to demonstrate ‘due regard' to their Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good communal relations. This means local authorities have to be particularly vigilant when it comes to dealing with communities deemed to have ‘protected characteristics’ under the Equality Act 2010.

To this end there is the Equality Framework for Local Government (EFLG), which assesses councils on five areas: knowing your communities; leadership, partnership and organisational commitment; involving your communities; responsive services and customer care; and a skilled and committed workforce. Councils are assessed according to their progress in these areas and awarded one of three designations: ‘Developing’, ‘Achieving’ or ‘Excellent’.

In 2013 Brighton, mindful of its duty to promote equality, organised a scrutiny panel which, in Cllr Daniel’s words, looked into ‘how and when transgender people in our community are excluded by public services’. It produced a raft of recommendations, one of which was to reconsider requesting service users to specify their genders.

‘I think that was a reasonable thing for the scrutiny to recommend,’ Cllr Daniel says. ‘Wherever we are asking [about gender] we’re either taking it away completely or we’re giving more options for people who may be transgender so that they don’t get excluded at the very first hurdle of accessing education, housing, any kind of service that’s provided by the public sector.’

Cllr Daniel chairs a cross sector trans subgroup which studies all the services provided by the council in order to work out how the scrutiny’s recommendations can be applied. Apart from education, another sector the subgroup is looking at is health. Cllr Daniel offers the example of electronic check-in screens in doctors’ surgeries. Many of them have gender as a default setting to identify yourself which, she says, could be problematic for someone who is transgender.

In those cases, its easy enough, the councillor tells me, just to change the screens: ‘It doesn’t inconvenience anybody else. It’s just a way of making sure transgender people, who tend to be among the most excluded, have fair access to the public services they have paid for or their families have.’

The scrutiny also recommended considering unisex toilets. This is a hot topic - ‘everyone obsesses over the toilet situation of transgender people!’ - which tends to generate a lot of passion. It’s an important one though. As Cllr Daniel explains, ‘someone who is transgender might feel an intense amount of degradation if they were forced into a toilet that wasn’t their gender.’ She points out that people’s concerns over unisex toilets are misplaced - afterall people don’t stare at one another’s genitals in public toilets.

It would entail the loss of urinals however. To this criticism, Cllr Daniel responds: ‘I realise that mens’ toilets are slightly different if you use a urinal, but I’ve never seen a man’s house with a urinal in it so I presume you can all manage with other equipment. There’s no inherent design flaw in penises that makes them have to have a urinal.’

These are just a number of the issues local authorities would have to consider to make their services more accessible and Brighton is developing toolkits which other councils will be able to draw on to improve their own areas.

There are, of course, multiple debates around trans issues and the nature of gender. But these, Cllr Daniel explains, are beside the point when it comes to service provision by local authorities. ‘People are welcome to have that debate,’ she says, ‘but as local authorities we have an equalities duty which says that trans is true and does exist and that there’s no point wasting time. You need to just get on and make sure all your services are accessible because you could spend all your time discussing that. The fact is we have a legal duty whether you’re sceptical or not.’

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