Tuesday 8th September saw the first day of the Trans Inquiry being led by parliaments Women’s and Equalities Committee, where they took evidence from healthcare professionals, criminal experts and members of the trans community.
I’ve seen some criticism over the inquiry, about the reasons why it’s being held or the people involved (or rather the lack of trans individuals). Whilst some of these criticisms may be well formed, I think a lot of the complaints are misplaced. I also feel that a lot of the focus of the inquiry has been given over to the first half of what was spoken about, health care.
Whilst I acknowledge that these issues are massively important, and as I’ve written about in the past their are some serious issues faced by trans people when trying to access health care, ranging from denial of those services to discrimination, the second part of Tuesdays inquiry is also massively important. Crime against transgender people.
We all know it happens, all over the world. We’ve seen the headlines of trans people suffering verbal and physical abuse, people attacked and hospitalised, and the increase in the murder rate of trans women. Yes, healthcare is important, but I believe that our protection under the law is a hugely important issue, especially when you realise that in the UK their are no laws that protect against transphobic hate crime.
One of the experts called on to speak at the inquiry was Professor Neil Chakraborti, a professor of criminology and the head of the Leicester Centre for Hate Studies. Neil kindly agreed to take some time out of his hectic schedule to speak to me over the phone about the topics that were brought up at the inquiry and go over some of the information raised.
Both yourself and the other witnesses were asked to describe what you would define as transphobia and both active transphobia and as Helen Belcher brought up Cissexism were described, through the research the Centre For Hate Studies has performed have you found that one is more prevalent than the other or that the two would go hand in hand?
I think they both go hand in hand actually, from Helens perspective and the work she does through Trans Media Watch she would have seen a different side to it, in therms of offensive material incitement or derogatory stereotypes that have been presented over the years. The work that I’ve done has been more directly related to victimisation, peoples actual experiences of harassment, abuse and targeted hostility so with that in mind I’ve probably seen more of the physical expressions of hostility. I don’t think that means that transphobia is simply about that, I think it’s simply from the fact that because of my work focusing on hate crimes against people who have been targeted because of their physical characteristics so invariably I’ve seen more of those physical experiences.
Helen also spoke in length about poor media representation and even in some cases where media pieces are quite aggressive towards trans people. Some people find that this kind of media representation promotes that kind of thinking and normalises transphobic opinions and views, through your research have you found anything that would tend to agree with that?
Yeah, I would, I think those media representations as you say reinforce those negative views and stereotypes and normalise them. Those people we’ve spoken to through our research who’ve experienced transphobic hate crime have talked about their being a direct relationship between media representation and there experiences of hostility, discrimination and even violence. I think that’s where real problems are when it comes to media reporting and can have some serious consequences for people. I do definitely believe that there’s a correlation between representations through the media, and even political representations, the language we use, the normalisation of stereotypes, I think there’s a direct link between that and experiences of hostility.
At one point during the inquiry you said that there were no provisions against aggravated offences for transphobic incidents and no criminal offences for the stirring up of hatred towards trans people and spoke about the legislation when they looked at it recently but chose not to update it because they didn’t feel that their was a need for it. Do you feel that that kind of lack of understanding for why it’s needed is sending a message, even from the Law Commission, that people shouldn’t find transphobia wrong, that it’s okay top target trans people?
I don’t think that was a deliberate message the law commission was sending, but that is the unintended consequence isn’t it? If you have an opportunity to use parity across all strands but don’t take that opportunity, and there may be valid reasons for that in you own minds, but if you don’t take that opportunity then of course you’re going to be conveying a message to those people who don’t have parity that somehow they’re not deserving of the equivalent protection of other monitored groups.
As I said to the inquiry, it just seems like a missed opportunity. Also, I’ not so sure it was thought through in as much depth as it could have been, if your saying as a Law Commission that there’s not a practical need for such legislation what do you do when it comes to the stirring up of hatred online? There’s no legal provisions to guard against that. I just find that baffling, was that not considered by the commission or was it considered to be not a big enough problem? Or was it felt that there were existing provisions that would cover that? It’s just not clear from what I can see, and I think irrespective of the rights and wrongs of that decision the unwitting message that it sends is, again, one that reinforces the marginalisation of trans people.
So from what I understand of the law, if there was someone standing the middle of the town centre calling trans people the worst possible slurs and saying any number of horrific things that’s not punishable by law. Also, is it not true that if they encourage others to do trans people harm and someone acted upon that the person committing the actual assault or murder could be charged under those particular laws, but nothing could be done against those who are encouraging or inciting that. Is that correct?
That’s exactly it yes. So at the moment if I stood in the town centre and started saying horrible things about trans people that isn’t an offence in itself, now that might not be problematic because if I went out and said horrible things about faith communities or about gay people that in itself isn’t a criminal offence, what makes it a criminal offence is if I decided to make threatening comments about a group or encouraged citizens to go an throw bricks through peoples windows. That, as the law stands wouldn’t be a criminal offence if it’s towards trans people, there are no incitement provisions around the stirring of hate towards trans people, but yet there are those provisions for other groups. Interestingly there aren’t provisions for disabled people either, so it’s very much the trans community and people with physical and learning disabilities who are left out of the equation when it comes to the incitement of hate.
There might be other laws in place that would come into practice, so if somebody chose to speak out that way in the city centre this afternoon they might be charged under public order legislation, they might be committing a public order offense, but that isn’t really the point for me. We either call this a hate crime or we don’t. It’s frustrating that on the one hand we tell the trans community that we’re there for you, come and report your incidents and somebody will listen to you and that we want to learn from your experiences, but on the other hand we don’t have equivalent hate crime provisions as we do for the other monitored strands. It’s very contradictory in therms of the message it sends out. So you’re right in terms of the analogy that it wouldn’t be a criminal offense.
You also spoke about the barriers to reporting, do you find that the normalising of transphobic hate speech along with hostility from police when reporting seems to be a problem many trans people face? And is that lack of legislation adding to that also, because there’s no laws protecting against it people are being left to believe that it’s just something that they have to put up with?
Absolutely, I was going to make the connection but you’ve done it for me. There’s absolutely a connection there as you got this message that’s coming out in the law that’s saying perhaps you’re not quite as equal as other groups of hate crime victims, but we’re also saying to the trans community come and report your experiences. So it does come across as contradictory and leads to a lot of people suffering silence as they feel that those experiences aren’t taken seriously. It’s certainly been what we’ve been hearing from many of the trans victims we’ve been speaking to. So like I said to the inquiry, a lot of people normalise their experiences. They see it as a routine part of being different.
I remember quite a lot of victims I spoke to said they’d be in and out of a police station all day every day if they reported each and every hate incident they experienced. It’s an ongoing process, it’s a part of everyday life for a lot of people, and a lot of this is unreportable, or felt to be unreportable. How do you report somebody just staring at you in such a hostile manner, or a stranger making derogatory remarks about you in the street? How do you in practice report being bullied on the bus or just being made to feel unwelcome in the workplace or social setting?
That’s the kind of day to day verbal harassment and hostility people are experiencing, but often that escalated into more serious violence and if you’re uncomfortable about reporting those lower level incidents at what stage do you draw the line and say okay, this is something that I’m going to report? If you’re brave enough to report those experiences how do you feel confident that the authorities will take those experiences seriously if as we’ve already discussed there’s a question mark over equality and legal protection?
That normalisation process is a real worry, it’s a worry across the whole strand of hate crime victims but it’s a real worry within the trans community.
What would you feel needs to be done both from within the trans community and from the legal system to help towards the reporting and eventual stamping out of transphobic hate crime?
It’s hard to boil down, I think there’s a number of steps that should be taken to increase reporting and we did some research for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission earlier this year where we actually asked trans people what are your specific recommendations and it was really interesting. For instance, it was felt that there was a need for greater contact between front line practitioners and the trans community. At the moment it feels like engagement is quite narrow and tokenistic and there may be only one trans activist per city or even county and that is’t really engagement.
I think there’s a need for much wider engagement as that would help develop trust, and would also make front line practitioners more aware of the day to day challenges of being trans and those barriers to reporting. So certainly much more engagement between practitioners and the trans community.
I think many trans people want third party reporting options too, so if you’re uncomfortable going to the police station there are other options available to you for reporting those incidents. At the moment in most areas in the UK there are third party reporting options but they’re not very well known, for example in Leicester you can go to the Library to report. Who goes to their Library, who knows they can report at the Library? I think it needs more engagement with the trans community to find out what would work for them. Also, what works for trans victims in one area might not work in another, more rural areas for example, so that whole communication process would really help to find out what works when it comes to reporting.
A couple of other things I’d say when it comes to barriers to reporting, many victims say they want to see positive things come from campaigns around reporting, so more positive reporting on successful real life stories of people being brought to justice. This could really help to encourage others to come forward with their own reports.
Other than that I think some of the needs and requirements are very similar to other strands of hate crime victims, they want regular updates from reports as there is very little followup, sometimes victims want an independent advocate as it can be quite daunting during the process. So there’s number of steps that can be taken, and we presented a lot of these to the Equlaities and Human Rights Commission in our report.
Social media was briefly spoken about and the prevalence of hate speech on there along with the difficulty of policing that. Did you find through your research when speaking to trans people that this was a problem they spoke about with you?
Not as much as I thought it would be. That’s not to say it isn’t a problem but it didn’t come up in the report as much, but I do know that online hate and hostility through social media is a huge problem. I think that there’s a lot of confusion around who should tackle these incidents, who should be the ones reacting to it. In our own research I’ve not spoken to that many victims who’ve faced those kinds of problems through social media but it’s something that I’d love to explore more.
One of the things you said in the inquiry that seemed to grab a lot of peoples attention and was quoted on Twitter during the inquiry was that the legal system within the UK seems to wait for a tragedy to occur before going and enacting changes. I know it’s not a straight forward comparison as it’s not just talking about the UK, but like in America the numbers of trans women murders is on the rise, we’re already 50% higher than the whole of last year with three months of the year left to go.
Transphobic hate seems to either be reported more or possibly happening more, so I guess my question is what more is going to happen before these changes come into effect? It’s costing lives already, when do you think people are going to start seeing this as an issue or do you think that’s already started now with the trans inquiry?
The fact that a trans inquiry is taking place is a good sign for sure, so it’s something we shouldn’t over look or underestimate, there’s much more academic literature when it comes to transphbic hatred and more policy engagement on these issues so they’re all really positive signs, and they weren’t there ten years back. There is most definitely progress. Is that progress far reaching enough? No, of course not. We still have a shocking level of transphobic hostility and transphobic hate crime taking place. We have massive level of under reporting, we have disparity within levels of legal protection and we have concerns within the trans community so there are massive problems. Obviously we’ve had progress, though I don’t think its come quick enough.
In answer to the first part of your question, I don’t know what else could happen, we’ve had so much tragedy that effects the trans community already so I’m not sure we need any more to hurry things along or things will hurry along any more then they already are.
The reason I made that point to the inquiry is because that is how our law has developed. We didn’t have much by way of hate crime legislation until the Lawrence Case, and then those laws started to develop. 9/11 happened and we saw a backlash against Muslim communities in particular then we saw the creation of racially aggravated offenses. We saw the murder of Jody Dobrowski and the introduction of laws covering homophobic hatred.
We’ve seen tragic incidents around cases of disability and we’ve seen legislation there, so it seems like there’s this piecemeal approach, that is better than in some countries where they don’t make these kinds of legislation, but it does seem like a very odd way of lawmaking where we wait for problems to occur before we do anything about them. That’s one of my biggest concerns where it comes to hate crime laws, and particularly the trans community, and it’s like you said, what more needs to happen before people start taking this seriously? And when I say take it seriously I mean we need to do more than just have inquiries about the issues, we actually need to make people feel safer and that isn’t happening just yet.
What would you like to see come from the trans inquiry?
Rather than saying specific things I’d like to see, because ultimately it’s not my call whether I want to see changes to the law or any of the specific recommendations the inquiry might make, is for the inquiry to produce a report and findings that are fed back to the trans community and for the trans community to consider that report and feed back to the inquiry.
So rather than it being a done deal where people give evidence and a report is compiled and published and that box is ticked and we move on to the next issue, I really want this to be the first step in a dialogue where a report can be fed back to the people effected, not people like me, but people who are actually effected by these issues whether within the health care system or criminal justice system.
I’d like to see that opportunity and hope that that opportunity is given, I’m just worried that this is a situation where something’s produced and we just move on from there. It’s better than having no inquiry at all, but I’m hoping that it can be used as the first step in an open dialogue with the trans community itself.
Professor Neil Chakraborti works for the University of Leicester Criminology department and runs the Leicester Centre For Hate Studies.