Trans Notes from a Small Island: Customer Service is a Two-Way Street

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On 1 September 2015, the second plank of Jersey’s discrimination legislation came into force. As a trans person on the island you are protected under the characteristic of gender reassignment. Now if you experience less favourable treatment in the workplace, as either an employee or a client of a provider of goods and services, you have the ability within law to take the case to the Jersey Employment and Discrimination Tribunal. If they find for you, it may result in compensation of up to £10,000 for a single claim. (Jersey has set a limit for compensation unlike other jurisdictions.)

As a result of the new law, I have been spending my time recently training employers and government departments on what it means to be transgender, how trans people are now protected under the law, the ways in which trans people are routinely discriminated against (sometimes by well-meaning people) and how employers can ensure that they don’t end up in the tribunal by doing simple things like training their employees, updating their staff handbooks and policies, and by making a public commitment to equality and diversity.

On the whole, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. People are interested to hear about trans lives and keen to understand more about what it means to be trans. They don’t want to discriminate unwittingly through ignorance and are shocked at how trans people are still treated by others. However, two things happened this week that demonstrate how there is work still to be done within and outside of the trans community.

The first was a question that came from someone on a training session that I was giving for people who run bars, restaurants, pubs and clubs in the island. He wanted to know what he should do if a mother with a child complains about sharing the ladies with a trans woman. I asked what it was that he was worried that the child would see. He evaded my question by saying he wasn’t worried, it was the mother who was worried. I explained that, unless he wished to run the risk of ending up in the tribunal, he should explain to the mother that he runs a business that does not discriminate and that the trans woman has every right to use the ladies toilets. He didn’t like the answer and, rather aggressively, said that I was suggesting he put the rights of the trans woman ahead of the rights of the mother and child.

I was pushed for time and, although I said that I wasn’t putting the trans woman’s rights ahead of the mother’s, I didn’t expand on why in my answer. What I should have said was that, in law, the comparator for a trans woman is a woman. There is nobody else it can be. Therefore, I would only be treating the mother less favourably if I barred her from using the ladies and only allowed the trans woman to use the ladies, which I did not suggest.

Getting people to grasp that, when dealing with equal treatment under the law, a trans woman equals a woman and a trans man equals a man is difficult. The question of surgery gets in the way. The myth perpetuates that you can only really be your recognised gender, or even trans, if you’ve had surgery, despite the fact that in Jersey we have removed any mention of medical intervention being a requirement, unlike in the UK.

It is also difficult for people to grasp that the law does not allow people to discriminate based on their religious or cultural views, phobias or plain ignorance in the workplace. You may think what you wish at home and in your place of worship but these views cannot spill out into the workplace.

The second incident that happened this week took place at an organisation that I have been working with to ensure that their trans policies and procedures are fit for purpose. They are genuinely keen to do the right thing and have come up with some good ideas for dealing with trans customers. This week their receptionist took a call from a trans woman. The trans woman did not identify herself as such and did not give her name. The receptionist took a note of what she was phoning about and said, “I’ll just transfer you, Sir.” At this misgendering, the trans woman got angry and aggressive with the receptionist. By all accounts, she was very unpleasant and the manager was called in to pour oil on troubled waters. She agreed with the trans woman that, in the short term, in order the mistake doesn’t happen again, the trans woman should identify herself at the start of the call when she telephones. The organisation are now reviewing their procedures to see whether they need to use sir and madam with callers at all, and whether they need to ask all callers to identify themselves at the start of the call.

If you are like me then the telephone is still the one place that I rarely pass, particularly if I am phoning somewhere that does not recognise my voice or know me well. If I give my name and then someone misgenders me, I do feel aggrieved but, if I have not provided the person I am speaking to with a name, I am self-aware enough to know that I’m likely to get “madam”. I would never dream of getting upset about this. My voice is light for a man and, as annoying as this is for me, I cannot take this annoyance out on members of the public.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that I have had to deal with a member of the trans community acting rashly or unreasonably when dealing with a customer service representative. Having to deal with customer service departments is never great at the best of times, but starting off by assuming that you are going to have a fight on your hands just because of who you are (a trans person) is likely to make the transaction even more fraught.

I believe that respect works both ways. If we are asking others not to take their prejudices into the workplace, we must not do so either. The receptionist made a genuine mistake but the trans woman immediately assumed it was malicious. As a community, we must avoid taking the view that the majority of people we meet want to discriminate against us. Most do not intend to treat us any differently from anyone else. They want to deal with the matter in hand and move onto the next customer. As I said, I have had overwhelmingly positive feedback on all my training sessions.

Sharing our stories with those who don’t have a trans person in their lives or opening non-trans people’s eyes to what it means to be trans is one of the most important things we can do. (I’m sure that campaigners for other minority groups would say the same.) To quote an ex-UK Prime Minister, “Education, education, education”: we should never underestimate the power of talking to people about our lives as trans people and about the issues that we face.

I know not all trans people can do this, either because it’s not their thing or because it is not safe for them to do so. However, trans or not, we can all try to avoid prejudging our fellow human beings.

More trans notes from a small island next month…

Born in London, Vic Tanner Davy now lives in the Channel Islands. When not working in an office crunching numbers, Vic is a writer of LGBT fiction.

Vic’s first novel, Black Art, featured Arty Shaw, the world’s first female-to-male transgender detective. It was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ top 100 books of 2012. Vic’s second novel, A Very Civil Wedding, was a finalist in the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards (Fiction: GLBT). Vic's third novel, The Hystery App, is out now.

Vic has an MBA from the University of Durham and is a member of the Institute of Fundraising. Vic is also the founder of Trans* Jersey, a not-for-profit group formed to support trans* residents in the island of Jersey (Channel Islands).

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