Monday, 4 October 2010

No Safe Spaces for Transgender People

Those who think that transgender people have, at least in Western Europe, are safe from transphobic hate-crime, need to rethink their view of the world. Even those places which one would consider most safe are not necessarily as safe as we may have thought. From the ignorant feminist minority insisting that we be "mandated out of existence" to religious zealots and fascists, the presence and expression of these objectionable idologies clearly results in increased hate crime...

The third Transgender Europe (TGEU) Conference in Malmo, Sweden, was a resounding success and enabled transgender activists and campaigners from around Europe and beyond to share ideas and campaign strategies to help make their campaigning more effective and better coordinated. It was, however, not without incident. One of the reasons the conference had been convened in Malmo (other than because of the excellent local knowledge of Maria Sundin which enabled TGEU to use the conference facilities of the University and to have a civic reception in the city hall), was the feeling that Sweden is a civilised and safe place for transgender people.

This turned out possibly to be a false assumption to make.

At least one of the two transphobic (and possibly also racist) attacks on two Turkish delegates outside a restaurant in Bergsgatan was premeditated. After shouting insults at these two transwomen as they went in, the group of 6-7 male attackers were waiting for them when they came out. They were violently assaulted and pelted with eggs. During the attack the women called out to a male passer-by to call the police, he refused to do so. Eventually two young women called the police, who arrived 30 minutes later. The women were treated in hospital and released. However this was far from the end of their ordeal.

When questioned by the police about the incident they were subjected to a host of degrading and embarrassing questions, including questions about what they were wearing and questions in which they were deliberately misgendered. They were also, rather threateningly, asked questions about their visa status. Questions which would not have been asked to a white victim.

This was relevant to what happened to these two women next. The following day, a Friday, they were enjoying themselves in The Crown nightclub in Amiralsgatan, the entry fee to which they had paid. At one point a male clubber slapped one of the women in the face. Rather than retaliate, these women complained to the staff, expecting, as would you or I, that the assailant would at very least be cautioned or ejected. Instead, astonishingly, the two women were thrown out!

Of course, following their previous ordeal with the police they did not want to report this, and so left feeling extremely unhappy. Of course TGEU has protested very strongly and the equality ombudsman, who was at the conference became involved, and another national equality and diversity worker came straight to Malmo from Stockholm to investigate the incident, even though it was the weekend. TGEU has rightly demanded a full investigation into these incidents and that the transphobic/racist police officers be at least disciplined. The leader of Malmo City Council has personally apologised for these outrages, despite the fact that he does not have any control over the police, saying that all peoples deserve respect as a minimum.

The vast majority of us were treated with that respect by everyone we encountered in Malmo although there were incidents of transphobic abuse suffered by some other, delegates. This contrasted with the particularly courteous treatment I received at a transgender conference in November 2009 in the small industrial town of Linkoping, about 70 miles out of Stockholm. Here, there were no transphobic incidents at all and one got the feeling that Sweden really did live up to its billing of being a tolerant and accepting liberal country.

So what has changed? The location? Obviously the City of Malmo is not like the town of Linkoping, but seems to be a much more sophisticated place with its own queer subculture. So I would discount the effect of differing geographical location as the main factor in the different experiences of transgender people, although others may argue that it is a factor.

No, the main other reason for the difference between our two experiences was time. The conference in Malmo happened after the election of a number of Nazi MPs in the Swedish general election a few weeks ago. The Nazi Party, calling itself the SD, is an openly racist party. And we all know that, where racism exists so do other forms of bigotry.

In my opinion the atmosphere in Sweden had changed tangibly since the last Autumn. It felt as if, now that representatives of a hate-party had been elected, those who would otherwise have thought twice about expressing antisocial opinions, now felt free to do so. The restrictions of social convention and the fear of criticism for being a bigot/Nazi/total wanker had been lifted. The haters seem to feel that they could come out of the woodwork, the social atmosphere has changed and they feel able to express the pathetic, immature hatred in their selfish, evil and ignorant hearts as though it were socially acceptable.

Their perception that the election of fascist MPs renders socially acceptable the emptiness and ignorant egotism of the arrogant, confused and childish chaos which represents the personalities of these sad people. This is what happens when far-right parties get votes.

The reaction from the queer community in Malmo was swift however and the evening after the incident in the Crown, 200 people demonstrated outside the club at the time when most of their customers would have been going in. The nightclub would have lost a substantial proportion of its revenue for that evening and they received a good deal of publicity for their attitude in the local newspaper.

This is a reality check for people who think that everything is hunky-dory and that trans people no longer suffer from discrimination, as has been shown again recently; transgender people are still being murdered at an alarming rate. It would appear that one of the factors affecting whether or not transphobia raises its ugly head is likely to be the presence of political or religious or other organisations which serve to legitimize the kind of across-the-board bigoted attitudes against anyone who is different. It is the presence of Nazis in the shape of the SD which has made at least some people feel that it is now socially acceptable to indulge in bigoted behaviour and hate-crime. As such countering these peddlers of hate, wherever and however they manifest themselves, is an essential precondition for improving conditions of transgender people.

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