Christine Burns’ excellent blog post about the Equality Act demonstrated how the government is systematically undermining most aspects of it. Christine is an expert on equality legislation and has a particularly good understanding of how it relates to what actually goes on in the public sector – the NHS, schools, universities, etc. She quite clearly explains how the Tories and the Lib Dems are undermining it with a combination of different measures; reducing the ability of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and individuals (through a reduction in Legal Aid) to enforce the law, and reducing public sector bodies’ duty to tell the public what they are doing to reduce inequality.
Rather than come out honestly and openly and say that they disagree with equality for minorities such as black people, trans people, Muslims, women, gay men and lesbians, Theresa May, Lynne Featherstone and the rest of the government seem to have decided to make it appear that they agree with the Equality Act on the surface, whilst behind our backs they are chipping away making it an ineffective piece of legislation. This truly is a government which will say one thing and do the opposite.
However this matters much, much more for trans people than for other minorities. Trans people are one of the smallest minorities in the country. However we are also one of the least understood and most misrepresented. The fact that Trans Media Watch has had to work so hard to come up with its Memorandum of Understanding with Channel 4 and other progressive media is clear evidence of this. Do groups representing women, ethnic minorities, LGB people, Muslims and others have to agree MOUs with the media? The fact that Comic Relief can use a transphobic comedian to raise money for charity suggests that trans people have a very long way to go in the UK compared to other groups.
The experiences of trans children and their treatment in many schools, especially the lack of support they receive from school staff demonstrates the distance trans people still have to go to achieve the acceptance that, for example, ethnic minorities have. In most schools, incidents of racial bullying are dealt with firmly, logged, recorded and patterns analysed to see if there is anything the school can do. In short schools are pro-active when it comes to racism. Transphobic bullying is not taken seriously at all by all accounts.
The Equality Act would have placed a duty on all public bodies to actively plan to ensure that all minority groups are able to access their services. This is called the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) and it means that, all public bodies, especially schools, have to be pro-active and ensure their procedures, policies and activities mean that they consider the impact of everything they do on minority groups.
This is important because many organisations in the public sector already do this to ensure that members of ethnic minority groups are not disadvantaged. However, this does not happen for trans people in very many cases. In fact trans people are not often included in diversity policies for many public sector organisations, especially schools, where incidentally, diversity policies from an LGB perspective are also often lacking.
Relatively small adjustments could lead to substantial improvements in the quality of life and educational outcomes for trans children. Additionally, since trans children do not usually make themselves known to adults at all, schools need to take special measures to educate children that it is OK to be trans, even if they do not know if there are any trans children in the school. With 1% of the population being trans and the modal average age of children becoming aware of their gender variance at only 5 years old, the chances are that a school of 500 children has 5 transgender children. Teachers are told to have a dyslexia-friendly classroom even if they do not know whether or not they have any dyslexic children, the same needs to be the case for trans children.
The fact is that the sort of pro-active measures essential if we are to see trans people treated equitably by public services and public bodies are not going to happen unless public sector bodies are forced to be pro-active. The problem is that, for most other minority groups their needs and problems have at least been acknowledged and actions taken which enable them to access the services provided by public bodies. As such, although the Equality Act is far from perfect from the point of view of trans people, trans people probably stood to gain most from it, and have most to lose from its undermining by the government.
Of course this now raises questions as to the position of Lynne Featherstone, Equalities minister in the current regime. She has been an outspoken and welcome supporter of trans people, however her silent acquiescence over the dilution of the Equality act suggests that she is either a willing collaborator or a pawn who is manipulated by a government that uses her as a cover for illiberal and oppressive policies. Time for her to show whose side she is really on.
Finally, one of the reasons for having a Public sector Equality Duty is because we are all taxpayers (OK except the very rich), and if we are paying our taxes we should expect that we are recieving service which is appropriate for our needs. Most services are appropriate for cisgender people by default. If however, public services are not catering to our needs, why should we pay our taxes?