Thursday, 7 December 2017

Reporting of transphobia in the media: Cherwell School case

A few weeks ago, I was watching the press coverage regarding school teacher Joshua Sutcliffe from Cherwell School in Oxford. Mr Sutcliffe is currently being investigated by his employer for misconduct. Mr Sutcliffe himself says that he in this position because he 'once accidentally misgendered a pupil'. Coverage of this story seems to focus entirely on this incident. 

Now, if this were actually the case then I would, as a trans person myself, say that this is going too far – mistakes can happen, especially in a classroom situation. However, I wanted to share my personal insight on this story as I am somewhat close to the story. 

Spoilers, my main take away is that the case is made to fit a certain narrative: that trans-bashing sells stories in the media and it is easy to do. 

First of all, you may ask, "Why has the school not provided their side of the story?" Whilst we hear a lot from Mr Sutcliffe, the school stay silent. The school is silent for legal reasons; in the midst of an investigation, it cannot discuss the case, demonstrating the professional integrity of Cherwell School. Thus the story is very one sided, which makes it easier to portray a story with a particular angle. 

So, I do not work for the school and have not been given any inside details. However, through my work with local LGBT+ youth groups and work as a local advocate for LGBT+ rights, I know pupils and parents of young people at Cherwell. I know teachers there (in fact, I visited the school last week from writing) and know the pupil in question. 

I think that it’s important to explain that this teacher is not in trouble for a genuine one-off mistake. This is a series of events, and Mr Sutcliffe is cherry picking one part of the case against him to portray his story in the press. He is attempting to manipulate public perception and make himself out to be the victim. The teacher publicly continues to intentionally misgender the student in coverage. This also indicates a disheartening mindset – that transgender people are easy and acceptable targets in the public sphere. 

Unfortunately this withholding of information serves only to spread panic and fear of transgender issues across the education sector. 

Think about this for a moment - a teacher is in a position of trust and authority and is telling a teenage boy that they are not male, despite current expert medical opinion on transgender issues. This can only be seen as one thing: bullying. (Although arrogance is a close second, unless Mr Sutcliffe has a number of medical degrees I am unaware of.) A teacher is meant to protect the health and wellbeing of a pupil, not cause psychological distress. Worse, whenever I see Mr Sutcliffe on TV I cannot help but think he is smirking like a naughty child saying something he knows he should not. I certainly get that impression.
I cannot help but wonder how it is deemed acceptable for the press to allow Mr Sutcliffe airtime and news columns where he clearly bullies a teenage boy. How can this be ok? The press should be there to present facts, not enable bullying of a young person. Is it any wonder that young LGBT+ people, trans-people specifically, have such high statistics for depression and suicide? And is it any wonder that LGBT+ bullying is rife in schools ( when homophobia and transphobia are so prevalent in society ( Of course, I didn’t really expect this kind of bullying to come from a teacher.  

Now, Mr Sutcliffe claims that he is acting in accordance with their religion. Whilst the law may not be sufficiently agile for all the nuances of gender identity, it does protect transgender people. The Equality Act 2010 (hereafter, ‘the Act’) clearly states ‘a person has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment if the person is proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning the person's sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex.’ (Section 7(1)).

How does this break down? Basically, anyone who is transgender is legally protected as being the gender they identify. Views, like those repeated by Mr Sutcliffe, such as (paraphrased) ‘they were born female, and so they are female’ must be seen as a breach of the Public Sector Duty, particularly given the power imbalance between teacher and student. Additionally, a person is not permitted to do anything where ‘it puts, or would put, persons with whom [the individual] shares the characteristic at a particular disadvantage when compared with persons with whom [the individual] does not share it’ (section 19(b)). 

So how does religious freedom play into this? Well, this freedom is protected by legislation – but not when it impinges on the legal rights of others’ to exist and participate fully in society. The Human Rights Act 1998 states: "Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." (So yes, you cannot be discriminated against because of your religious beliefs but neither can you discriminate against others because of those beliefs.) So Mr Sutcliffe's claim that he should does not need to acknowledge the pupil as male cannot stand against scrutiny.
Ok, so I am going to provide a little personal insight. It can be easy to misgender people. That happens. It happens to me a lot. The pupil at the heart of this case is clearly male. I would suggest, however, that misgendering this pupil requires access to, and abuse of, confidential information and an active attempt to misgender them. 

Even so, misgendering can happen. Society, as it has throughout history, is changing and new concepts and ideas can take some adjustment. Yet I know Cherwell School and how well they train their teachers to handle these issues. Indeed, they have been commended for their inclusive policies by Stonewall and the local County Council. The idea that Mr Sutcliffe had no 'training or support' to deal with transgender students is, quite frankly, laughable in this instance. This may be true of many schools, and I make myself available to those schools to help them navigate what can be difficult terrain when it comes to LGBT+ issues. 

However, Cherwell are well ahead of the curve. This is reflected in their policies, which Mr Sutcliffe refers to in the Daily Mail: "…the school was trying to force me to adhere to its liberal, Leftist agenda." Unfortunately, this leftist agenda is actually a series of policies that Mr Sutcliffe, as an employee of the school, agreed to uphold when he signed his contract. I do not have access to staff school policies the school, but there are readily available anti-bullying policies for students which include a person’s gender identity, and I expect similar ones for staff. As I say, there are various laws which Mr Sutcliffe will have been trained on; has a duty to follow. I would also hope that as a teacher Mr Sutcliffe was able to learn about the policies in the place of his employment. Indeed, Mr Sutcliffe insistence to not recognise the gender of the pupil demonstrates a wilful disregard of the school's policies. 

Do not feel sorry for Mr Sutcliffe – he is purposely bullying a child in his care. That he is able to air these views concerns me. Do not worry that getting things wrong from time to time will get you in trouble with your employer. This is not an isolated incident and Mr Sutcliffe was well aware of his actions breaching school policies. And I commend Cherwell School: not only do they have policies in place to look after the welfare and liberties of their students but they demonstrate their willingness to implement them to protect their pupils. I hope the media start to employ similar decency.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Homophobia and transphobia have no place in Universities

I work hard in my spare time, as vice chair of the OxU LGBT+ advisory group to put on LGBT+ awareness events, spread understanding and help create an accepting and inclusive work environment here at the university with some awesome people. I do a lot in the local community too. When I do, I say proudly that I am from Oxford University - a place that accepts me for who I am. I do what I can to make sure that my workplace is represented in a positive light because generally my experiences here have been positive. I have been supported by so many here, given a platform to spread a message of inclusivity. To do some good in the world, breaking down barriers in peoples perceptions. It is amazing to see people see how responsive and positve the reaction (from outside the LGBT+ community) is. In the last few years I have found the University of Oxford a great place to work as a rather visible member of the LGBT+ community. 

As a result, I put a lot of effort into my 'day job'. Being in a happy environment I give extra to my work. Extra effort, extra time, extra care. I am proud of my workplace and hope that I am making the world a better place. It may only be a little drop, but an ocean is made up of drops of water. 

Having read the comments made by the VC of the University of Oxford, I was somewhat surprised.
"I've had many conversations with students who say they don't feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality," said Prof Richardson. 
"They don't feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.
"And I say, 'I'm sorry, but my job isn't to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I'm interested in making you uncomfortable'.
"If you don't like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that. 

It is hard to know the full context and intent of the statement. I hope the comments are clarified soon. We need context. But right now the comments, as they stand, concern me. 

Imagine if the sentence was "say they don't feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against black students / Jewish people / people with disabilities." Would you be comfortable making that statement? If you cannot imagine making those statements, then the same should be applied to comments on sexuality (and gender identity). The sentences sound as though you are saying that it is ok to make homophobic statements in a classroom. Whether the intent is there or not, that is the message that will be taken – as Twitter, etc. have proven. 

Homophobia is illegal, for a start. The Equality Act 2010 specifically mentions sexuality (and gender identity - though as gender reassignment) as a protected characteristic. The University is bound to this law and the guidelines and policies of the University are framed around this. The guidelines and anti-harassment policies are clear. It is unacceptable to make homophobic comments and it is the universities responsibility to prevent this / challenge such thinking. Not that of the students.
The Oxford University LGBT+ Advisory Group, OUSU LGBTQ+ Campaign and LGBTQ+ Society all work hard to make LGBT+ students and staff feel accepted, welcome and safe at Oxford University. We work hard. We care. I personally feel like we are doing a great job and things are improving. We do this, firstly because we believe that these people deserve to be treated with the same dignity that everyone else is treated to. Secondly, because the LGBT+ community is subject to elevated hate crimes and the University should be a place where people feel safe.
We often do not feel safe or accepted. 

The key findings from the Gallop ( ) survey show: 4 in 5 LGBT people had experienced hate crime; A quarter had experienced violent hate crime; A Third experienced online hate crime; A Tenth experienced sexual violence as part of a hate crime. The university should be a place where you can get away from the discrimination in the wider world. Not a bubble, but a break. Oxford University should be a place of higher learning. Hate should have no place in this. When persecuted it is hard to really flourish and this is, of course, true in academia.

Why is it such a big deal? Well, the LGBT+ community have alarming levels of depression and suicide. LGB people are twice as likely as heterosexual people to have suicidal thoughts or to make suicide attempts; LGB people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer from depression; Over half of gay young people deliberately harm themselves yet the NSPCC estimates that for young people in general its between 1 in 15 and 1 in 10 ( ). Nearly half (48 per cent) of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, and 30 per cent said they had done so in the past year, while 59 per cent said they had at least considered doing so ( numbers vary by survey, but the general trend is clear: LGB+ people are far more susceptible to severe depression and risk of suicide than none LGB+ people, and for transgender individuals the number become far worse. 

Why is this? Well, because of discrimination. Because of hate, abuse, lack of fundamental dignity. Fear of all the above once you come out. Hiding who you are due to that fear. I personally spent nearly thirty years suffering from severe depression knowing that I was transgender. Worrying about the effects of coming out. Suicide felt like a viable option a number of times. Yet, when I came out and was accepted for who I am, the depression lifted. Completely. Had I not been accepted for my gender identity, I do wonder how different things could have been. I read cases of suicide (not to mention murder) for being trans every few days – and generally these cases come from homes / social groups where the person was not accepted. Such things are reflected in the elevated levels of LGBT+ homeless: LGBT young people are more likely to find themselves homeless than their non LGBT peers, comprising up to 24% of the youth homeless population; LGBT homeless youth are highly likely to have experienced familial rejection, abuse and violence (69%, AKT 2015) ( Rejection is a real issue if you are LGBT+. If you know where to look, the news is grim as a trans person. It is not much better if your sexuality is deemed 'alternative'. 

This is why I am so passionate about creating an accepting environment. Why I put so much time and effort into maintaining this for other people. Casual comments that suggest homophobia is acceptable undo a lot of good work. The statement may not have intended to be such, but it comes across that way and thus will be taken as a green light by some. 

If a student does not feel comfortable with their tutor because they are homophobic, then should they have to hide who they are? Worry during classes that they can be 'found out'? Should it be ok for them to hear homophobic comments used in casual conversation even if they are not aimed at them? Or would this be upsetting? 

Is it really up to the student to challenge such behaviour? I think the dynamic between homophobic professor and student are clearly misunderstood. The professor is in a powerful position. Few students will stand up to that. Fewer still to people who make flagrant homophobic comments from a position of power. I would not have done so as an undergraduate. Now I will fight for those students.
And I make myself a visible role model. Why? Well, I almost chose suicide over coming out as trans because I assumed that trans people are not accepted in science and engineering. In 15 years I had met one out gay person and no other LGBT+ people at all in my fields. Statistically it is very unlikely that this is representative of the people I met, but there it was. It is not hard to draw conclusions based on what you see: if there are no out LGBT+ people in STEM subjects, they must not be accepted in those fields. After working so hard on my career, how could I give that up? I did not feel able to be myself but I accepted a substandard life. As a result my academic output was low. It was hard to write papers when my mind was in a downward spiral. 

I avoid having the 'what if' thoughts. What could I have achieved had I transitioned much earlier? Such thoughts are not constructive or positive. I cannot change the past. Still, I hope I would have achieved much higher academic achievements. After all, I managed to gain a PhD, many international collaborations and four years worth of postdoctoral research whilst operating at a subpar level compared to what I am capable of, due to my mental health issues. 

I cannot be alone. I know I am not. As I say, in all the years prior to my coming out I met a statistically low number of LGBT+ people. We need to foster an inclusive environment within university in order to allow people to flourish. It should not only be those who have no worries or cares that output at their highest level, everyone should be able to. By creating an accepting space we can get the best out of everyone. Surely we want the best, especially here at Oxford. 

And those that say “well, it is your choice to be gay” - are we not past the point where we even think that sexuality is a choice, that gender identities that vary front the gender assigned at birth is a lifestyle option? The medical community is clear, these things are not a choice. I do not believe I have a choice. Who chooses a life of depression? A life of become a target for hate crimes? How can our academics be the best in the world if they are so closed minded to things they do not understand? Do we have climate change deniers teaching chemistry? Deniers of evolution teaching physics? We want academic excellence.

I do agree with the VC that universities should be challenging. Students should be challenged, made to think. I agree with that. If we live in an echo chamber of similar thoughts then we fail to grow as people. Without challenge, how do look to achieve higher and push ourselves? We need to understand why we think how we do, act how we do. We need to know both sides of arguments. Society will move forward through a compromise and balance of conflicting ideologies. However, there is a difference in free speech and hate speech. Homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, agism - none of these things are not debateable. They are not acceptable. Not in society and certainly not at Oxford University.