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.