When I first heard officers of the Met police had been accused of mistreating a young trans person in Soho, I shrugged. I know that not every encounter between police and “teh tranz” will end well; that accidents – in the sense of one or two officers acting badly – will always happen.
That was before I heard a number of stories of unhappy police-trans encounters, and that was before yesterday when, it was alleged that Met officers had apparently gone out of their way to brutalise and humiliate yet another young trans person, this time for the awful crime of being sick in a public space.
Is it now time to call “institutional transphobia”? Or are these incidents still no more than might be expected in a force employing over 30,000 officers (not to mention 10,000-plus support staff) and covering one of the most cosmopolitan capitals in the world.
The first alleged incident took place in 2011 during celebrations for the last big royal wedding. Then, police officers arresting anti-royal demonstrators in Soho Square were accused of roughly “cupping” the genitals of a protestor in order to ascertain her “real” gender.
When I spoke to officers from the Met’s diversity team at the time, they expressed serious concern, but as an official complaint was never made, the matter was not pursued. In my opinion, this leaves us with the worst of both worlds: the police were neither fully exonerated, nor proven guilty of any misconduct.
The second case is even more concerning. I have recently spoken with an individual who alleges that, following her arrest in 2008 for a minor offence, Nottinghamshire police blatantly – perhaps deliberately – misgendered her by refusing to record her true gender without sight of a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). The officers responsible for amending records on a central London database then refused to correct this, unless she was able to present a GRC.
A spokesperson for the Met told me today they do not believe the central London database in question is under their control. For my source, who has chosen to remain anonymous, the results of this bureaucratic mix up were catastrophic: she failed a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) background check required by her employer and subsequently lost her job. The CRB have since corrected their mistake, but the damage is already done.
An official change of gender does not depend on a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC). That rewrites one specific document – your birth certificate – but most organisations, from NHS to Inland Revenue will happily amend gender on application, sometimes supported by medical opinion.
The police approach to this issue has been inconsistent, partly as a result of some bad advice provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) back in 2004. Then, they advised forces that a GRC was necessary before confirming a gender change. This, as a subsequent court case made clear, was incorrect. A period of confusion followed, as some forces respected “lived gender”, while others (including the Met) stuck with GRC. In theory, matters were clarified last May, with revised guidelines from the ACPO coming down firmly on the side of the lived approach.
Now we have yesterday’s events, captured on mobile phone and witnessed by several passers-by, in which police are alleged to have mocked and humiliated a transgender individual, while simultaneously restraining them with unnecessary force.
The incident took place on Wardour St, well within an area frequently described as Soho’s LGBT heart and only a few dozen yards from Madame JoJo’s, a locale much-visited by sections of the trans community. This is a place where, one might imagine, sensitivity and awareness of local community standards are at a premium. Yet police actions, if accurately reported, expose officers who hold the trans community – perhaps the rest of the LGBT alphabet soup, too - in utter contempt. A formal complaint has been made, and we must wait to see how this plays out.
The gold standard for a part of the trans community is “living in stealth”. That means total change, eradicating all trace of previously lived gender: a new life as complete as any devised by witness protection, and it’s not hard to see why police bureaucrats might jib at such a thing. But this is also about respect, of lived gender ¬, as current police guidelines acknowledge – not about imposing extra conditions supported neither by law nor good practice.
This is a failure of management and leadership. Not, yet, evidence of institutional transphobia: but a failure to understand local communities: and if police can be so openly hostile – so disrespectful - to trans folk in an area at the heart of LGBT London, this will not be the last incident of its kind.