Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do we need a Blog Complaints Commission?

I don't think it could ever be said that I'm a great fan of the Press Complaints Commission.

During my years as an active campaigner I had lots of opportunities to test the PCC's effectiveness and to discuss their weaknesses with the Commission's staff.

Despite a few successes (once I'd worked out the technique) I never felt that, when it came to the crunch, the system worked quite as advertised for the average person who found themselves attracting unwelcome press attention.

Self-Policing

The root of unease for many would be the simple fact that the Press Complaints Commission is a body that's created by the press to police the press. Some argue that this is like recruiting street gangs to monitor what gangs (including themselves) are up to in your neighbourhood and then expecting them to tick each other off.

Maybe that's not entirely fair as an analogy, but you can understand the source of the suspicion.

It's clear that the PCC relies upon consensus among newspaper and periodical editors in order to function successfully.

Editors sign up to abide by the Editors' Code and, by and large, they seem to stick to the PCC's adjudications – if only from fear that PCC failure could always lead to a harsher system of control being imposed from outside by the Government of the day.

Inadequate provisions

The problem is more often that the Editors' Code itself is inadequate in some areas.

For instance, the biggest issues I've found are that

  • the code does not cover denigration of whole groups; and
  • only the 'victim' of a press item can complain – others, tarred by association, cannot

I have a particular familiarity with the code because I led a lobby some years ago to get it extended. It seemed at the time that the code was particularly ineffective at protecting individual trans people and I set out to change that.

You can read how I did that in my report, "Transsexual People and the Press".

Hard to change

The campaign to ensure the Editors' Code was more effective for transsexual people (even if not entirely bulletproof) illustrated how difficult it can sometimes be to secure changes in systems like this.

The PCC was far from convinced initially that they needed to change anything. As far as they were concerned, the existing Code worked perfectly well. This is why the essence of the campaign turned on getting dozens of people to lobby personally in their own words to say how terrorised they felt – and how the Editors' Code hadn't helped them in their hour of need.

In the end the PCC agreed. All they actually changed was one word. (Thank God I hadn't wanted them to alter an entire sentence.)

Yet, to be fair again, the Editors' Code Committee did also issue a clarifying statement to Editors. The debate also meant that some key Fleet Street editors involved in the change process obtained some exposure to the effects of their policies.

Getting better

The result is that, whilst the problems have not gone away entirely, press coverage of trans people in the UK has generally got better. And, when people have contacted me subsequently in blind panic because a journalist is on their lawn, the advice to call the PCC's emergency help line has always done the trick.

My close involvement with the PCC's governance processes also means that I retain an interest in what the PCC is doing, and I read the Commission's newsletters and press releases with great interest. These are available on their web site. There is no RSS feed unfortunately, but you can join their mailing list by writing to pcc@pcc.org.uk

The interesting thing about studying that regular trickle of news about key adjudications and further changes in the Code is that, by and large, the Commission does seem to be getting more effective as time goes by. It may not be perfect, for the kinds of reasons I've explained above, yet – as with having OFCOM and the ASA to complain to about TV, Radio and Advertising – the PCC is there, and it does work so long as you know the limitations and how to pitch a complaint.

But what about the Blogosphere?

So that brings me to my rhetorical question...

The world of Blogging, amplified by social media such as Facebook or Twitter, has become a significant force within the eco-system of news.

Look back ten years and, if you had something to say, then your best chances of reaching a significant audience were to try and get your words published in conventional media.

At best, to go it alone, you would need to spend significant effort (and some cash) to build a web site and try to drum up a regular following by word of mouth, or through some kind of email distribution.

Before the advent of Yahoo groups and their ilk you would need to have some technical expertise (and again some cash) to set up a list server. Again, you would need to invest significant efforts in growing the readership for this – just as conventional paper publications once had to do.

And you only need to go back twenty years or so to find that, although there were academic list servers around, there was practically no audience online for your views outside of the universities.

These factors meant that access to any form of mass audience was restricted to all but a few, and the views expressed would either be subject to traditional editorial controls or would have only a restricted audience.

Brave new world

All that has changed now of course. Anybody can set up a Blog for themselves in a matter of minutes. Publishing has never been easier. And social media have an enormous magnifying effect that can allow anybody's Blog to go viral around the world in hours, if the content is judged interesting enough.

Personally I find that this potential just adds to the traditional obligation I feel to check my facts, be constrained in what I write, and consider the effects of my words. Like most Bloggers, I am my own editor.

Yet the very accessibility of the medium means that there is a huge growth in people who follow no such disciplines.

Bloggers can largely get away with writing what they like, it seems. They can do things that the trashiest of tabloid hacks would never dream of attempting. And, in the right circumstances, their words can travel further than any newspaper or magazine, and remain on the web potentially forever – long after today's papers have been used to line the bottom of the cat's litter tray.

No redress?

And if you just happen to be on the receiving end of a libellous Blog then what can you do about it?

Well, in theory, you can try and take action by reporting the Blog to the organisation that provides the platform. If you're lucky then this may be successful. Yet I can sympathise if some service providers claim they're not there to arbitrate in disputes about whether a comment is accurate or not – or whether the reverse side of the complaints coin amounts to an unacceptable constraint on fair comment and free speech.

Yet newer media offer even less potential for control. If you make a libellous statement on (say) Twitter and everyone re-tweets the information then how can that be stopped? You may not even be able to pin down who initiated the statement once the message has moved through two or three sets of hands.

Just as the helplessness engendered by globalised identity theft has led to a burgeoning of services to sort things out, do we need a body to help us when we are unfairly misrepresented by irresponsible or malicious blogging?

How would it work? How could an individual in the UK (say) seek redress against something written in Venezuela?

Or do we just give in because the global communications tool we've let loose is too big and complex to control?

If so then the minor grouses we might have about the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission could soon seem totally irrelevant.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obligatory Heckler Syndrome

As an advisor to the Department of Health on LGBT issues I've recently been in the privileged position of getting to review the very first efforts by NHS Choices to feature transsexual people within their extensive advice web site.

For those readers outside of the UK, NHS Choices is a web portal that supplements the bricks and mortar services of Britain's National Health Service.

The site provides tools for finding specific local services, run by the NHS's 150+ Primary Care Trusts, and the hundreds more hospitals or specialist services run by what are called "Acute" and "Specialist" care Trusts.

In addition, the service provides online medical advice about a range of conditions. So it was right and proper that NHS Choices should aim to include information about gender identity issues.

As part of this effort, a professional production company arranged interviews with a couple of young trans people. The first was a young trans woman called Ruth. (I've also just helped to approve a great companion film with a young trans man too).

NHS Choices use You Tube as their video platform, so you can see the film here.




The films go onto You Tube some time in advance of the NHS Choices pages being written and uploaded, so it has been interesting to watch how the world's You Tube viewers have responded.

Predictably, Ruth's film has been viewed very widely. When I checked a few moments ago it had clocked up 11,325 viewings.

Actually, this isn't unusual for an NHS Choices film. Their film on back pain has been viewed 233,000 times, and the one on teenagers and contraception has logged over 115,000 hits. Ruth is actually number 26 in the charts.

What struck me when I looked at it on You Tube, however, was the comments.

Again, 38 comments after 11,325 viewings is not a very significant number – and four of those are from 22 year old Ruth herself, feeling moved to respond to some of the speculation about her anatomy.

But, although most of the comments are overwhelmingly positive, complimentary and supportive, there always seems to be a need for at least one commentator to step forward and declare, with touching certainty, that someone like Ruth is a "he" and that "he" can never be a "she" because "his" Chromosomes aren't such and such.

A commentator with the screen name "thetrait0r" opines:

"Let me tell you, I used to be exactly like you... wanting the same thing, but I looked at reality. Nothing magical can happen. You and I were born male... nothing can change what we were born and designed for. We don't have the technology to alter internal body parts... no matter what surgery you get, your still a guy... unless you really REALLY want to waste your money. Even if you do get sugery, your NOT a girl. Your a guy with a mulated (sic) penis..."

The odd thing about this kind of heckle is that it has become almost obligatory. And they're usually quite fervent too .. as though the writers are desperate for confirmation that their views are supported by others.

You'll see heckles like these anywhere that a transgender themed story appears online and is open to reader comments. Pick your publication, search for 'transsexual' or 'transgender', and you'll usually find a proportion of the comments debating this theme.

It's such a common and predictable phenomenon, in fact, that it deserves pathological categorisation. I've dubbed it, 'Obligatory Heckler Syndrome'

The obligatory hecklers have been around for years of course. What's changed is that now they get far from their own way.

Nowadays, for every obligatory heckler, there are at least half a dozen people equally prepared to put him or her straight with an array of facts to demonstrate that their simple certainties aren't so simple and certain as they imagined.

The fact is that sex and gender are a lot more complex than they taught at school. It's more than XX and XY. There are women with XY chromosomes and men with XX. Then there are dozens of different kinds of intersex states as well - not just chromosomal but more physical too. Among all this biological diversity, someone like Ruth is just as entitled to a respectful place as anyone else.

Maybe this will mean that the obligatory heckler is a dying species. After all, if your views get corrected every time you post a comment then, sooner or later, you are likely to give up and seek some other target.

I'm not altogether sure whether I'll be happy or sad when that happens though.

To be sure, the hecklers can be a depressing reminder of all the small minds that lurk out there in our far from civil civilisation.

Yet they are also such good sport too – and their ill-informed bar room attitudes provide such a lot of smiles, as it becomes more and more apparent what a tiny minority they represent, and how their ignorance means they will always lose the argument.

Nah. On second thoughts no space for sentimentality. Let's wave them farewell, as their solitary protests echo feebly in the chill night of internet obscurity.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Gospel according to John

As far as I can tell, Just Plain Sense is the world's only regular Podcast about Diversity, and the issues of Equality and Human Rights which tag along with the simple fact that we are all incredibly unique. This eponymous Blog complements the regular audio episodes, giving me the opportunity to expand on some of the topics raised – or occasionally go off on a complete tangent, as I've done recently on LGBT equality matters.

The Podcast has been running for almost exactly a year. It started on 4th March 2008. In that time I've tried to cover a wide variety of topics connected with gender, race or ethnic background, disability, LGBT matters and age.

Until now, however, I'd not been able to record an item on the vexed issue of where religion sits among those other equality "strands".

The omission wasn't intentional. Last summer I wrote several times, very politely, to the Bishop of Manchester for instance.

Snubbed

I had already taken part in an event for the Bishop. Last summer I read a lesson at a special LGBT service organised by the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF) at Manchester Cathedral.

So it was a huge disappointment when neither the Bishop nor his staff even acknowledged my requests to talk seriously about protection in law for people to follow the religion of their choice and to worship in safety.

Indeed, after producing 55 episodes,, the Bishop of Manchester is still the only Just Plain Sense invitee who has given me the cold shoulder.

Not to be deterred, however, I've continued to look for other guests willing to discuss religion's place in the Equality and Diversity debate. Monsignor John Devine was the first to agree. More about John's interview in a moment.

Confusion and conflict

I've been keen to cover the topic because "religion and belief" is the non-discrimination rights issue which generally seems to be the most problematic. That's partly because it is so misunderstood and misapplied.

The first big issue concerns what the law does and doesn't uphold.

What the law says

Until December 2003, legal protection against discrimination on grounds of religion or belief was confined to those from particular faiths who were covered by virtue of their ethnicity, as in the case of Sikhism and Judaism.

A certain degree of protection was afforded to other religious and nonreligious communities by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, through the Human Rights Act 1998, but this was very limited.

The European Council Directive of 2000 established a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupations. It came into force in the UK in December 2003 through the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations. These regulations make it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief.

The regulations apply to vocational training and all aspects of employment including recruitment, terms and conditions, promotions, transfers, dismissals and training. They cover direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, victimisation, or instructing someone else to discriminate unlawfully in these ways.

So far, so good...

What the law doesn't say

As you'll see, the thrust of the law is intended to allow people to believe (or not believe) in a particular theology and to worship freely, along with others in that faith. We use the term "religion and belief" to emphasise that the law also protects people who are agnostic or atheist to the same extent.

The problems arise when followers of a religion are expected to proselytise, or if believers interpret the sacred texts of their faith to mean that they should act in a disapproving way towards others. The law does not provide a license for either of these behaviours. Neither does the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the latter case, the right to follow a particular religion and to worship in that faith is a so-called "qualified" right. It's not absolute. A person's right to a religion or belief needs to weighed in a proportionate manner against the rights that protect other people. For instance, the right to life is an unqualified right and therefore cannot be outweighed by someone's religious beliefs.

Wide scope for conflict

It is in this area of balance that all the problems lie, however – bringing some people with strongly orthodox religious beliefs into conflict with (potentially) just about everyone else.

People with strong religious beliefs can attempt to challenge the rights of women (e.g. on birth control and abortion), people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds (e.g. with different religions and customs), people with disabilities, and gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans people. It's a long list.

In a small geographic area like Britain, religious disagreements and rivalries can also threaten social cohesion – as communities with strongly different beliefs and traditions find themselves living next door to one-another.

Full scale hostilities

Then there are incidents which seem almost calculated to pour petrol on smoking coals:

Significant bad feeling was created when evangelical Christian groups lobbied hard for exceptions in laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people from discrimination. The media reports cases such as that of Islington Registrar Lillian Ladelle, who claimed harassment on grounds of her religious belief when she refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies.

An employment tribunal initially decided in Ms Ladelle's favour; however that decision was later overturned on appeal.

Then Pope Benedict provoked dismay and fury among LGBT people when he said in a 2008 end of-year address that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was as important as saving the rainforests.

Interviewing Monsignor Devine

Like all Just Plain Sense interviews, I planned my questions to Monsignor Devine carefully in advance. I know John fairly well as he is a member of the regional Equality and Diversity group that I chair. His official roles include being Churches Officer for the North West; he chairs the council of Liverpool Hope University; in addition he is a Priest in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool.

I anticipated that it would be difficult to obtain a tightly focussed interview from John, as he's just not like that.

Some interviewees are so well-rehearsed at trotting out their views that you just light the fuse and stand back. But John is a quieter, thoughtful soul – packed full of ideas, but not particularly adept at delivering them in soundbite form. At times it was therefore difficult to tell whether he was actually answering the intended question, or taking such a long way round that we were never going to get there.

Mind you, this isn't to be mistaken for the evasiveness seen in some politicians, who'll just answer the question they want to answer instead of the one the interviewer asked. In John's case it's just the way he articulates his thoughts, and I've no ambition to imitate Jeremy Paxman.

I was asking simple black and white questions: What are the frictions between faith groups living side by side? Where does faith end and discrimination begin? John responded with ideas which at first seemed to be vague and off topic. It was only after I'd listened back several times during later editing that I realised how his approach had turned the interview into more of a discussion between us.

Surprises

Buried in those long, wandering, answers we covered a lot – and with a few surprises too.

He agreed that, faced with the increasing demands of a secular society, the Christian Churches needed to change. Indeed he felt they were changing, albeit far more slowly than modern culture dictates. He felt that it was unfair to compare contemporary Christianity and other world religions with each other; instead, he believes that you would need to compare orthodox Islam (say) with Christianity at the time of the Inquisition to understand the evolutionary process.

We discussed the implied need for leadership and the battle between orthodoxy and liberalism. Why don't Church of England liberals take a firmer stand against traditionalists on issues such as Women Bishops or Gay ordination, for instance? Does there come a point where trying to avoid schism becomes more destructive than allowing it to occur?

That brought us to speculate about Pope Benedict's thoughts and intentions when he expressed his views on homosexual and transgender people at Christmas.

Monsignor Devine's answer came as a bit of a surprise – though I'm not going to spoil the effect by trying to précis what he said.

Different legal traditions

John believes, however, that a lot of the issues boil down to different cultural approaches towards rules or laws. He used the analogy of coming up to red traffic lights on a deserted road at 3am to make his point. If you were to cross such a red light in Britain then the law would say that you were guilty of a traffic offence regardless of whether anyone was endangered or not.

According to him, countries which follow the Latin legal tradition would see it in an altogether more pragmatic way though. They would ask what was in the mind of the law maker. They would conclude that the aim of the law was to prevent accidents, not to simply punish people for ignoring red lights. In other words, although the law said one thing, people would weigh what it meant in the circumstances and may decide to set it aside.

Birth rates

To back up this theory, he points to the counterintuitive birth rate statistics in strongly Roman Catholic countries such as Italy or Spain. In spite of previous Papal instructions outlawing modern contraception, he argues, these countries have far lower birth rates than places like Britain.

I've subsequently checked the statistics and he's right. According to the CIA World Factbook, women in Britain have an average of 1.66 children each. It is only our relatively low rates of perinatal mortality and increasing life expectancy that means our indigenous population is still increasing. Spain and Italy both have far lower fertility rates though – both 1.3 children per woman according to the CIA's data. Poland, another traditionally Roman Catholic country, has an even lower ratio – 1.27 births per woman.

Of course, it's dangerous to take conclusions too far on the basis of this peculiarly unexpected statistic. France (1.98) and Brazil (2.22) have higher fertility rates than Britain. So it seems likely there are more factors at work than simply a pragmatic attitude towards the Roman Catholic's stand on birth control.

In talking about the epic arguments between liberalism and orthodoxy, and different attitudes towards rules, John Devine does remind us of an important fact though:

Beware the labels

Just like other diversities, religions are far from homogenous.

All the time we are reminded that it is unwise to pin stereotypical assumptions on people, based on single labels like their sex or sexual orientation. Gay men don't all mince. Lesbians don't all like cats. Pick any group in society and it's readily apparent that people differ more than they are alike.

And the lesson from John Devine's interview-cum-discussion is that the same applies to religions and their followers too. The media may love to characterise all Muslims as terrorists, but clearly that's not the case. And when we take issue with followers of any of the world's religions about the beliefs ascribed to them, such as their attitudes towards homosexual people, it's valuable to remember the same.

As John said to me, "I learned [in Peru] that different is not better, nor worse, but just different".

Monday, February 16, 2009

An Accidental Pragmasexual

Maybe it's a peculiar admission to make on the eve of my 56th year on this Earth; however, it's true...

I've never quite sorted out the question of my sexual orientation.

And it's such a minefield that I'm beginning to wonder whether I ever will at this rate.

Unless I'm hugely mistaken then I believe that the default assumption everyone makes is that I'm heterosexual. That is, that I fancy (and occasionally sleep with) men.

I say "occasionally" because the last intimate relationship I had with anyone of either persuasion was perfunctorily terminated by me in the first week of 2005. HE (a mature businessman, slightly older than myself) committed the cardinal sin of becoming a bore, and was starting to take me for granted. Frankly, since then, I've either been too busy, or not concerned enough, to seek any kind of replacement.

Being Out

Of course, when it comes to these things, the fact that I go around telling audiences quite matter-of-factly that I have a transsexual history never really helps much.

It's not me. It's everyone else. That simple fact about my personal history seems to bring the best-adjusted of people out in a sweat.

I'm not sure if they're worried most about the uncertainties I induce regarding their understanding of their own orientation, or whether they're more worried about what their friends may think.

Six years ago I wrote about the complex minefield which this opens up in an essay, "When Sally Met Harry".

Being Gentle

It may come as little surprise that I was inspired to write that detailed introduction to this dangerous minefield because of the practical necessity of needing to introduce the aforementioned lover to my sexual past.

It was the gentlest way I could think of telling him all that I needed to say, after several months of sleeping together and sharing just about everything else.

I'd tried every other approach on previous lovers. On that occasion I thought I'd resort to writing my man a manual.

As it happens, in spite of his long list of faults, the gentleman in question took it rather well. (Once he'd picked himself off the floor). Our relationship continued very nicely for another eighteen months until I ended it myself.

Yet, in spite of a long history of dating men and working out how to navigate around this issue... and in spite of openly allowing bystanders to just assume the rest of the time that I'm quite simply heterosexual... it's really not that simple.

Being Honest

You see, my eyes tell me otherwise. Whilst I may have spent a whole lifetime laying a false trail, the fact is that I fancy other women.

There. I've said it.

But what's the big deal, you may ask? So what if you're Lesbian (or, God forbid) Bisexual? Isn't that OK these days?

Maybe things could best be summed up by an experience I had in the very early 1990's.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A very "out" Lesbian friend wanted to take me to an all night party in the depths of Tonbridge run by the Lesbian social group, Kenrick. She thought it would be educational. Besides, she needed someone to take.

Before we set off for this party, and began to pick up my friend's friends in the car along the way, I was solemnly drilled in the catastrophic consequences of telling anyone at all about my past.

It wasn't just the predictions that I would find myself summarily kicked out into the night. It was the genuine fear that my friend had about her own future relationship with the group – for the heinous sin of introducing me.

Actually, it was quite a nice evening. I had no trouble fitting in, and really enjoyed the experience of drinking and dancing in a safe space devoid of men.

Yet my friend's paranoia had rubbed off. And the mark was permanent.

Don't Go There

Over the succeeding years I absorbed a great deal about the politics of having a trans history in gatherings of those other women who are privileged to never have their status questioned. None of it was nice.

And whilst there are doubtless many trans women who would see that as a challenge to take on – and best of luck to them – that's simply not my way. I never try to force myself into places where I'm evidently not welcome.

There are plenty of causes which I'll champion. None of those are personal. Winning and losing arguments about those things can be a detached, analytical, exercise.

But seeking a place among lesbian women would be about stepping into a minefield, where I could never be sure of being challenged – called to account for myself at any time – now, or in the future.

I guess that in many eyes that could make me a coward. Yes, probably so. The older I get, the more I tend to seek out a quiet life. A safe one, in congenial company.

And the Irony...

The strange irony is that none of those men I've dated over the years turned out to be all that phased about what I might once have been. They could settle for the here and now. They fancied me, even when I wasn't sure if I fancied them.

And society quite likes it that way too. I've never been challenged by straight people for going with the heterosexual flow. I vividly recall coming out to an elderly Conservative lady many years ago. She wasn't in the least concerned that I had a transsexual history. Yet she looked very serious when she added, "... so long as you're not a Lesbian too".

But to follow my eyes and my instincts... To explore my Lesbian self... That would be to invite finger-pointing identity politics into my most vulnerable place. My heart.

I guess that means I'll have to carry on as before. Putting pragmatism before instinct if I'm to continue sharing my life with anyone.

So, I guess that makes me a sort of "Pragmasexual".

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stonewall – “Changing for the Better”

New booklet on "How to include transgender people in your workplace – A guide for forward-thinking employers" [Download here]

Stonewall's relationship with trans people could best be described as having been a bit rocky of late. I'm not going to rake over the history – just google "stonewall protest" if you don't already know.

This week, however, Stonewall Scotland has published a really useful good practice guide as part of a move to incorporate transgender equality into their workplace programme.

"Changing for the Better" is a 34 page A5 booklet produced in conjunction with Scottish Transgender Alliance. It deals with:

  • the business case for welcoming and supporting trans employees in the workplace;
  • how to develop effective policies and procedures; and
  • ten straightforward steps to begin workplace trans inclusion.

Introducing the new guide Stonewall Scotland's Director, Calum Irving writes:

"Whilst almost all our campaigns are transgender inclusive, this guide marks our first steps towards incorporating transgender equality into our workplace programme, and builds on Diversity Champions Scotland, our good practice forum for employers on sexual orientation."

Scottish Transgender Alliance say on their website news

"The development of this new guide is an excellent example of partnership work"

The guide is intended as a practical resource for organisations specifically wanting to ensure their workplaces are supportive and inclusive of their trans staff. It outlines employers' legal obligations and examines the nature of anti-trans discrimination and harassment, and the impact this type of behaviour can have on individual staff members, the working environment and an organisation's external reputation.

The publication was based on existing in-depth UK and Scottish research into the workplace experiences of trans people, and also the ongoing joint policy and good practice work of the Scottish Transgender Alliance and Stonewall Scotland's Diversity Champions members.

In addition to the three major themed sections mentioned above, the guide also contains details of organisations where further guidance and support can be obtained, plus a handy glossary of terms as they are used and understood in Scotland.

Changing for the Better isn't the only guide of this type – others have been produced by Unions such as Unison and PCS – and more specialised information is available in certain sectors, such as guides published by the Department of Health. Nevertheless, this convenient-sized and highly readable booklet is a very helpful addition to the range of material available, and has a special significance – coming from an organisation which has developed a name in encouraging employers to strive for greater all-round LGBT inclusiveness.

Downloads or Ordering

The guide is available online in PDF format [Download here].

Printed copies can be ordered from Stonewall Scotland: 9 Howe Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6TE. Telephone +44 (0)131 557 3679. Email workplace@stonewallscotland.org.uk.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Breaking the Cycle – Blocked LGBT Emails and Websites

Last Friday I had the great pleasure of being invited to speak at the launch of the North West Region's LGBT strategy, "Breaking the Cycle".

(You can watch a video of my speech here)

"Breaking the Cycle" was researched and published by the principal LGB charity in the region, the Lesbian and Gay Foundation (LGF).

LGF's Chief Executive, Paul Martin, explained how the strategy was named in recognition of the core finding from his organisation's extensive research. LGF concluded that progress to advance equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans people in society is continually blocked by a vicious circle of institutionalised factors which 'lock in' disadvantage and actively prevent any significant advance.

  • A lack of robust evidence and needs analysis gives rise to
  • Limited knowledge of LGB&T needs, which means that
  • LGB&T issues are not seen as priorities or funded, so that
  • There is a lack of capacity within LGB&T organisations to develop robust evidence of need.

The strategy sets three key strategic aims to reflect this:

  1. To develop the evidence base, by lobbying for funding to develop it, and by supporting LGB&T groups to access and make best use of what exists;
  2. To increase the knowledge and engagement of policy and decision makers across the region (and ensure the needs of LGB&T people are accurately communicated); and
  3. To increase the capacity of LGB&T voluntary and community organisations.

These three core aims are accompanied by 32 separate action recommendations, which each relate to one or more of the key barriers.

The existence of these barriers is readily apparent in the lack of even the most basic data: nobody knows for sure, for instance, just how many lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans people there are.

LGF estimates there are 612,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans folk among the North West's 6.8 million people. This places the LGBT community at almost the same size as the region's black and minority ethnic (BME) population: 650,000.

Martin also points to the tiny number of LGBT charities in England, compared with the corresponding numbers of voluntary and community sector organisations specialising in other areas such as race or disability.

In his summing up at the launch he highlighted that one of the most obvious and restrictive institutional barriers would be encountered in simply trying to advertise the strategy. Most public authorities have electronic 'firewalls' and email filters that are programmed to bar any communications or web site traffic with words such as 'lesbian' or 'gay'. News of the strategy might not even arrive!

A call for action

Today (13th Feb) LGF has taken the first step to challenge this most pernicious barrier. In a letter to the Chief Executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Nicola Brewer, Paul Martin calls for the Commission to launch an enquiry into the practice of blocking such material.

He says,

"Lesbian & Gay Foundation have experienced a number of significant issues with public sector computer system 'firewalls' when sending electronic communications, and public sector staff have often experienced real challenges when accessing our online resources, including our website, for some considerable period of time. A major factor which prevents our emails getting through is due to the name of our organisation containing both the words 'lesbian' and 'gay'."

Explaining the problems created, he adds

"As every single email footer at the LGF contains the words lesbian and gay, our emails are often automatically quarantined by the filter system, which therefore means we have to contact IT departments to advise that our email does not contain adult or inappropriate content when we send an email."

And, pointing to the lack of concern for these problems, he remarks

"Often, if feels that IT staff can be very 'blasé' and dismissive about the fact that these communications are quarantined and are sometimes not responsive to our requests to change the filters or amend the systems"

To support the case Martin cites several quotes from his own staff, frustrated by the extra effort they are required to make

"I have trouble getting emails through to a number of my key contacts. Apparently they have 'high security set ups' in many places which constantly block my access."

"I know I have had problems going straight into people's spam accounts. I think because of the words in our address with some contacts."

"Network Rail treat all LGF emails as Spam. This is extremely difficult when booking rail tickets."

"We were asked to comment on an initiative Victims and Witnesses, run by the Home Office and when we e-mailed our submission a standard e-mail response followed informing us that our content was inappropriate."

"Children's Services, our partners in Exceeding Expectations newsletter, have blocked our e-mails meaning partners cannot read drafts etc."

It is not just LGF staff who have difficulties either. Martin points to quotes from partners who cannot access LGF's materials for the same reasons

"Many thanks for sending the electronic version of IMPACT. I am afraid I cannot access it at work as it is being blocked. Is there any other way I can access it please?"

"I did receive the December issue online but I can't access this month, as my Forti guard (!?) won't allow me."

"A friend of mine whose girlfriend works in social services was unable to provide a list of contacts for someone having issues around their sexual orientation as they're unable to do it in work. She had to take the notes home and do the searches from home."

"I was unable to download the newsletter as our filtering policy has blocked the site- which they say is for downloading music. I have submitted an unblocking request together with a request to see the equality impact assessment of the filtering policy. The latter because it seems to me that LGB and T sites are blocked more frequently than others."

Ending his message Paul Martin calls upon the EHRC to launch an enquiry into "this unfair and unjust practice" and, using their powers, "find a way to resolve this situation we find ourselves in".

The only flaw, perhaps, in Paul Martin's approach is that – yes, you guessed – he sent his message to Nicola Brewer in an email.

Friday, February 06, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

There's a fad going around the Internet at the moment. It goes like this...

When you receive an electronic tap on the shoulder from someone who knows you, you're supposed to write a Blog or Facebook note with 25 random things, facts, habits or goals about yourself.

At the end you choose 25 people to message, including the one who nabbed you (eg by tagging them in Facebook) ... and thus it spreads.

OK then, here goes.

  1. My Mother was a Soprano singer who entertained troops all over Britain during World War II as a member of ENSA.
  2. When I was five years old I fell off my bicycle and broke my nose.
  3. I dropped out of my Ph.D. after two years of research – a decision which I sometimes regret when being intimidated by people called "Dr. ..."
  4. My Father was a radio operator assigned to Flying Boat patrols in the Indian Ocean region during the war. His plane crashed into a hillside one night in a storm and many of his pals were killed. So I nearly didn't exist.
  5. I grew up with a pet dog called "Rip", which was a cross-breed Alsatian-Doberman.
  6. I bought the house I live in on impulse one Sunday afternoon, after getting bored with the shops, passing the building site and falling in love with the show house.
  7. I'm an Aquarian – and people say typically so.
  8. My Sister is ten years older than me.
  9. I once produced a regular weekly magazine programme on local radio.
  10. I got involved with the local Conservative Party in Cheshire to annoy my boyfriend at the time. In my first week I was asked to become the branch secretary.
  11. There are 47 stuffed toys and nine porcelain dolls in my house.
  12. I once had an affair with the Principal of a local College
  13. I wear size 6½ shoes and don't like heels higher than 1½ inches.
  14. I'm a fan of the Smart Car. My first was called "Harriet". My second and current Smart is named "Hermione".
  15. I have a very low alcohol tolerance, which is why I say, "One glass and I'm anybody's; Two and I'm nobody's"
  16. My parents moved a lot when I was a child so I ended up attending six different schools.
  17. My first job when I left school was working in a Bakery; my second was in a carpet retailer, where I spent most of the day sitting on a large carpet roll and occasionally sweeping the floor.
  18. I remember watching the very first episode of Coronation Street with my Mum and Grandma.
  19. I have my finger nails manicured every week without fail.
  20. My parents ran a Public House in Kent for four years when I was between 11 and 15 years old, but I hated the taste of alcohol.
  21. During my first driving test I was overtaken by a hearse.
  22. I worked as a Samaritan telephone volunteer for nearly five years.
  23. My favourite perfume is "Eden" by Cacherel
  24. I once had full afternoon tea in the House of Commons Tea Room with Sir Gerald Kaufman
  25. My hands appeared in the Thames TV coverage of the Miss World competition in 1985, after I wrote the computerised scoring system for Eric Morley

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Towards the Single Equality Bill

Earlier this week I wrote about the forty year history of equalities legislation in Britain, leading up to the situation we are in today.

As I explained in that essay, there are currently over one hundred Acts of Parliament, Regulations and Judicial precedents. Moreover there are complex differences and inequalities in the protections that different people can rely upon. There are also curious gaps – such as a lack of protection for simply associating with people who attract discrimination, or for being perceived to be one of those people.

In this follow-on piece I intend to look at what the Government did to address this situation, and what that tells us about the things to expect (or not expect) in the forthcoming Single Equality Bill.

A Green Paper

The Government's thinking began to emerge with a green paper in June 2007. This took the form of a formal consultation by the Discrimination Law Review – an expert group set up within Whitehall to examine the existing complex body of law and come up with proposals to simplify it.

"A Framework for Fairness" was a massive consultation – nearly 200 pages.

The format of the Green Paper indicated that, rather than taking a radical new approach, the civil service lawyers working on the project were essentially trying to stitch 100 pieces of existing legislation into one – smoothing out some irregularities in the process, but not doing anything radical.

The consultation resulted in an equally big response – 4226 submissions overall.

Evidence of organised lobbying

Of these, 597 were from organisations and 3629 were from private individuals.

Actually, 2500 of the latter were identified as the result of mass lobby by Evangelical Christian groups opposing specific provisions for lesbian and gay people.

Another 500 responses came from individuals who favoured extending protection against age discrimination beyond employment to cover goods, services and housing.

A third batch of 500 responses concerned the rights of women to breast feed in public.

These figures all come from a subsequent 200 page report, which the Government published in July 2008.

Lacking ambition?

According to that report-back, some bodies like the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the former Equality Commissions, and organisations like the Trade Unions, Age Concern and Stonewall thought that the proposals lacked ambition.

Private sector firms and their representative bodies generally seemed happier with the more conservative "tidying up" approach – eliminating specific anomalies, but not changing the whole fabric of law in a more fundamental way (such as the Canadian model I described last time).

Support for "Positive Action"

The Government say there was a broad consensus about "positive action" – extending the scope of voluntary initiatives to the extent permitted by European Law.

At present "positive action" (the Americans call it "affirmative action") is generally prohibited – being as discriminatory as negative actions. However, it is allowed in certain very restricted circumstances.

For instance, if an employer has two equally matched job candidates and employing one of them would help to address a gap in their workforce diversity, they are allowed to take that into consideration, so long as the appointment is ultimately on merit.

The complexity is apparent though – and many organisations would like to see a lot more clarity.

Welcome for a Single Equality Duty

The idea of having a single public sector equality duty was strongly supported too – along with the idea of using public sector procurement to drive change in the private sector. The CBI, for instance, commented that "procurement can be an effective lever to improve equality".

In other areas opinion is reported to have been more divided – for instance, whether to extend the protection against age discrimination to the provision of goods, facilties and services, the disposal of premises and the exercise of public functions.

At the moment you can refuse services to someone because they're too young or too old.

My own view

Speaking personally, in spite of the rather conservative approach – and the complexity and anomalies it threatens to preserve – I thought that the Government's July response was quite good though.

Above all, the response showed that we appear to be progressing on lines that have been informed by genuine widespread consultation. The response made the reasoning quite transparent.

In some instances the Government indicated that the strength of responses had caused it to go along with the consensus. For instance the 2005 Disability Discrimination Act introduced separate definitions of discrimination in employment and for the supply of goods, facilities and services; public functions; private clubs; and premises.

These separate definitions of discrimination have attracted criticism for making the law complex and difficult to follow – so the DLR consultation sought views on whether this should be addressed.

The Government now says that it has been persuaded to simplify the law. 75% of the responses had been in favour of that kind of simplification – led by the response by the former Disability Rights Commission.

In other instances (and I've not kept score) the Government indicates that it wasn't persuaded to change its' view.

What was more impressive, however, was that each area like this was discussed transparently in the Government's response. They present both sides of the argument and then their conclusion.

The headlines

Headine points are that the Government confirmed plans:

  • to introduce a new streamlined public sector Equality Duty to replace the race, disability and gender equality duties;
  • to extend the new Equality Duty to age, sexual orientation and religion or belief and to make more explicit that it covers gender reassignment.
  • to frame the new Equality Duty in a way which makes clearer the outcomes it is designed to achieve;
  • to retain the existing structure of general and specific duties (leaving open the possibility of application of different duties to different authorities, as now); but
  • not to proceed with other elements of the proposed restructuring of the duties (identification of priority objectives);

That was in July.

Confusion and uncertainty

However, by September, more confusion and uncertainty was creeping in.

For instance, there has been talk of abandoning the public sector requirement to carry out Equality Impact Assessments. To me these are an essential discipline if public authorities are to be really aware of the implications which their strategy and policies can have on different groups.

Equality Impact Assessment is not flawless as it stands. If you don't consult and don't have a clue about different needs then it's easy for assessments to become just a tick box exercise.

However, the evidence that some organisations are really that sloppy is valuable in its' own right. For organisations that do assessment well, it's also a really good discipline for embedding an understanding of diverse needs into every planning action they take.

What next?

The Equality Bill was introduced by the Queen's Speech in early December. It will hopefully be on the statute book later this year – although specific parts, such as the Single Equality Duty, may not come into force until 2010/11.

The hope is that, although it embodies no new big radical approach, it will at least do what the Government intends. I.e:

  • replacing over a hundred statutes with one;
  • ironing out inconsistencies that are themselves discriminatory;
  • addressing gaps like multiple discrimination, and
  • giving us a more intuitive idea of what the law intends for everybody.

Let's not get carried away on the euphoria though. The devil is in the detail. The Bill that's introduced to Parliament will be eagerly read and dissected by us all. There are bound to be battles. And even when it is passed and in force let's not forget the lesson I pointed out right at the beginning.

No magic wand

In 1970 Parliament passed an Equal Pay Act. In 1975 a Sex Discrimination Act.

Since then practically every group in society has been protected to varying degrees by one or more laws.

Yet discrimination is still rife. Women are still not paid the same as men for the same work. Employment tribunals deal with tens of thousands of claims every year. The Canadian law's list of who is protected emphasises the number of ways in which every one of us can be discriminated.

It's not the law that changes people's behaviours. People have to do that. And if that were simple then we'd have done it by now.

Society does change, but change comes slowly. Women obtained the right to vote on equal terms in 1928 – yet we are far from equally represented in Parliament. That's estimated to take another 200 years at the present rate of progress.

But most people would agree that slavery is reprehensible. We at least know that sex discrimination is wrong, even if we can't prevent it sometimes. We're mostly shocked by race discrimination. Disability discrimination is becoming better understood ... and so on.

Society changes slowly – but we can change ourselves in an instant if we choose.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A Brief History of Equalities Law in the UK

This year, barring sudden and unexpected general elections, the Government will table the new Single Equalities Bill.

The new Bill is intended to replace over a hundred existing Acts of Parliament, Regulations and judicial clarifications of equalities law in Britain. In the process, it is hoped to make the law simpler and more consistent for everyone to understand, whilst extending some new protections to people whose rights were not equally enshrined in statute before.

To understand the significance of what the new law needs to do, and how it is likely to compare with the laws of other countries, it is necessary to go back to the beginning – and to look at how this kind of legislation has evolved over the last 40 years.

Where do we begin?

The contemporary framework for equal rights protection in Britain can be traced back to the 1960's and 1970's and the Labour Government of Harold Wilson.

Interestingly, if you want to look for equality legislation prior to this then you would have to go all the way back to the Representation of the People Act in 1928 – which finally gave equal voting rights to women.

The legislative road began with the first Race Relations Act in 1965 – followed by the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

The fact that Equal Pay between men and women doing similar work is still a problem in 2008 tells us something about the ineffectiveness of legislation alone in tackling deeply embedded inequalities.

But the 1970's were certainly a heady time. The Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 was accompanied by a more comprehensive Race Relations Act in 1976 – all these moves echoing similar forms of protection introduced in the United States a decade beforehand.

Indeed these three Acts of Parliament (Pay, Sex, Race), plus a few accompanying regulations, were all you needed to know about Equality in the 1970's and for almost two more decades.

Going European

In 1972 Britain became a member of what was then the "European Community" – and which later became the "European Union" in 1992, with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

The Conservative government of the time opted out of the "Social Chapter" of the treaty which included provisions on which anti-discrimination law would be based.

Although the Tories did pass the Disability Discrimination Act in 1995, it was not until Tony Blair's "New Labour" government won the 1997 election that the UK opted in to the social provisions of EU law.

In 2000 the EU overhauled and introduced new Directives explicitly protecting people with a particular sexual orientation, religion, belief and age, as well as updating the protection against disability, race and gender discrimination.

But the way in which these enhancements been implemented in Britain – often by tacking regulations onto existing heavily amended Acts of Parliament – is what accounts for the complicated system that confronts us all today.

Overwhelmingly Complex and Inconsistent

The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which replaced the EOC, CRE and DRC last year, says that the total volume of all this evolved Equalities Legislation is now immense and unwieldy. One estimate suggests that you would need to be conversant with over 100 separate Acts of Parliament, regulations and case precedents to grasp it all.

Understanding this huge rickety framework demands familiarity with many different concepts too.

Firstly, the history of the way in which protection has evolved around particular groups in society means that the law has separate approaches to discrimination that is grounded in your sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. Further kinds of discrimination related to other experiences – such as being a carer, or changing your gender – have given rise to "case law" (patches in the law) to cover the gaps as they are revealed by high profile legal action.

Very little of this law is consistent though.

Disability protection was first enacted in 1995 and uses different language and ideas than 1970's sex discrimination law. The new Race Relations (Amendment) Act in 2000 played leapfrog – and then the Disability Discrimination Act was also revised in 2005.

Different Forms of Discrimination

Laws originally set out to tackle direct discrimination. E.g. "No Jews, No Blacks". Indirect discrimination has been much harder to pin down, as it takes different forms in different spheres of life.

This means that, if you're a black woman, you not only have to decide whether your discrimination is based upon sex or race, but the same action by an employer or service provider can be judged differently, depending on which one you choose.

The same goes for harassment – which is differently understood depending on whether you have experienced sexual harassment or racial harassment for instance.

Some laws have covered people in the sphere of employment or education, but not in the provision of goods, services or housing.

People who've undergone or are undergoing gender reassignment finally obtained employment and vocational education protections in 1999 – but have only very lately obtained protection from discrimination in the supply of goods or housing in April this year.

If you're Gay or Lesbian then you didn't have any protections at all till April 2007 – when provisions were tacked onto the Equalities Act. Till then a gay couple could be refused a hotel room or service in a bar, for instance.

Complicated Exceptions

The piecemeal way these steps have occurred mean that the exceptions are really complex too.

Any equalities advance will have people who resist the provision. They're the sort of people who say, "Of course I support equal rights for xxxxxx but..."

The original 1975 Sex Discrimination Act was riddled with special "but..." clauses. They're called "Genuine Occupational Qualifications". Over the years many of these have been whittled down by amending regulations, as society became more relaxed.

Yet each new step has its' opponents.

The protections for gay and lesbian people contain exceptions which were insisted upon by religious groups, for instance – and these operate in different ways to the exceptions for transsexual people, or for disabilities.

How do you define Disability? Who do you compare yourself with to say that a particular action is discriminatory? Do people see some of the behavioural conditions in young people as disabilities for instance?.

Mistaken Identity

Are people protected if they merely associate with someone who attracts discrimination? Supposing someone simply perceives or imagines you to be Gay? ... or Jewish?

Are these kinds of situation handled consistently within the body of law?

The answer's "No".

And then there's a new problem that's come along in the last seven or eight years...

The Burden of Responsibility

Up until recently, all discrimination law worked on the basis that the person who claimed discrimination needed to use the law to pursue the perpetrator. There are tens of thousands of such cases that go before tribunals every year – an estimated 50,000 Equal Pay cases from underpaid council workers, for instance.

But many people who experience discrimination (better than calling them "victims") simply don't have the resources or stamina.

A sex discrimination case may take two years. It's likely to be opposed strongly by an employer with deeper pockets to bring in the best lawyers.

The recompense at the end may not help much. You may be labelled as a trouble maker. Any judgement in your favour may be appealed.

Tribunal decisions only affect the individual's case – they can't address the circumstances of other people with that employer, or require the employer to make systemic changes.

It's these kinds of limitations which were recognised in the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry – in finding the Metropolitan Police Service institutionally racist. The recommendations of that enquiry led to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 introducing the concept of a statutory duty to eliminate race discrimination and promote better relations between racial groups. It came into effect in 2002.

The Public Sector Equality Duties

This potent new idea turns the responsibility for action on its head. Even though it only applies to public authorities (the private sector is exempt) it required the organisations responsible for society's whole framework to examine all their activities in a published Race Equality Scheme, carry out Equality Impact Assessments on their policies and strategies, and draw up action plans to produce specific outcomes.

The idea of a public sector duty was reproduced for Disability in 2006 as part of the revised Disability Discrimination Act. A Gender Equality Duty was also written into the Equalities Act and came into effect in April 2007.

These duties can indirectly apply to other organisations too – even if they are not public authorities themselves – through public sector procurement.

Again, there are complex differences though. The Disability Duty requires public authorities to involve stakeholders in their planning – the other duties only require consultation. The Race duty is the only one to have the clause about promoting good relations.

See how this gets to be so complicated?

Time for a Rethink

Discussion about having a Single Equality Act, covering everyone, really began to get under way in 2002 – at about the same time as the Government started to consult on replacing the three equality commissions with what is now the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The two ideas go naturally together.

Other countries have long since unified their legislation in this way. Unless you count the US Constitution of 1791 then Canada is generally regarded to have led the modern movement.

Canada's Human Rights Act 1985 goes beyond our own by prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction. It also placed the duty on employers and individuals (including businesses) to avoid discrimination and promote equality.

Other countries such as Australia and Norway have taken similar approaches too, with solutions that combine an underlying principle of human rights and the idea of a single commission to police it all.

It is that emphasis on ending discrimination which takes the Canadian approach beyond Human Rights as our law defines it, and creates a single general purpose instrument for encouraging equality.

It's unlawful under the Canadians' 1985 Act:

  • to discriminate or harass an individual; or
  • to deny access to the provision of goods, service facilities or accommodation;
  • to deny access to commercial premises or residential accommodation;
  • to refuse employment or continued employment, or
  • to differentiate adversely against an employee;
  • to discriminate during employment application or advertisement; or
  • to pay men and women unequal wages for the same work.

A person who feels that they have been discriminated against on more than one ground can still make a claim through the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. This means that multiple- discrimination is recognised too.

So this is the kind of approach which many commentators hoped to see emerging from our Government. We had a long wait though – even though the introduction of a Single Equality Bill was a 2005 manifesto commitment.

Next time I'll discuss the approach which the UK Government took, and how it went about it.