50.50: Feature

‘Pain isn’t an essential part of being trans… but it can be a minefield’

Transphobia is compounding existing inequalities in housing and work, as one young Scot explains

Lou Ferreira 2022.jpg
Lou Ferreira
19 October 2022, 9.55am

Nicola Ferrari RF / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a risk involved in coming out as trans at work, although there shouldn’t be. “You’re stuck with them, your colleagues, in a small room. If they take that information as something to be mocked or insulted, or just laughed at and ignored, it goes from being an accidentally unpleasant workplace to an actively dangerous one.”

Paris, who’s 21, worked as a kitchen porter in Leith, a district by the Edinburgh shore. They’re non-binary and use they/them pronouns, but accepted misgendering at work because they didn’t feel comfortable discussing their gender identity with colleagues. “Kitchen environments are very straight-male-dominated. I didn’t feel safe correcting people, so I just dealt with it,” they told me. “Frankly, the fact that I walked in there with boobs was weird enough, let alone trying to do something like that.”

Before starting their last job, Paris was asked to complete online training including how to communicate with customers who have disabilities or speak another language. The training said little about LGBTQ+ identities and nothing at all about being trans, they told me, and focused on “the way workers treat customers” rather than employees’ safety at work.

“My colleagues were nice people,” Paris said. “I mean, they were never intentionally bigoted in front of me.” But being non-binary is “a new concept to a lot of people” and they feared it would raise “so many questions and so much confusion”. “It’s almost embarrassing, trying to have that conversation with people you don’t know well.”

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Trans people in Scotland experience “difficulties at every stage of employment” because of their trans status, according to a survey by LGBT Health and Wellbeing. Respondents said they felt unable to apply for certain jobs due to fears of prejudice, application forms that exclude non-binary identities, and difficulty obtaining references or qualifications certifcates to match their gender and name. Once employed, 60% of respondents said they experienced workplace harassment, although few reported it, deterred by negative past experiences and a lack of confidence that managers were “adequately equipped” to deal with transphobic bullying.

Fewer than half of survey respondents felt their workplace was trans-inclusive. Fewer than a quarter thought their employers’ policies went far enough to ensure equality for trans people at work. Some 69% of trans workers said being at work negatively impacted their mental health, compared to 29% of Scottish workers as a whole. Some respondents said they had ruled out jobs they would have liked, such as childcare, because they were worried about how people might react.

Workplace inclusion policies aren’t enough, Paris said. “Anyone can write ‘this is a queer-inclusive workplace’ or ‘we accept everyone regardless of race, gender, blah blah blah’... Policies are not action.” Ultimately, when a trans person is mistreated at work, or wants to raise a concern, it’s their colleagues they need to engage with, not the policies. At best, you fear your concerns will be brushed off as “trivial”, or that you’ll be accused of “making a fuss”, they said. At worst, you’re “walking directly into a minefield”.

Trans people of colour experience consistently higher rates of transphobia at work, according to a survey by TransActual. Some 88% of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) respondents reported experiencing transphobia from colleagues, compared to 73% of white trans people.

Trans disabled people also face unique challenges. Paris’ non-binary identity, chronic pain and mental health issues make finding and staying in employment particularly challenging. “I lost my kitchen porter job because I wasn’t well enough,” they told me. “I was in so much pain at the end of every shift.”

They tried to find another job this year, but struggled. “I applied for work in many industries but the only ones I got answers from were kitchen porter jobs. I immediately got so sick that I was housebound for three weeks and then I lost that job too.”

Housing insecurity

This combination of workplace and housing precarity is one of a number of factors that make LGBTQ+ young people more likely to experience homelessness than with their cis, straight peers. While only 5% of people in the UK identify as LGBTQ+, housing charity akt estimates that up to a quarter of homeless young people aged 16 to 25 are LGBTQ+. Three quarters of young LGBTQ+ people in England report that ‘coming out’ to parents was the main reason they became homeless.

One in ten trans respondents to a survey by Youth LGBT Scotland said that, when they left home, they felt forced out, or left under negative circumstances.

They then find themselves prey to the private rental market. “It’s incredibly hard,” said Glaswegian Beth Douglas, who was thrown out of her family home when she came out as trans, and was homeless for a total of a year. “I was living on friends’ couches, from friend to friend.”

Young LGBTQ+ people estranged from their families may also struggle to find a rent ‘guarantor’, which many landlords require from tenants who are students, receive benefits, or fall below the income threshold. Douglas ended up relying on friends’ parents.

In order to apply as a tenant, young people often have to show ID, which can mean outing themselves as trans to potential landlords. If you do this and are then turned down, Douglas said, it’s “hard not to suspect” transphobia, though it’s usually impossible to prove.

Both Paris and their partner are non-binary, but only their partner has changed their legal name. “This means that, on paper, we look straight, so we tend to do alright until people meet us,” Paris told me. “The number of times we’ve been rejected after viewing a home is just impressive.”

Some 40% of respondents to TransActual’s survey reported experiencing transphobia when looking for housing, and more than a quarter reported being homeless at some point in their lives. This rises to more than a third for trans people of colour and trans disabled people.

Finding landlords that are trans-inclusive and accept students is hard enough, Paris explained, but the pool is reduced further when you have access needs. There’s “almost no accessible housing in Edinburgh”, where the majority of buildings are old, and 64% of people live in flats, often old tenements. A lift brings them to and from their third-floor flat, but they have to climb six steps to access it. “You might think: ‘Oh great, this building has a lift and it’s only up six steps.’ I think: ‘This building has a lift, but it’s up six steps,’” Paris said. “If I’m having a day where I need to go out but I’m not well enough, I need to get my walker up and down six steps. It severely limits my independence.” They recalled a time when the lift was out of service for nearly two months when undergoing refurbishments.

“There are so many things that I need as a trans disabled person that nobody else thinks about,” Paris said. “It’s not in the architecture, it’s not in the social policies. And nobody listens because they think you just need to ‘suck it up’.”

Last month, they received a notice from their landlord advising that their rent was going to increase. They were faced with finding a flat that was not only student- and queer-friendly, but also accessible, in less than two months. “It was impossible,” Paris said. “We were fucking terrified. Our landlord wanted to raise our rent by 48%, which would have essentially made us homeless.”

Paris’ case was supported by renters’ union Living Rent, which helped them negotiate a smaller 8% rise. “It’s difficult to find places and it’s difficult to keep them,” Paris warned. “You have to be involved in unions. It puts you at risk of homelessness if you don’t know how to fight landlords that don’t care if you live or die, so long as they get the money.”

Complicit UK press

The exclusion, bullying and harassment that trans and non-binary communities face is reinforced by a British and Scottish press that is largely hostile to, and obsessed with, trans people. The UK press regulator IPSO identified a 400% increase in coverage of “trans issues” by the mainstream press between 2015 and 2020. In the last year, hate crimes against trans people in Scotland have almost doubled, and between 2017 and 2022, the number of LGBTQ+ young people aged 13 to 25 who think Scotland is ‘a good place to be LGBTIQ’ fell from 81% to 65%.

While almost half of trans respondents to a survey by LGBT Youth Scotland had been the victim of a hate incident, just one in ten of those who had experienced a hate crime within the last year said they reported it to the police.

At the very least, negative media coverage puts a strain on trans people’s relationships with their families. Paris is out to most of their family members, and while their dad is broadly supportive he’s still “an avid Guardian reader who engages with TERF content”, they told me. Paris had to come out to their dad multiple times before he started taking it seriously. “I still have to explain to him that, not only do I disagree with these [TERF] arguments, as a person with critical thinking skills, but they are actively detrimental to my life and the propagation of these views is one of the most common reasons that I am quite literally losing my rights as an individual. And he’s just like: ‘But it’s the Guardian.’”

The mainstream media has so much power, Paris continued. They could be using their reach to raise awareness of the urgent structural problems facing trans communities, and encourage support for trans rights. Instead, overwhelmingly cis networks of journalists share sensational and dehumanising accounts of trans lives, and launch daily attacks on the rights of trans women, their participation in single-sex sports, and their access to public toilets and domestic abuse shelters.

“They would rather publicise a story about one person who is detransitioning and suing Tavistock, and ignore the four-year waiting list for trans healthcare and the fact that people die because they can’t wait that long,” Paris said.

While some Scottish people read UK-wide papers, many get their news from Scottish-based publications. But these have been equally guilty of peddling transphobia, says Beth Douglas. “The Scottish press has been a main collaborator in this culture war. Without its cooperation, we would not have seen trans hate crime and wider LGBT+ hate crime rise by unprecedented levels in recent times. While the press fuels moral panics about our identities or our healthcare, we aren’t given a space at the table to say it’s our bodies and it’s our choice.”

She added: “The number of articles published in a week will directly affect my anxiety and at certain times will get so bad I won’t be able to leave my house. Particularly bad articles that attack community groups and victim support services will discourage me from reaching out to get help even if I really need that help. I would be lying if I said it had no effect on me.”

‘Pain is not an essential part of being trans’

Such articles have detrimental outcomes for the safety and wellbeing of trans people, but they also sideline stories of joy. There are so many young queer people who are isolated in rural contexts or within bigoted communities, who are simply not aware that safe and supportive spaces exist, Paris told me. “They don’t know about queer joy and that’s heartbreaking.

“I have a flat, I have a cat, I have a partner. Our best friend is visiting. They’re all still asleep because they sleep like the dead. We have a painting on the wall that my partner's sister did of the cat dressed up in full admiral regalia. It’s really fantastic. I’m going to get up in a bit and I’m going to have breakfast for lunch.”

Despite what the media tells us, “pain is not an essential part of being trans. Pain is what happens when we live in a transphobic society,” Paris said. “We’re facing all of these systematic and smaller-scale injustices, and things are fucking difficult. But there is also so much I am happy about. There is a beautiful community here and there is so much joy, and that joy is fundamentally rooted in our queerness.”

Additional reporting by Adam Ramsay

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