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Steph Calvert: Understanding transgender and non-binary gender identities

Friday 25 August 2017

Steph Calvert Steph Calvert

Steph joined the Civil Service in 1981 and currently works for Border Force where she is one of the Home Office LGBT staff network Spectrum's two national leads on transgender issues, as well as a member of the steering group for the cross-government transgender network a:gender.

In both roles, she specialises in binary gender identities and intersex. She delivers awareness sessions nationally and works with Parliamentary focus groups. She is currently in discussion with Government and academic bodies on intersex issues.

In my experience, the one factor linking transgender, non-binary gender and employment is ignorance. I write as someone with a foot in both camps, and my experience has been of having to educate before I can engage.

One of my managers, as an example, was under the impression that my transition from 'male' to 'female' simply involved speaking to my doctor, receiving an immediate prescription for hormones and going directly for surgery. Another asked me if it wouldn't be simpler, as someone who is sexually attracted to women, to stay as a 'man' in order to improve my chances of obtaining sexual partners. In this sense, I feel it can be difficult for individuals comfortable with their assigned gender (cis) to understand terms like gender dysphoria, as their focus is often on sexuality.

New research from Acas on pdf icon Supporting trans employees in the workplace [707kb] looks at what employers can do to support transgender employees in the workplace. They have also produced a pdf icon Gender identity typology [393kb] to help employers and managers keep up with the pace of terminology in this area.

In my opinion, the one area that seems to cause most confusion and misunderstanding is the whole concept of non-binary gender identity. Most people seem to be fixated on the idea of a gender binary. The conventional narrative of male to female, female to male, 'born in the wrong body' makes sense to them, just as it informed the Equality Act 2010. This means concepts such as fluidity of gender identity, or someone identifying in another gender altogether, or none at all, raise conflicts that can be difficult to resolve.

Online comments about gender identity are full of remarks about genitalia being the be-all and end-all, and an explicit declaration that men are men, and women are women, and are determined to be one or the other (with no exceptions) by chromosomes, which in turn lead to a particular set of genitals, which continues in a circular argument. Even those who grasp transsexuality as a concept tend to be tied to that cliché of the binary.

If non-binary identities throw them, their certainty that our gender is written in our DNA is even more difficult to counter. It is rather like Monty Python: two shall be the counting of it, neither one nor three. People are XX or XY. As soon as the other possibilities are raised, such as X0, XXY, XXXY, XXy, Turner Syndrome Mosaicism, 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiency, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome(s), Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia there is a much greater difficulty in comprehension.

Countries around the world are slowly coming to terms with both transgender and non-binary gender identities, but it remains a long and slow process. My own personal hope is that while we work towards a more inclusive legal system and society, employers and colleagues see the law not as a binding set of rules but as a starting point - a bare minimum of respect and acceptance from which to develop a genuinely diverse and inclusive culture.

In the meantime, I will continue doing my best to educate and explain. And I hope that this new research can help raise awareness of this important area.

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