Human rights barrister Adam Wagner posed this question on Twitter the other day:
At that point, Legal Feminist retired temporarily from the fray, promising a proper answer in a blog. This is that blog. (Several different legal feminists tweet from Legal Feminist – it was me in that exchange. As always, these are my views and don’t purport to represent a collective or consensus view.)
A preliminary point about my own use of language
I think the easiest and clearest way to go about answering Adam’s question is to consider it in the light of a set of variations on his bare facts, and ask which variations – if any – change the answer. But before I do that, I want to deal with a preliminary point about my own use of pronouns in this blog. Where real people are concerned, I will extend them the courtesy of using their preferred pronouns if I reasonably can. But fictional persons constructed for the purposes of argument have no claim on courtesy. So when I need pronouns for the characters in my examples, I will use grammatically accurate pronouns. It’s best to keep things real where possible.
The protected characteristics
On the substance, the first thing to note is that there are likely to be at least three relevant protected characteristics in play here. Let’s call the transitioning employee John, and the gender-critical employee Liz. Let’s assume that John is a man who announces to colleagues that he now identifies as female, and wishes to be known as Jen. John/Jen (“J” in the rest of this blog) has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. J may well hold protected beliefs about the nature of sex and gender; and Liz’s gender-critical beliefs are also protected. I’ll call Liz “L.”
J is entitled not to suffer harassment on grounds of gender reassignment, or on grounds of protected beliefs about sex and gender. L is entitled not to suffer harassment on grounds of her gender-critical beliefs.
Adam has provided the theme:
“A person comes to work and tells colleagues that they wish going forward to be referred to in a different gender as they are starting the process of transitioning. A colleague refuses on the basis of GC beliefs and consistently and against their colleague’s wishes refers to them as their biological sex, to the increasing upset of the individual.”
J, who is married, makes his announcement on his first day at the office – the sales department of Zeitghost plc, an IT firm – at the staff meeting at which he is introduced to his colleagues. He’s in smart-casual masculine dress that day, but he explains that from tomorrow he will be consistently wearing women’s clothing, and hopes to embark on a process of medical transition over the coming months. He wants to be known as Jen. He mentions that his marriage is still happy, and his wife is supportive. A male colleague who has always had a friendly, jokey relationship with J asks, “Does this mean you’re a lesbian?” and J says “I suppose I must be.”
L says that she holds gender-critical beliefs, and is not prepared to pander to J’s delusions. She makes a point of calling him “John,” and referring to him using male pronouns when referring to him in meetings, whether in his presence or not, and in emails to the team.
L is going out of her way to treat J in a way that she has she knows will cause him distress. This is clearly harassment.
J makes the same announcement, but this time L says nothing. Except that she avoids addressing him by name, she treats him with irreproachable friendly courtesy to his face. Unsurprisingly, the need to use a pronoun to refer to him in his presence never arises; and in writing, she manages to steer round pronouns if she mentions him. But any time L needs to refer to J in a meeting or conversation with a colleague, she uses male pronouns. This gets back to J, and he asks her to respect his preferred pronouns at all times. She refuses, saying that she has no wish to upset him, but she doesn’t accept that he is entitled to police the language she uses in his absence.
Is L’s failure to use J’s preferred pronouns conduct related to his gender reassignment that has the effect of violating his dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him? Is J’s attempt to control L’s speech about him in his absence conduct relating to her gender-critical beliefs that has the effect of violating her dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her?
If L is dismissed for what the company regards as her harassment of J, and complains to an employment tribunal of discrimination on grounds of her protected belief, what will happen? In the current climate, I don’t much fancy her chances – but that’s not the same thing as saying I think she ought to fail. As a matter of statutory interpretation and principle, and the proper balancing of conflicting rights, I think this one is genuinely tricky.
In this variation, J and L have worked together in the sales department for 10 years. They have some history: L, who is a lesbian, rejected J’s sexual advances soon after he joined the department. He took the rejection badly, and was subsequently given a final warning and temporarily moved away from the sales department for homophobic bullying of her. He moved back to sales a couple of years ago; relations since then have been professional, but distant.
J makes his announcement at a staff meeting that he is now Jen. He is wearing a men’s suit and tie as he has for the last 10 years, and he says nothing about medical transition, or about changing his style of dress. He does volunteer that he is a lesbian now, and almost imperceptibly winks at L. During the days and weeks that follow, nothing changes about J’s manner of dress or presentation, except that occasionally while at his desk he wears a shiny slide in his hair. He takes to using the ladies’ on the sales floor. L takes to using the ladies’ two floors up.
L’s conduct, and the rest of the story, are as in variation 2.
I don’t think this one is even tricky. I think it’s obvious who is the aggressor in this story, and it’s not L.
The story is the same, except that this time J grows his hair a bit longer and takes to wearing make-up, and skirts or dresses; and as well as using the ladies’ on the sales floor, tries from time to time to engage L in conversation about clothes, hair and make-up.
I still don’t think this one is even tricky. J is harassing L. And – importantly – that conclusion doesn’t depend on an assumption that his transition isn’t “genuine.” It may be – it may not be. It may not be possible to say with any clarity what “genuine” would mean for this purpose. None of that matters: J’s objectively observed conduct towards L – including his attempt to control how she refers to him in his absence – is unwanted conduct that has the effect of violating her dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile (etc) environment for her.
The set-up and J’s announcement are as in variation 1: J is intending social and then medical transition. He is new to the department, and there’s no history between him and L.
L is a Quaker. She says her commitment to the truth as she understands it is central to her belief, and although she is perfectly content to use J’s new name, she is not able in conscience to use grammatically inaccurate pronouns.
L is on the autistic spectrum. She is confused and upset by J’s insistence that he is now a woman called Jen, and being required to use what she thinks are the wrong name and pronouns for him causes her intense distress.
L is a child abuse survivor. When she was 10, her abuser, who was in his mid-twenties, groomed her by saying that he was really a teenager in his heart – he’d always been lonely as a child and just wanted another child to play with. L believed him, and at first she liked him and felt a bit sorry for him. He was obsessed with Harry Potter, just like her, and they’d played make-believe games together. L is a lesbian.
On hearing J say that he supposes he is a lesbian, L suffers a severe PTSD reaction. She goes off sick for a couple of weeks. Her fit note just says “stress,” and when she returns to work, she conducts herself as in variation 2: she ducks the whole issue in J’s presence, but refers to him by grammatically accurate pronouns in his absence, and it gets back to him.
J complains of harassment, and HR call L in for a meeting to explain herself. L breaks down in tears and explains what lay behind her reaction to J’s announcement. She says she has been horrified by make-believe games ever since being abused as a child. She says that she has no wish to upset J, and she would never describe his transition to his face as “make-believe,” but in truth that is how she experiences it. She says if they insist she has to refer to J using female pronouns, she will have no option but to resign.
That’s enough variations
I’m not going to set out my views on all these variations individually here. I hope they are sufficient to make good my claim that “Yes, always” is an inadequate answer to the question posed by Adam.
Comments are open.