Labour Research (February 2016)


Unions move forward on transgender issues

Trans issues have a greater presence than ever on the union agenda, as Labour Research discovers.

The year 2015 has been referred to as a turning point for transgender visibility. At least this seemed to be the case in the media, where thousands of column inches were dedicated to celebrities including American TV personality Caitlyn Jenner and British boxing promoter Kellie Maloney. 

And the start of 2016 saw the UK release of The Danish girl, a film about the trailblazing Lili Elbe, who underwent pioneering gender reassignment surgery in the 1930s. 

However, 2015 also saw the prison suicides of two trans women — Vikki Thompson and Joanne Latham. Both killed themselves while being held in male prisons. 

As the GMB general union has pointed out in its equality toolkit on transgender issues, transphobia is still rampant and often goes unchallenged because of ignorance, fear, uncertainty or prejudice. Despite recent changes to the law and some shifts in attitudes, the union points out that the discrimination and violence that transgender people often endure remains extremely high.

And despite the increased visibility of trans people in the media in recent times, one entertainment union, the actors’ Equity union, told Labour Research that a number of key issues nevertheless remain for its members — and for the media itself.

It said that these include a lack of awareness and understanding of what trans means and of what it means to be trans. The union also pointed to a lack of visibility of trans people on stage and screen and their negative portrayal. 

There are an estimated 400,000 trans people in the UK and around 290,000 are in work, according to figures from the GIRES Gender Identity Research and Education Society charity. 

They continue to experience a high level of discrimination — ranging from discrimination in recruitment and in the workplace to verbal attacks, physical violence and even murder. The national transgender celebration charity Sparkle, which supports and organises the Transgender Day of Remembrance event in Manchester each November, recently reported a 54% increase in transphobic hate crimes in the UK.

Labour Research Survey

Against this background, Labour Research asked Britain’s largest trade unions about the day-to-day experiences of their trans members and what they are doing to support them. We contacted the largest 20 TUC-affiliated unions and the results are based on responses from 18, representing 84% of TUC-affiliated membership. 

Survey respondents

Eighteen unions responded to the Labour Research survey. They were Unite and the GMB (general unions), UNISON (public services), Usdaw (shopworkers), PCS (civil service), CWU (communications), Prospect (specialists and managers), UCU (lecturers), UCATT (construction workers), RMT (transport), FBU (firefighters), CSP (physiotherapists), Equity (actors), MU (musicians) and teachers’ unions the NUT, NASUWT, ATL and EIS.

Bullying and harassment

In our survey, unions told us that among top concerns for trans workers is bullying and/or harassment. This was specifically highlighted by nine out of 15 unions (half the unions in the survey) that responded to a question about the main issues their trans members face in the workplace. In addition, the RMT rail union reported that a trans member told the union: “I have been receiving warnings from many staff over the last couple of months, including such statements as: ‘Watch out for yourself because they are after you, they want you out before you become an embarrassment to them’.”

The union’s equal opportunities officer, Jess Webb, told Labour Research that, while rare, “trans members have said they feel like leaving the industry and simply starting afresh somewhere completely new”. 

This, they felt, would give them the opportunity to avoid having to deal with the awkwardness and comments they endure in the workplace when transitioning (also called gender reassignment). This lengthy and difficult process some trans people undergo to bring their body into accordance with their gender identity usually involves significant medical treatment in the form of hormones and may include surgery. 

Several unions representing workers providing public services or services to the public reported that their trans members experience harassment not only from colleagues, but also from passengers, customers and others. As the Usdaw shopworkers’ union reported: “Members in retail have to deal with abuse from customers which is often not tackled by management.” 

The EIS Scottish teachers’ union said that trans members report “jokes” being made at social events when the person was absent, on the basis that all gathered would find them funny. And it reported “discriminatory comments made by visiting school chaplains about sexual orientation”. 

It is in response to such treatment that a number of unions (the NUT and NASUWT teachers’, UCU lecturers’, UNISON public services and Unite general unions) have undertaken research into discrimination or transphobic bullying and violence in the workplace.

Toilets and changing facilities

Seven unions cited the use of toilet and changing facilities as a problem for their trans members. Unite commented: “Always toilets and cloakrooms”. Usdaw and specialists’ union Prospect both reported that the use of toilet/changing facilities is one of the most common problems trans members report. 

The PCS civil service union said some of its trans members have been told to use disabled accessible toilets instead of gender-specific ones. And the CWU communications union commented that the transgender community has been “forced to continue to use the toilets of their previous gender, which is deeply humiliating to them”.

Dress codes and uniforms

Four unions highlighted dress codes and uniforms as an issue. For example, the NUT, which conducts an annual survey of members who are registered as trans, found that “the imposition of strict dress codes” as well as “comments from colleagues about inappropriate dress” was a significant issue arising from its 2015 survey.


When it comes to transitioning, trans workers may face multiple problems. UNISON says trans members face “unnecessary problems with changes to documentation when they transition at work” as well as “issues over confidentiality following transition”. And Unite highlighted trans workers’ “fear of not being accepted in their new role”. 

The CWU added: “We believe that one of the biggest issues/challenges is building a positive trans aware working environment, so that if someone is transitioning or has transitioned the last thing they need to worry about is their place of work.” 

The PCS civil service union highlighted a lack of planning around transitioning, and a lack of access to specialist information and support from employers’ HR and occupational health services. 

Unions also pointed to both ignorance and lack of awareness on the part of managers (and, in some cases, union reps who are unfamiliar with, or inexperienced in, dealing with trans issues). For example, UNISON reported that trans members “often have to provide all the information to their manager on best practice on trans workplace equality”. 

This issue is one which sees unions providing a range of support to trans members. For example, Prospect trans members on its LGBT network provide personal support to members transitioning in the workplace. 

And the CWU reported: “We try to ensure there is no obvious isolation being manufactured in the workplace, as acute depression is a well-known issue amongst those people who have transitioned, and we try to ensure that trans workers know that counseling is available to them, along with a trans network that has been set up about a year ago.”

The FBU firefighters’ union reported that “the union’s trans officials and members have provided invaluable advice and support for members making enquiries about transitioning”. 

In addition, “those officials have also been active in developing workplace policies paving the way for other employees, who, when faced with transition, can access such policies to be aware of the type of entitlement and support they can expect from their employer”. 

The union added that the policies “also act as a tool for managers who may have a team member transitioning”.

The lecturers’ UCU union pointed to a lack of appropriate options on monitoring forms for self-declaration, and to the need to use more than “male” and “female” as gender monitoring options by, for example, adding “in another way” or “other” which the union is in the process of adopting in its own practice. 

Advice and guidance

As part of their efforts to bolster awareness and tackle inequality, unions have provided guidance and advice to reps and/or members on trans issues.

Ten unions have published advice or guidance specifically for their reps. The GMB’s Transgender equality toolkit includes a comprehensive glossary, explains transgender rights, sets out the responsibilities for employers, reps and staff and informs reps about expert transgender organisations. 

Unite’s Trans equality at work guide provides information and advice on a range of issues — from recruitment and selection to pensions and retirement age — as well as setting out the laws applying to trans people. It also includes case studies and a negotiators’ checklist. 

The NUT is currently consulting its advisory committee for LGBT+equality on guidance for reps on how to support trans teachers in the workplace, and will consider equality for trans teachers in its guidance for workplace reps and local officers on bargaining on pay, time off and health and safety. And the ATL teachers’ union will launch new guidelines for its reps at its annual conference later this year. 

Ten unions (56%) have published advice and guidance for the broader membership and the same number have published advice or guidance for trans members. In addition, the GMB and UCU have carried out research on the level of their reps’ and/or members’ awareness and understanding of trans issues.

The GMB’s survey is part of an action plan developed following a resolution by Shout! — the union’s LGBT group — carried at the its national equality conference. The survey is one of a range of activities undertaken as part of a GMB project called “Putting the T Back into LGBT”, and helped shape guidance which became the union’s trans equality toolkit.

Self-organised group

Most unions in the survey (14) have a self-organised trans group or network — usually an LGBT lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans group or network. For example, UNISON’s LGBT group meets nationally, regionally and in branches, and within the group there is a trans network with reserved seats on the national LGBT committee and its main sub-committees. The union also encourages regional LGBT groups to include reserved seats for trans members on their committees. The CWU set up a trans networking group (as a closed group on Facebook) around a year ago. In addition, over half of unions (10) also hold a regular national LGBT event. 

Several unions provide training on trans awareness, including the Proud LGB&T members’ group in the PCS which has developed training that is being rolled out across a number of PCS regions. Unite runs equality, LGBT and trans courses for reps and officers, as well as joint company courses, to raise awareness of trans issues. 

And the UCU provides specific training for reps on gender identify (and sexual orientation) equality. GMB Shout!, meanwhile, is developing a training programme for shop stewards and workplace organisers.

On the organising front, UNISON has produced dedicated trans recruitment materials, while the PCS Proud trans rep has a key role in ensuring that trans members are organised and involved in the union. 

Union journals have also featured trans activists and members. They include the Spring 2015 issue of Equity Magazine which featured an interview with Equity member Rebecca Root who starred in Boy meets girl, the first UK sitcom featuring a trans character. 

In the feature, Root, who is also cast in a small part in The Danish girl, discusses a key issue in the portrayal of trans people — trans actors playing trans roles. 

LGBT History Month

Many unions will be marking this month’s LGBT History Month, including Equity, whose LGBT Committee will celebrate the month with a trans-focused event. The NASUWT is planning a workshop on trans awareness at its LGBT conference, and the UCU will publish the results of new research on the experiences of trans workers, and levels of awareness and understanding of transgender issues. The UCU will also launch a new national quarterly LGBT newsletter.

Union support for trans members

Has undertaken research into: Self organ- ised group Has published advice for: Holds LGBT conference /event
experiences of trans members awareness of trans issues Reps Members Trans members
ATL x x x x x
CSP x x x x x
CWU x x x
EIS x x x x
Equity x x x x x x
FBU x x x x x
GMB x x5 x5 x
NUT x x4
PCS x x x6 x7
Prospect x x x x
RMT x x x3 x x x
Unite x

1 Doesn’t monitor members who are mostly freelance.

2 Has not done work re trans members, but does have policy in this area.

3 Has national LGBT advisory committee which meets three times a year.

4 Currently consulting advisory committee for LGBT+equality on guidance for reps.

5 But reps’ toolkit can be used.

6 Not advice/guidance, but articles in magazines and newsletters.

7 Usually holds annual LGBT-Proud seminar.

Throughout 2016, unions will continue to ensure that trans issues remain on the agenda. They include the NASUWT, which will host half- and full-day trans awareness training sessions for all members and activists during 2016, and the CSP physiotherapists’ union which “will be specifically focussing on supporting transgender patients, members and organisations in 2016”. 

The EIS Scottish teachers’ union says that it will be giving further consideration to how the needs of trans members can be addressed in the workplace.

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