By Jonathan Owen

12 Oct 2016

Jacqui Gavin tells Jonathan Owen about her role as chair of a:gender, the civil service’s support network for staff who are transgender, and rates Whitehall’s progress on diversity

What’s your role in government?
My day job is chair of a:gender, a civil-service-wide network for transgender and intersex staff. My role is about going out and working with the network’s membership, policymakers, diversity and inclusion leads, senior civil servants, and also external businesses. In many ways, I think the private sector has gone that much further than the public sector. Large PLCs can throw big budgets at promoting trans issues whereas civil service budgets are tight – and can be non-existent. So it’s often about using goodwill, if you will.
a:gender is supported by five main government departments: DWP, Home Office, HMRC, MoJ and MoD. Although I work full time for a:gender, I’m still technically a DWP employee, so I report into them.

What does your day-to-day job entail?
No two days are the same. You could be delivering awareness events, holding discussions with civil servants, or looking at the policy, process and guidance of particular departments.

What was your perception of the civil service before you joined?
I always felt the civil service was an “old” organisation. We’ve all seen the programme 'Yes, Minister' – that’s what I felt the civil service was like. I felt I wouldn’t be able to fit in, partly because of my trans history and partly because I was fundamentally questioning whether I was good enough to fit into this kind of organisation. As somebody who had worked their way right up to head of service delivery for a major PLC before joining the civil service, I felt unsure what to expect.

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Is Whitehall still like 'Yes, Minister'?
Not any more. The civil service has changed a hell of a lot in the last 10 years. Now we’re very progressive, very modern and want to be able to reflect wider society. We’ve become efficient in so many ways, and, from a diversity perspective, I’ve never been more proud of an organisation.

Why has it changed?
I think it reflects changes in society at large. But I also believe that people like myself, who’ve been prepared to put their head above the parapet and say, “I’m authentic, I’m here and I exist among you”, have made a real difference. Without our voices, I don’t think anything would have happened.

Do you think you have paid a price for being open about being transgender?
There have been many sacrifices, there’s no denying that. One of them is that I’m still technically at the same grade as when I started in the civil service: administrative officer. I feel that I’m worth more, and I think I’ve proved that in many ways. But the opportunities have not been as forthcoming as they could have been.

I will always gladly give my all to the civil service, I’m proud to call myself a civil servant, but I just feel that my ambassadorial role means I’m not achieving the opportunity to have the career I want. Sometimes I just want to be able to say: “Let’s put the trans bit to bed – I’m Jacqui and I want to get on with doing a normal, everyday job.” I’m grateful to be a leading trans role model in the civil service, but as someone who wants to succeed to the very highest level, I’d love to be able to focus on a day job – HR, policy, or whatever else it may be.

"We’ve become efficient in so many ways, and, from a diversity perspective, I’ve never been more proud of an organisation"

It’s great that we have got things like the Refreshed Talent Action Plan and the Positive Action Pathway, but I sometimes feel that I’m not benefiting from some of the opportunities that I’ve helped to introduce, especially when I see people rising several grades ahead of me.

Is discrimination still a problem in the workplace?
I don’t think it is. I sometimes hear of occasional cases where individuals are not supported because people don’t understand their right to be able to go through the process of transition. Or individuals simply don’t know who to talk to for support. Often, it’s just a case of having a conversation with the relevant people and reminding them of the legislation and the civil service policies that allow them to be themselves. This still happens, but it doesn’t happen as much as when I first joined the civil service.

What proportion of the civil service is trans?
If we base it on the statistic that 1% of the population are trans in some way, I would say there should be roughly 4,160 civil servants that are transgender in some way, shape or form. Although the truth is that we just don’t know. I think probably about one in 100 are confident about being out. It’s still a very hidden issue.

I think the civil service’s history, and the sense in which it previously has operated a bit like a gentleman’s club, probably contributes to an attitude of “these kinds of things don’t happen here”. And I think there is still a lot of that old mentality that still exists in certain corners.

These days, though, I feel far more that the modern civil service is about being inclusive, and embracing the fact that people like me can be effective civil servants regardless of being trans.

Are words being matched by deeds when it comes to equality for transgender people?
As a trans person and also as a civil servant, there is a lot of work to be done. We’ve been talking about this for years and I think the community really felt in 2011 that we finally had a minister in Lynne Featherstone who “got” our situation, and was willing to put something into place for the community – namely the Transgender Action Plan. 

When the plan just seemed to be dropped, I think that created an anger within the community. But with the support of a parliamentary inquiry chaired by the MP Maria Miller, the community has a hope that the current government will take seriously the messages that have been formulated in the report. We hope that government will work with the civil service to ensure that the disadvantages experienced by the transgender and intersex communities are supported – and that positive outcomes are achieved for all.

What’s the biggest myth about transgender people?
I think people still see it as being a lifestyle choice, still assume that a trans person is going to look a certain way and behave a certain way. It’s like, 'Ooh a trans woman is going to have a really deep male voice or is going to look a certain way'. Really?!

Are there geographical differences in the way transgender people are treated?
If you go into metropolitan areas maybe it’s slightly better, but certainly if you go to a job centre in a smaller, more parochial town, that must be far less easy…people are just more sheltered and more intolerant. What surprised me most of all was when I went through my transition in the mid-1980s. Yes, I came to London, but when I went back to Aberdeen – where I’m from – there was still…they were absolutely amazed by it…very, very interested. There was a lot of finger pointing, but there was no abuse, which was wonderful.

What do you think of the government’s decision, earlier this year, to review the Gender Recognition Act?
From a personal perspective, if the government have agreed to a review of the act then I think it is a good thing. I look forward to working closely with my colleagues in the Government Equalities Office and Ministry of Justice to look at the ways in which we can make positive changes to the act, and reflect the asks and needs of the wider transgender and intersex communities.

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