After Forstater: elephants and elephant traps 

This is the text of a talk I gave on Wednesday evening to employment law solicitors at my Chambers.

I should start by acknowledging the elephant in the room. I broadly share the belief that lost Maya Forstater her work with CGD: namely that biological sex is real, important, immutable and not to be conflated with gender identity. We’re not going to be discussing the substance of that belief except tangentially, but inevitably there are various respects in which the position I take will affect the way I talk about my understanding of the law. 

As ever: views my own.

Staying with the elephant theme, the question I want to address is: “what are the main elephant traps for your clients in this area, and how do they avoid them?” I’m going to address that partly by reference to five cases that have been fought to a conclusion in the ET or on appeal over the last couple of years. So first, a quick outline of those cases. 

The five cases 

An employment tribunal held in December 2019 that Ms Forstater’s gender critical belief was not protected under s.10 of the EqA because it was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” (or “WORIADS” as it’s come to be known). In June 2021, the EAT allowed Ms Forstater’s appeal, so that the case could be heard on its merits. In July this year, the ET held that CGD’s decision not to renew her contract had been because of her protected belief, and was therefore unlawful direct discrimination. 

In Mackereth, the EAT upheld a tribunal’s decision that the DWP’s treatment of a medical assessor who refused to use the preferred pronouns of service users was not discriminatory. 

In Bailey v Stonewall Equality Ltd & ors, the barrister Allison Bailey sued her chambers and Stonewall for belief discrimination. She won part of her claim against her chambers and lost other parts. She lost the claim against Stonewall, and is appealing that part of the tribunal’s judgment. 

The other two cases are V v Sheffield Teaching Hospital (which Anya Palmer has written about in more detail here) and Taylor v Jaguar Land Rover. In V, a tribunal upheld the claimant’s complaint that questioning him about his habits in relation to wearing underwear at work was discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment. He had been seen naked from the waist down in a women’s changing room. In Taylor, a tribunal found a number of complaints of harassment and direct discrimination proved by a trans-identifying male employee. 

Between them, these five cases shed quite a bit of light on the elephant traps I want to talk about. 

The elephant traps 

The “social media policy” fallacy – treating some beliefs as more equal than others

All beliefs that pass the 5 Grainger tests needed to qualify for protection are of equal status. Employers are entitled to ask their employees not to proselytise at work; and they will often be entitled to place some restrictions on their employees’ public statements outside the workplace. Exactly how far those restrictions can go will depend on a range of factors – the ease with which the employee can be identified as such, her seniority; the nature of her role, and so on. Judges and civil servants can be required to keep pretty silent, in public, on matters of political controversy; supermarket checkout staff not so much. 

There has been quite a lot of comment on Forstater to the effect that CGD’s difficulties could have avoided if only they had had a robust social media policy in place. 

There are two problems with that. The first is that Forsater’s engagement, though direct, was pretty measured.  That means that any social media policy sufficiently restrictive to silence her on the subject of GRA reform would have had to be draconian across the board. If it had singled out “gender critical” engagement for prohibition, that would have been discrimination just the same. You can’t make discrimination disappear by making it your policy to discriminate, and then saying you acted as you did not on the prohibited ground but in obedience to your policy. An employer could in theory decide on the draconian route, and just purport to put all political or contentious social media engagement out of bounds. But trying to enforce such a draconian policy would be likely to have a high cost in both management time and industrial relations. And an employer that dismissed for breach of such a rule might well find it hard to defend as consistent with the employee’s article 10 right to freedom of expression, which will be part of “all the circumstances” a tribunal has to consider when ruling on the fairness of a dismissal. 

On the other hand, if an employer writes a draconian policy but only enforces it reactively when staff members or third parties take strong exception to the expression of particular views – well, the problem with that should be obvious. Effectively you’d be letting the mob decide which opinions may be expressed. If the mob discriminates, you discriminate. 

A related elephant trap may be concealed in a more limited neutral-looking policy. Suppose your policy says something like this:  

You must not make any social media communication that could damage our business interests. 

It looks even-handed and fairly light-touch. But if what this formula really means is that employees mustn’t express unfashionable views because third parties might object, that won’t preserve the employer from a finding of discrimination. A more familiar parallel may help make this vivid: an airline can’t get away with saying,  “Well of course we know that women make perfectly good pilots, but we don’t employ women to fly planes because our passengers wouldn’t feel safe and would vote with their feet.”

So what should social media policies look like? I’d suggest that a sensible policy for most organisations will simply ask senior and middle-ranking employees to make it clear that the views they express are their own, and to express themselves lawfully and reasonably courteously in any event. There’s nothing conceptually difficult about that, though an organisation faced with a social media pile-on may be called upon to hold its nerve.

That takes me to my next elephant trap. 

Running scared 

This was illustrated by CGD’s conduct after Maya Forstater started to engage in the debate about the proposal to reform the GRA to bring in self-ID. 

It’s notable from the evidence quoted in the judgment that some managers were initially nonplussed: they weren’t sure what all the fuss was about. One even admitted at an early stage that he wasn’t sure whether or not he agreed with Forstater. But as the  campaign against her intensified, and they became aware of internal reactions to her tweeting described by one witness as “visceral”, they fell into line. 

Their problem seems to have been a disinclination on the part of managers to look behind claims to be offended by Ms Forstater’s tweets, and make up their own minds whether she had said anything genuinely unacceptable. The high-water mark of the evidence against her was that she had described a man known sometimes as Philip Bunce and sometimes as Pips Bunce as a part-time cross-dresser in the context of a discussion about whether he should have accepted an award for women in business. 

“Cross-dresser” is a term that can be found in many LGBTQ+ organisations’ glossaries, and Bunce is a man who sometimes but not always cross-dresses at work – so for my own part I find it difficult to see what was wrong with Forstater’s  description. But that’s not to say it was completely fanciful to think her phrase a bit rude: the tribunal itself was split on that question, EJ Glennie and Mr Miller taking the view that it was uncomplimentary and dismissive but not in all the circumstances inappropriate or objectionable; the third member, Ms Carpenter did think it objectionable although that didn’t affect Ms Carpenter’s view of the result in the case.  

Sensible managers would have given the complaints short shrift. Employees are not entitled to demand that their employers protect them from having to work with people they disagree with –  or even with people who are sometimes a bit rude about third parties on social media.

That leads to my next elephant trap. 

“Bring your whole self to work” 

It’s become fashionable for HR policies to talk about making everyone feel pyschologically safe and able to bring their whole selves to work.

This may be some of the worst advice ever given to employees. 

None of us should bring our whole selves to work.  It’s perfectly fine to be an enthusiastic amateur opera singer, ju-jitsu practitioner or free-climber on your own time – but if you sing opera, wrestle your manager or literally climb the walls at the staff meeting, it won’t go well. Mr Pay, the Claimant in Pay v Lancashire Probation Service was dismissed because of what he did on his own time. If he had brought his whole self to work, it wouldn’t have taken the full intellectual heft of the Court of Appeal to spot that dismissal was fair.

More seriously: this kind of messaging is calculated to lead employees to expect to be allowed to police their colleagues’ beliefs and opinions. That’s not going to work in a diverse society. Maya Forstater’s belief that the differences between male and female bodies sometimes matter seem to have been bitterly offensive to some of her colleagues – but no doubt the opposing belief that men can be lesbians, and women and girls are not entitled to any reliable privacy from men was bitterly offensive to her. You can play the same game with many irreconcilable beliefs. An ethical vegetarian may think I am little better than a murderer because I eat meat; a religious colleague may think I am destined for hell because I don’t believe in God, an environmentalist that I’m a vandal because I drive a car. 

That’s all ok – or it should be. These kinds of incompatibilities of belief may sometimes make friendship difficult, but they shouldn’t impede working together, provided everyone respects everyone else’s freedom of belief, conscience and speech. 

So the message for employers is: don’t write policies that give employees the impression that they can expect their colleagues to share their beliefs, or even pay lip-service to them. But do make sure that employees don’t proselytise or try to impose their own beliefs on others in the workplace. 

Of course, elephant traps are not just there for employers. The next one is for employees:

Being a martyr

Dr Mackereth was employed by the DWP to make medical assessments for the purposes of disability-related benefits. He was a Christian whose rejection of genderist beliefs had biblical roots. He made it clear in the course of his induction that he could not in conscience use pronouns for service-users other than those indicated by their sex. 

The DWP sought to explore with Dr Mackereth the parameters of his position, seemingly with a view to retaining his services if it could, but Dr Mackereth resigned – saying that he believed he was being dismissed – while that process was ongoing. The EAT confirmed that the tribunal had permissibly found that the DWP’s conduct had been a response not to his beliefs but to the way in which he had indicated he was determined to manifest them.  

Dr Mackereth seems to have jumped early on to the conclusion that he was bound to be dismissed, and to have been unwilling to engage constructively with the DWP’s attempts to find an accommodation. It’s not obvious that that was necessarily a lost cause: Dr Mackereth was willing to use clients’ preferred names, and in 1:1 meetings you might think it wouldn’t be too difficult to swerve the question of pronouns altogether. 

If you are advising an employee at an early stage of a dispute of this nature, I suggest there are four key lessons from Mackereth: 

1. Stay calm, and assume your employer is acting in good faith until the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

2. Don’t force matters to a head: be open to pragmatic work-arounds that respect others’ conscience and belief as well as your own. 

3. Decide on your own red lines and communicate them clearly; but – crucially – 

4. Don’t jump before you are pushed. If someone is going to decide that your beliefs can’t be accommodated in the workplace, leave it to your employer to make that decision. 

That takes me to my final elephant  trap:

Confusing the right not to suffer GR discrimination with a right to be treated as the opposite sex

The case that illustrates this is V v Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. It’s first instance ET decision, so it has no value as precedent  – and in any case it is in my view pretty obviously wrong. But it serves as a cautionary tale. 

V, a trans-identifying male, applied for a job as a catering assistant. He was given permission to use the women’s toilets and changing and showering facilities from the start of his employment, and his female colleagues were told that that was what he would be doing, and given bespoke training – before V started work – that seems to have been designed to ensure that they didn’t raise objections. The judgment of the ET is silent as to what if any medical treatment he had undertaken, but it is clear from how matters developed that he was obviously male. 

V resigned a little over a year after he started work, and made a number of complaints against the hospital, including complaints of gender reassignment discrimination. 

He made a number of complaints. The only one that succeeded  arose as follows. In June 2021, there was a report to a manager that V had been seen naked from the waist down in the women’s changing room. On a previous occasion he had remarked to a colleague that he was hot and sweaty and had taken his underwear off, making a wringing motion with his hands. A manager asked him in a meeting about whether he was in the habit of removing his underwear, and the tribunal found that that question was asked because of his gender reassignment, and was to his detriment. He therefore succeeded to that extent in his complaint of discrimination. All his other complaints were dismissed. 

My elephant trap is evident in the behaviour of both the hospital, and the tribunal. 

The tribunal approached his complaint of discrimination on the basis that if he had not been a transsexual, he would not have been asked whether he was in the habit of removing his underwear. The comparator used by the tribunal is what it calls a “cisgender woman” in a similar state of undress. 

If V had had a gender recognition certificate, there would be a respectable argument that a woman would be the correct comparator; though I think the better view is that even so, the correct comparator is a man who is not trans.  But there is no suggestion in the judgment that V had a GRC, and on the assumption that he didn’t, the tribunal certainly chose the wrong comparator. If you want to know whether V was asked the question because of his trans status,  you need to think how the employer would have treated a man who was not trans who was seen naked from the waist down in the women’s changing room. 

I think the same error underpins the hospital’s approach to V’s use of the women’s facilities. It seems to have assumed that to deny him the right to do so would have been discrimination on grounds of his gender reassignment, and unlawful. But it would have been neither. If he had been excluded – like any other man – that would not have been because he was trans, but because he was a man. It would not have been sex discrimination because there were equivalent facilities for men. And it could not have been unlawful indirect discrimination on grounds of gender reassignment because it was obviously justified in the interests of protecting the privacy and dignity of his female colleagues, and complying with the obligation under the Workplace (Health Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 to provide separate male and female facilities. 

It’s my view that this is the legally correct answer to the toilet conundrum: the women’s facilities in a workplace are for the use of women only, and trans-identifying males should be permitted to use either the gents’ or a single-occupancy unisex toilet. And that rule should be applied irrespective of whether a trans-identifying male has a GRC or what if any medical treatment or surgery he may have had: his female colleagues are entitled to have their privacy respected. 

But my view isn’t without its vulnerabilities.  In Croft v Royal Mail, the Court of Appeal ruled that a pre-operative transsexual had lawfully been refused use of the women’s toilets, but also suggested that at some stage of his transition he would have to be treated as a woman. Unfortunately the judgment doesn’t then offer employers the slightest assistance in identifying when that stage is reached. That was in 2003. By 2018, an ET in Birmingham felt able to treat it as self-evident that refusing a trans-identifying man use of the ladies’ was unlawful discrimination even in circumstances where – as is spelled out in the judgment – he had had no surgery and had no intention of undergoing any in the future. That case, Taylor v Jaguar, was a first instance judgment, and in my view clearly wrong in this respect – but it was not appealed. 

So what is the right advice for an employer faced with the toilets conundrum? How does it minimise the risks of being sued? 

The only truly safe option is the kind of facilities that we have here in Chambers: single-occupancy toilets which may be badged as male and female, but for which there’s really not much problem if someone uses the toilets for the opposite sex – anyway provided they aim straight, and raise the seat if appropriate. But suppose what you have is separate halls of cubicles separated by flimsy partitions; and one or two single-occupancy accessible toilets? Suppose that for reasons of cost or space or both you can’t remodel them. If you let a trans-identifying male use the ladies’, your female staff may sue you. If you offer him the use of the accessible toilets instead, he may sue. 

I have nothing very comforting to say here. There’s no binding case law. The remarks in Croft are both Delphic and obiter. And whatever you do, someone’s going to be furious with you. 

I think the best I can offer employers faced with a toilets or changing rooms problem is to suggest that should do what they think is right. That sounds trite, but if you’re likely to end up in court whatever you do, you might as well at least take a decision that feel able to defend wholeheartedly.

If an employer is struggling to form an intuition about what doing the right thing looks like, a good start might be to start not by telling its female staff how they ought to feel about sharing intimate spaces with a trans-identifying male, but asking them how they do feel. Given the climate of fear that’s been generated about admitting you don’t think men can literally become women, it’s probably a good idea to do that anonymously.  

Notes, questions and some links.

I am grateful to Andrew Allen KC, who shared this event with me and provided a very helpful summary of the legislative background and the case law. This blog only reflects what I said.

There were questions about pronouns in email signatures, and “misgendering”. For more on those subjects, see

Is “misgendering” always harassment?

More on “misgendering”

Yet more on misgendering

Grammar and grievance

I was asked about my view on taking HR advice from organisations like Stonewall; on that, see generally Submission and Compliance.

And finally, I was asked an interestingly difficult question by Melanie Field of the EHRC about the meaning of “sex” in the Equality Act. I hope to do justice to that in a future blog.

Post-script: that “future blog” is now here.

More on “misgendering”

The judgment of the EAT in the Forstater v CGD Europe & ors UKEAT/0105/20/JOJ is prefaced – quite unusually – with a list of things that it does not mean. There had been hyperbolic predictions from some quarters (including the Respondent’s counsel) about the dire consequences of a ruling in Ms Forstater’s favour, so the disclaimers weren’t wholly misplaced. But they were ripe for parody, and Twitter and Mumsnet didn’t shirk the task. The Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman started it: “It’s important to emphasize that the ruling does NOT give Maya Forstater the right to come round and steal your plasma screen tv,” and presently there was a long and helpful list of all the things the ruling didn’t give Maya Forstater the right to do, from tipping her seat back on a short-haul flight to Düsseldorf to wearing armour in the Houses of Parliament. 

The list given by the EAT is shorter, running to only four items, and more prosaic. To summarise: 

  • The EAT isn’t taking a position on “the transgender debate”. 
  • The judgment doesn’t mean anyone can “misgender” trans persons with impunity.
  • It doesn’t mean trans persons aren’t protected from harassment and discrimination under the EqA. 
  • It doesn’t mean employers and service providers won’t be able to provide a safe environment for trans persons.

The first item is self-evident: the EAT was not asked to give its own view on the merits of Ms Forstater’s belief, and it would have been irrelevant to its task (and very surprising) if it had done so. The third item on the list is scarcely less obvious: of course trans persons retain the protection of the EqA from discrimination and harassment, just like everyone else. 

The fourth item is that the judgment doesn’t mean that employers and service providers will be unable to provide a safe environment for trans persons. This is closely related to the third, and scarcely less obvious: trans persons are no different from anyone else in that they are protected from unlawful discrimination and harassment on grounds of any protected characteristic – that is the mechanism by which employers and service providers are required to provide them with a safe environment. Harassment for the purposes of the EqA is defined as conduct that has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him. When a tribunal considers whether a claim of harassment is made out, it must take into account both the subjective perception of the person who feels harassed, and the objective question whether it is reasonable for him to feel that way; as well as “the other circumstances of the case”. 


It is the second item on the list I want to take a closer look at:

This judgment does not mean that those with gender-critical beliefs can ‘misgender’ trans persons with impunity. The Claimant, like everyone else, will continue to be subject to the prohibitions on discrimination and harassment that apply to everyone else. Whether or not conduct in a given situation does amount to harassment or discrimination within the meaning of EqA will be for a tribunal to determine in a given case

There were plenty of hot takes on Twitter to the effect that the EAT had ruled that “misgendering” was unlawful harassment; or that even if it hadn’t, that it was possible to infer from the judgment that “misgendering” in the workplace would amount to unlawful harassment in almost all imaginable circumstances. I dealt with one of the latter here

What the judgment actually says is just that it doesn’t say anything about the circumstances in which “misgendering” will amount to harassment. The EAT sets that out at a bit more length at ¶104: 

That does not mean that in the absence of such a restriction the Claimant could go about indiscriminately “misgendering” trans persons with impunity. She cannot. The Claimant is subject to same prohibitions on discrimination, victimisation and harassment under the EqA as the rest of society. Should it be found that her misgendering on a particular occasion, because of its gratuitous nature or otherwise, amounted to harassment of a trans person (or of anyone else for that matter), then she could be liable for such conduct under the EqA. The fact that the act of misgendering was a manifestation of a belief falling with s.10, EqA would not operate automatically to shield her from such liability. The Tribunal correctly acknowledged, at para 87 of the Judgment, that calling a trans woman a man “may” be unlawful harassment. However, it erred in concluding that that possibility deprived her of the right to do so in any situation.

That’s worth some unpacking. 

The Claimant [cannot] go about indiscriminately “misgendering” trans persons with impunity.

That’s the bit that looks most like an assertion that “misgendering” is prohibited. But it needs to be read together with the next sentence: 

The Claimant is subject to the same prohibitions on discrimination, victimisation and harassment under the EqA as the rest of society. 

The first thing to note is that those prohibitions are quite limited and specific. The EqA does not place a general obligation on all of us not to discriminate against – or even victimise or harass – others on grounds of protected characteristics in our daily lives. It operates in defined spheres: the workplace; provision of goods, services and public functions; education; and associations. So if your friend asks you to use zie/zir to refer to him from now on, and you decline, you may lose your friend, but he’s not entitled to sue you under the EqA for any variety of discrimination for “misgendering” him. If a celebrity who is obviously male announces publicly that he wishes to be referred to as a woman from now on, and you write about him using grammatically correct pronouns on Facebook or on your blog or in a comment piece in a national newspaper, he doesn’t have a claim against you under the EqA either: you’re not his employer, or providing him with a service, or running an educational establishment at which he is a student or an association he belongs to or wants to join. 

If your friend asks his employer to require all his colleagues to use his neo-pronouns, and it says no, that may be another matter: your friend’s employer is bound by the EqA in its dealings with him, so he could at any rate frame an intelligible claim against it. And if you work for the same employer as your friend, and you refuse to use his neo-pronouns in the workplace, you could be personally liable under the EqA if a tribunal decided that your conduct amounted to harassment. 

The rest of the EAT’s ¶104 just says that “misgendering” may sometimes be harassment, but that whether or not it is in any given case will depend on the surrounding circumstances. 

I want to provide some pointers to the circumstances in which I think that “misgendering” might – and might not – be regarded as harassment under the EqA. I’m going to do that by examining a series of scenarios (some of which appeared without analysis in my previous blog on the subject), and saying briefly which side of the line I think they fall, and why. But before I do that, a short observation about the word “misgender”, and the manner in which the EAT uses it in its judgment in Forstater

Quotation marks in the EAT’s judgment

 The word (including “misgendered” and “misgendering”) appears 14 times in the judgment (leaving aside its appearance in direct quotes from the employment tribunal’s judgment), in the following distribution: 

“misgender” (double quotation marks): 5

‘misgender’ (single quotation marks): 2

misgender (no quotation marks): 7 

There are also several occasions – notably at ¶90 – where instead of speaking of “misgendering”, the EAT refers more neutrally to a failure to use preferred pronouns. 

“Misgender” means “to gender wrongly”; its use to refer to a refusal to bend the rules of grammar on the request of a trans person is tendentious, to put it mildly. I infer from the EAT’s use of quotation marks that – whether instinctively or as a matter of deliberate calculation I cannot guess – it was disinclined to accept that tendentious implication uncritically. That may be a straw in the wind as to the EAT’s future treatment of complaints about pronouns.

Is it reasonable to insist your colleagues use your preferred pronouns?

One final preliminary point. The EAT in Forstater deliberately limited what could be inferred from its judgment, preferring to leave wider questions about “misgendering” for another day. In particular, it did not express a view on how reasonable it was – or in what circumstances it might be reasonable – for an employee to demand that his colleagues use language in referring to him that is both grammatically incorrect and psychologically unnatural. 

My view on this is that such a demand will rarely, if ever, be reasonable. 

I want to pause here, because what I have just written may strike some as shocking or heretical. So let me say it again, with greater emphasis. I think it is an astonishing and audacious power-grab to announce your (ungrammatical) pronouns and expect others to use them. I don’t think anyone is entitled to exercise that kind of detailed control over other people’s speech, or make that kind of incursion into other people’s freedom of expression. I think it is truly amazing that we have arrived at a point where pointing this out may be widely regarded as a sign of bigotry. And yet, there is no natural limit to the extent of this power-grab, if once we accede to it. Some of the examples that follow demonstrate that. 

I think it is an astonishing and audacious power-grab to announce your (ungrammatical) pronouns and expect others to use them.

Some scenarios 

I’m going to recycle some of the scenarios from my previous post on misgendering, as well as adding a few more. The purpose of the previous post was to demonstrate that it was too simplistic to claim that “misgendering” a colleague in the workplace would always be harassment, so in some cases I just offered them without analysis as examples of situations in which the answer wasn’t obvious. This time I’ll say what I think the answer is in each case. 

In each case John/Jen (referred to as “J”) is the trans employee, and Liz (L) is his colleague. 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.”

Scenario 1 

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. She says she will do her best to accommodate J by rephrasing anything she says about him to avoid using pronouns at all where she reasonably can, but she warns that this will be easier in writing than in speech. J complains that by refusing to use his preferred pronouns, L is harassing him. 


L is entitled not to suffer discrimination on grounds of her Quaker beliefs. J is entitled not to suffer conduct by colleagues that has the purpose or effect of violating his dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for him. When a tribunal considers whether conduct amounts to harassment of J, it must take into account both J’s perception and whether it is reasonable for the conduct in question to have the effect of violating his dignity (etc.). L’s entitlement not to suffer discrimination on grounds of her beliefs must be relevant to the analysis of whether it is reasonable for her conduct to have that effect. 

My view is that J’s expectation – that his preference to be referred to using female pronouns should trump L’s right not to be forced to use language in a way she regards as untruthful – is unreasonable.  He may, subjectively, feel harassed; but I think the extent of his proposed incursion into L’s rights means that the answer to the question whether it is reasonable for him to feel harassed is considered should be an unequivocal “no”.  Note, though, that although this is my confident view of the correct interpretation of the EqA, it can’t be assumed that an employment tribunal would necessarily agree. On balance, I think on these facts L would probably prevail in the end, but it could well require an appeal.

Scenario 2

L has gender-critical views, but she doesn’t feel confident to express them openly in the workplace. She says nothing when J makes his announcement, but in the months that follow, she avoids using any pronouns to refer to him. Mostly, she manages that quite smoothly, but occasionally it makes her sound a bit stilted. 

After a few months, J notices that L is avoiding using any pronouns to refer to him. He raises a grievance, saying that this shows that she doesn’t accept him as a woman. He says this has the effect of creating a degrading and humiliating environment for him. 


In this scenario, it is not enough for J that L avoids using masculine pronouns for him: he is aggrieved by her refusal to use feminine pronouns. 

This scenario seems to me the one most likely to arise in real life. Most people with gender-critical views will not be seeking to pick a fight with a trans-identifying colleague; but they may feel quite strongly about their own entitlement to draw a line short of active assent to a belief system which they reject. It may feel to them as if adherents to the dominant belief system in their workplace are demanding from them a humiliating gesture of submission. 

I think facts similar to these are likely to give rise to bitterly fought discrimination cases in the employment tribunals in the months and years to come. I can’t offer HR departments much comfort, either: if they back L, J may sue; but if they back J, L may sue. J may have the enthusiastic support of his trade union, which L will probably lack; then again, L, lacking union support, may be driven to crowd-fund for her legal fees, adding a lot of adverse publicity to the employer’s woes. On balance, backing L is probably the more prudent course for employers, as well as being the right thing to do.

Scenario 3

L has gender-critical views, which are well known to her colleagues. When J makes his announcement, she says “I have no wish to offend you, and I’m happy to call you Jen if that’s what you would like. But I am not prepared to refer to you using female pronouns, because I don’t want to signify assent to a belief system I don’t accept.” 


My view is that L is within her rights in this scenario, too, but I don’t feel any confidence that a tribunal would agree. This, too, is the stuff of test cases. 

Scenario 4

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 J causes her intense distress. 


I think this case is clearer. The analysis is very similar to the case where L is a Quaker. J’s demand is unreasonable, and L’s inability or refusal to use his preferred pronouns cannot reasonably be characterised as harassment. If L is disabled within the meaning of the EqA, any attempt to force her to comply with J’s demands is likely to be disability discrimination. 

Scenario 5

L is a child-abuse survivor. When she was ten, her abuser, who was in his mid-20s, 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 calls 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 the employer insists she has to refer to J using female pronouns, she will have no option but to resign. 


This is a somewhat more difficult situation for HR to deal with, because although J’s demand is grossly unreasonable as applied to L, they can’t explain to J why that is so without disclosing highly sensitive confidential information about L. 

My advice to Zeitghost in this situation would be that they should apologise to L, and tell J that he is at liberty to think of himself and express himself how he chooses, but he is not entitled to require his colleagues to use his preferred pronouns. If J brings an employment tribunal claim and they want to explain the full circumstances that led to their decision, they will need to ask the tribunal for an anonymity order to protect L’s privacy. 

Scenario 6

This time, J has announced that he is non-binary, and his pronouns are zie and zir. 

L says she’s busy at work and in her personal life, and she has no intention of learning a load of made-up grammar in order to refer to J. 


I think J’s demand is unreasonable, and L’s response – even if the grammar isn’t actually terribly complicated, and “zie” and “zir” are just to be swapped in for “he” and “him” – is forgivably short. Again, though, I am not confident that in the current climate a tribunal would necessarily agree. 

Scenario 7

This time, J has announced that he has a complex non-binary identity. He says his pronouns are are “zoi, zer, zin, zim” in the vocative, nominative, accusative and dative cases, respectively; and his possessive adjective is “zein/zoiner” in the third person and “zoir” when addressing him. He passes a short handout around explaining the grammar. (Some of his colleagues are relieved to learn that his possessive adjectives are required to agree only in number, but not also in gender, with the noun to which it refers.)

L’s response is as above. 


If you didn’t agree with me on the zie/zir scenario, what about J’s more complicated demands in this one? Do you think it’s ok for zin to require zoiner colleagues to grapple with zein invented grammar? And if not, where exactly do you draw the line? 

Scenario 8

When J makes his announcement, L says that she holds gender-critical beliefs, and is not prepared to pander to his 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. She says things like “Just like a man!” any time he does anything that she regards as stereotypically male behaviour, and frequently talks of his “male privilege.”


This is what harassment looks like. L is going out of her way to cause J distress and humiliation. Her employer must put a stop to her behaviour at once.

The Protection From Harassment Act 1997

Finally, it’s worth noting that in Forstater, the EAT is referring only to harassment as a form of discrimination under the EqA. There is also an offence, and a civil wrong, of harassment under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997. No doubt “misgendering” could be performed in a manner that would give rise to liability under the PFHA. Detailed comment on what that would involve is a matter for a separate blog; for now it’s sufficient to comment that the threshold is high: the ordinary annoyances, affronts and upsets of everyday life will not cross it.


“Misgendering” is a concept that offers the employers of trans-identifying people nothing but trouble, from all sides. Pronouns are a part of language that we normally use almost entirely unconsciously and automatically. Putting them on permanent manual override imposes a cognitive cost – as is obvious from the regularity with which even committed allies stumble when trying to comply. It demands that attention be paid to something that we can normally do with no attention at all. I suggest above that the demand for ungrammatical pronouns is a power-grab, so perhaps the difficulty and the call on conscious attention is part of the point. 

“Neo-pronouns” are the perfect reductio ad absurdum: if a trans-identifying male is entitled to “she/her,” why isn’t a non-binary person entitled to “they/them”? And if “they/them”, why not “zie/zir” or “xe/xem/xyr”? And if a non-binary person is entitled to neo-pronouns that substitute one-for-one for English pronouns, what possible justification could there be for saying that they can’t borrow the more complex grammar of another language – or invent their own? What rational limit could there ever be to their entitlement to hijack their colleagues’ attention with awkward and unfamiliar grammar? 

Far from accepting that failure to use a trans-identifying individual’s preferred pronouns will always or normally amount to harassment, my view is that – unless done aggressively and with intent to harass – it almost never will. The very concept of “misgendering” is a menace: it should be carefully wrapped in quotation marks, and disposed of as hazardous waste.