Brave New World

Art Braunschweiger

Art Braunschweiger

From the Dispatch Side

Brave New World was a novel written by a British author named Aldous Huxley in 1931. While his subject matter was different than mine, I’ve borrowed the title for this column because it reflects how our world has changed and the courage often shown by those involved. 

At NAVIGATOR 2021, Sgt. Jacquie Fuentes of the Niagara (Ontario, Canada) Regional Police Service presented a compelling seminar entitled “Crisis Response for the Trans Community.” It increased my awareness of the many different ways someone might choose to affirm their gender identity—and how these choices can challenge us when handling a call for service. (The most commonly used acronym for this community is LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. Other identities that fall under this umbrella are queer, two-spirit, asexual, and intersex.)    

Most of us will address an unknown caller as sir or ma’am (or miss) until they’ve given their name. It’s instinctive: As emergency dispatchers, we’re conditioned to project courtesy and respect. The problem is, we can’t always guess a person’s gender correctly based on their voice. And most of us wouldn’t be comfortable asking, “Are you male or female?” even if it were appropriate—which it’s not. But it shouldn’t be necessary to say “sir” or “ma’am” even if we haven’t asked for their name yet. Although they’re terms of respect, you’ll convey just as much through your tone of voice. Admittedly, if you’ve been saying sir or ma’am your entire professional life up to now, it’s going to take a conscious effort to change.   

Generally, second-party calls present few problems as the caller will typically refer to the person they’re calling about as he or she. But even when they use a term that’s typically gender-associative, such as boyfriend, the subject’s actual gender may not be what you expect. I once took a call in which the caller, a female, said that her husband was arguing with the neighbors. I referred to her husband as “he,” and the caller quickly corrected me by saying “my husband is a female.” (I’ve since learned that it’s much more common to refer to a same-sex companion as “my partner.”) If that happens apologize, remain professional, and move on using the gender term the caller has given you.   

First-party callers can present the most challenges because you have nothing to go on other than their voice, and that’s never a reliable indicator. (Ever been embarrassed by calling someone sir, only to be told “I’m not a sir, I’m a ma’am”?) With growing acceptance of people who embrace genders other than the one they were assigned at birth, and most societies already widely accepting of sexual identities other than those considered traditional, you shouldn’t assume anything. Nor can you safely assume by a caller’s first name, since first names are increasingly non-traditional and won’t indicate a person’s gender. Simply address them by the name they give you. If you’re in ProQA® Medical where you have to make a gender selection, ask professionally and in a non-judgmental way such as, “Do you prefer to be identified as male or female?” (not “Are you male or female?”)    

Never pose a question that might sound accusatory or express disapproval such as, “So you’re transgender?” 

Nor is it acceptable to ask, “What gender were you born with?” While their gender identity may have changed, only an estimated 5-13% of transgender individuals undergo gender reassignment surgery. The only situation in which an accurate, here-and-now gender identification is a must is childbirth, and if it’s in progress the answer will be obvious. A true professional will take the gender identity given by any caller as nothing more than routine information and adapt their interrogation accordingly.