Tracking the course of transgender rights and their liberating potential for us all.
The sun streams in through the open windows of a corner house in Old Street, East London.
Inside people are milling about, making coffee and tea, rifling though second-hand clothes — including an original Vivienne Westwood T-shirt. Buying hand-knitted bears, home-made cakes, and getting their nails done.
Most are teenagers, a few are parents, some are volunteers. The teens chat about the usual things — music, social media, college courses. And puberty blockers, hormones and transitioning. “When did you start?” “How is it going?” One is impatient for results. Another tells them that it takes time.
These are transgender — or trans — youth and the event is a fundraiser for a camping trip organized by Gendered Intelligence, a group set up to help youngsters navigate a world dominated by very fixed ideas about gender and also “to spread a bit more intelligence” about it.
In one part of the room, a screen is showing video blogs. Young trans people talk to camera about a range of issues that concern them — voice, language, make-up; the use of “they” instead of the pronouns “he” or “she”; the impact of austerity policies on health services. And they give advice.
What I am witnessing here looks like a gently evolving social revolution. Some in this room are clearly trans boys, some trans girls, some it would be hard to place too precisely on the gender spectrum. But they are expressing themselves authentically, talking about future plans, making their own way in what is, in this space at least, a supportive environment.
Jay Stewart, a founder of Gendered Intelligence, says: “We are on the cusp of a gender revolution.”
Judging by developments in the wider world as well, that does not seem an outlandish claim.
A snapshot of recent global news through a trans lens would show:
Tamara Adrian, a Venezuelan woman, presenting herself as the first ever trans candidate for her country’s Congress. Nepal issuing its first “Third Gender” passport. AJ Kearns, an Australian trans man, taking a break in his hormone treatment and giving birth to a baby daughter.
And one rolling story you just can’t get away from — Cait. Caitlin Jenner, former Olympic athlete, whose transitioning is followed like an addiction, her own TV show — I am Cait — provoking a social media snowstorm.
But another item, also from the U.S., brings a different reality into focus. It’s about Tamara Dominguez, a Kansas trans woman who was seen getting out of a black SUV, which then ran her over, reversed, and ran over her again — making her the 17th trans person to be murdered in the U.S. last year.
All the data on trans people and their lives is relatively new and patchy. But what is available paints a shocking picture. Life expectancies that are half the national average in some countries of Latin America; unemployment and poverty rates that are way higher; public health services routinely denying trans people even basic medical care.
Since 2009 the Trans Murder Monitoring project has been collecting international data. As the numbers have risen, the age of victims has declined. In 2014 the youngest was an eight-year-old trans girl in Rio de Janeiro, beaten to death by her father.
The global suicide rates of trans people are reckoned to be 50 times higher than the average.
When I ask Jay Stewart to identify the major issue facing the young people he is working with in Britain, he says: “Mental health. Some of our people are super shy and lack confidence. They have bad experiences with other young people who do not allow for gender variance.”
At the same time, visibility is greater than ever. “Trans women, trans men, and non-binary trans people are suddenly everywhere, claiming our rights and claiming public spaces; even getting to play ourselves in television drama,” says veteran British activist and writer Roz Kaveney.
Gone are the days when people who wanted to transition believed medical experts who said that to do so successfully required cutting themselves off entirely from their former lives — family, friends, home, job — and starting afresh, alone.
The internet has played a vital role in connecting trans people, supplementing the work of underfunded self-help groups. The meaning of what it is to be trans has expanded, along with strategies for dealing with ignorance, transphobia and their impacts.
Nevertheless, trans people everywhere are still excluded and marginalized because of the way they express their gender identity. In much of Africa and the Middle East transgender is synonymous with homosexuality, which is a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment and, in some countries, death.
Social rejection can be intense. Transgender people are often publicly humiliated, stripped, harassed by the police and thrown out of their homes.
“A transgender person should be a prostitute, should be used for sodomy — that is the general narrative,” says Audrey Mbugua, a Kenyan activist and suicide survivor. Today she has become, in her own words, “a trans warrior,” setting up the Trans Education and Advocacy NGO. She is battling the Kenyan authorities to get her name on official documents changed and to obtain gender reassignment surgery, which is not allowed in her country although there are medical staff willing to perform it.
International campaigning focuses heavily on legal gender recognition and citizen rights. Having official documents that reflect one’s gender expression is no trivial matter; it’s essential for navigating daily life — work, school, hospitals, police, travel — safely, without harassment and humiliation.
A flurry of gender recognition laws have come on to the statute books in Europe, North America and Australasia. In many cases, though, the laws have conditions and restrictions that actually violate the human rights of transgender people.
More than 20 countries in Europe (including France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Ukraine and Russia) insist on the surgical removal of reproductive organs and sterilization before new documents can be issued. In Canada this requirement has been lifted following legal challenges.
Forced or coerced sterilization is a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture has called on all states to outlaw using it against their trans and intersex citizens. Another condition imposed by several European countries is that people seeking gender reassignment must be single or divorced. Some states insist they must be childless, too.
Such restrictions show a fundamental lack of understanding not only of the diversity and complexity of transgender experience but of gender itself.
U.S. trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan says: “If I’ve met over 5,000 trans people, I’ve probably heard 5,000 different explanations of what it means to be trans, and what our defining experiences are.”
Some feel from an early age that they have been born “into the wrong body” and only medical intervention — hormone treatment, surgery — will make life liveable. British writer Juliet Jacques describes it as “an overbearing visceral sense that I could not survive in a male body.”
For others, it’s a gradual process, recognizing only in adulthood the source of their distress or “dysphoria.”
Some go through gender reassignment treatment and assume a new identity in “stealth” as they aim to mesh as seamlessly as possible with society post-transition. They may not even identify as “trans.”
For others, “coming out” as transgender is a personal and political liberation enabling them to express themselves anywhere along the spectrum of gender.
And many more don’t fit any of the above descriptions.
Lawmakers who impose inhumane conditions on gender recognition — such as having to go through unwanted surgery or divorce — appear determined to uphold binary gender conventions as far as possible; gender variance is something to be corrected not respected.
But different people will need and want different kinds and levels of medical intervention, or none at all. And you cannot make any assumption about people’s sexuality or the nature of their family bonds, before or after transition. In fact, many couples who married pre-reassignment, given the choice, end up staying together after.
Argentinean legislators took a different approach. They didn’t just consult with transgender groups, they took on board and incorporated all their key ideas, recalls activist Lohana Berkins. The result: the world’s most progressive legislation, which has helped shape legislation in Ireland and Denmark since.
Argentina’s 2012 Gender Law was the first to allow people to self-define their gender without the need for medical “verification.” All documents — including birth certificates — can be reissued. Even children can self-define and this must be respected by official institutions, including schools. The 2012 law also entitles access to state healthcare for age-appropriate reassignment treatment; and it provides protection from discrimination. One result of the law, observed by Berkins, has been that trans youth today are confident about expressing their identity in diverse ways and less inclined towards medical intervention than the older generation was.
For people who are born intersex, self-definition without medical intervention is even more critical. While many trans people struggle to obtain (and afford) treatment, for intersex children and teenagers the issue is how to prevent medically unnecessary “corrective” surgery to make them conform to binary male or female norms before they are old enough to decide for themselves.
In “License to be Yourself,” an Open Society Foundation report, New Zealand trans activist Jack Byrne outlines key features for progressive laws and policies. They will: Be based on self-defined gender identity rather than verification by others; include more than two sex/gender options for those who identify outside the binary characters of male and female; include intersex people; apply to all residents, including those born overseas; link to broader human rights, particularly access to health services that enable someone to medically transition if that is their choice.
Equally important is what they will not require: A medical diagnosis of gender identity disorder, gender dysphoria, or transsexualism; transition-related medical treatment, such as hormonal therapy or gender affirming surgeries; sterilization, either explicitly or by requiring medical procedures that result in it; living continuously or permanently in one’s gender identity; divorce or dissolution of civil partnership. Nor will they prohibit parenting now or the intention to have children in the future.
Trans communities everywhere face higher rates of unemployment, underemployment and poverty, but in the Global South this is made worse because trans people have limited access to education and many are rejected by biological families that would have otherwise provided an economic safety net. In Uganda, activists report that many intersex babies are killed soon after birth, while others are hidden out of shame and fear.
Getting gender reassignment treatment is a complex and often costly process — even in rich countries. For trans people in the South it’s often just impossible — partly for economic reasons, but also due to the prejudice they face in healthcare settings. This has a serious effect on body image and self worth which is expressed in higher suicide rates. In Peru and Bolivia trans women prefer to treat themselves and organize silicone-injecting parties — a practice that can be deadly when industrial silicone is used.
However, in recent times there has been an explosion of trans and intersex activism in the Global South, too.
In April 2014 gender-variant hijras celebrated a historic victory when the Indian Supreme Court recognized their status as a “Third Gender” and directed the government to provide them with medical and other facilities. The court also said there should be “reservations” for education and public employment. But to date the government appears to be stalling and has yet to deliver rights to the three million-strong community.
Along with kathoeys (or ladyboys) in Thailand and the fa’afafine in Samoa, the hijras of the Indian subcontinent have been cited as proof of cultural acceptance in non-Western cultures. But although they are a visible and sometimes noisy part of the culture, the vast majority survive on the margins of society, eking a living through sex work and begging. A few hijra individuals have, however, broken into mainstream politics and the media, including Madhu Bai Kinnar, who became India’s first hijra mayor earlier this year.
Trans and gender-variant people present a challenge and an opportunity for deepening equality and enlarging citizenship rights for us all. Often they strike at the root of a concept that sustains a much wider oppression: the tyranny of the binary. This tyranny serves many purposes — above all the maintenance of patriarchy. Male domination depends upon a constantly reinforced belief in the innate difference between women and men — and therefore their rights, roles and privileges. To the patriarchal mindset, the notion that gender might be more fluid, might not be a fact of nature but socially constructed, is as undesirable as it is inconceivable.
Capitalism too profits from such thinking — whether in terms of lower-paid jobs for women and the billions worth of unpaid female domestic labour performed each year, or the ever-expanding markets for products with “his” and “hers” versions. Childhood is captured by marketing “girl” or “boy” toys, clothes, colors, activities, drumming the anxious dogma of fixed gender identity and division into the minds of children right from infancy.
In fighting for their rights, trans and gender-variant people face resistance from several quarters: from traditionalists determined to obstruct or punish all who deviate from established norms; from skeptical gender conformists, clinging to a fixed idea of male and female as though their lives (and those of their children) depended on it; and even from essentialist radical feminists, wishing to exclude trans women from women’s spaces.
What’s needed is an opening of minds, to let in what may seem like a big conceptual shift but actually is not that scary at all. The idea that sexuality is on a spectrum is pretty much accepted now. What gender-variant people demonstrate is that so is gender. Why turn away from a rainbow and insist on seeing the world only in black and white? As Jay Stewart says, “gender is not what you are, but what you do.”
Once we let go of the fixity of the binary, life can actually be simpler and fairer. There is no need for different rights and laws for different categories of people. Persons can marry; persons can parent; persons can travel. You don’t have to specify gender as a qualification any more than you have to specify eye color. And those of us who do not neatly fit the M box or the F box — or do not want to — can breathe more easily.
Times are changing and some of the smaller players on the world stage are leading the way.
New Zealand/Aotearoa, having defined marriage simply as the union between two people, regardless of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity, is now allowing all citizens to have X-gendered passports if they please.
Jay Stewart reports that a third of the young people he works with identify as neither male nor female but “something else.” He adds: “I think non-binary is the way forward. It’s going to be more prevalent. Legislation will need to change so that non-binary people can live and thrive and be equally validated as citizens.”
Finally, an anecdote, from Jennifer Finley Boylan. She recalls how, early on in her transition, she passed a woman and her young daughter while exiting a shop. She overheard the little girl, who had been staring at her, asking her mother: “What was that?”
“That, honey,” the mother replied, “was a human being.”
Vanessa Baird is a co-editor of New Internationalist and has written on everything from migration, money, religion and equality to indigenous activism, climate change, feminism and global LGBT rights. Reprinted from New Internationalist (October 2015), a multi-award winning, independent, non-profit media co-operative, which, for 40 years, has specialized in investigative reporting, and publishing a magazine and books on human rights, politics, and social and environmental justice.