I was privileged to represent NCTE and join lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex activists from across Europe, as well as a few fellow North Americans, last month in Paris at the “Conference on the Rights of LGBT People in Europe”, hosted by the governments of France and Poland.
The conference, attended by government ministers and human rights activists from around the continent, is part of a series of international meetings focused on elevating these issues within the global human rights framework. An Asian regional meeting was held earlier in March in Kathmandu, Nepal, and a Latin American regional meeting will be held this week in Brasilia, Brazil, concluding in mid-April with a global summit in Oslo, Norway, hosted by the South African and Norwegian governments.
NCTE was invited to attend as a member of the Council for Global Equality, together with Council staffer Mark Bromley, and I was very honored to be asked to speak on one of the workshop panels regarding legal gender recognition as a human rights issue. The conference was a tremendous opportunity to meet colleagues from Transgender Europe (TGEU), the Organization Intersex International, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association of Europe (ILGA-Europe), and other ILGA-Europe member organizations. These activists are doing fantastic work across Europe and beyond. No country today can boast a perfect record when it comes to the human rights of LGBTI people – though some have further to go than others – and these activists along with others around the world are doing incredible work from which US activists should draw inspiration and insight.
I was particularly honored not only to attend but to participate as a speaker in a workshop on “Liberties – Fighting Discrimination Against LGBT Persons,” which focused on the topics of gender recognition and attacks on the rights of expression and assembly. The following are my prepared remarks from the workshop:
I would like to outline for our discussion this afternoon the issue of gender recognition and its connection to fundamental rights.
The designation of one’s gender by the state is a constant presence in everyday life today. For most it is experienced as perhaps benign and hardly noticed, but for millions of trans people today it is a source of ever present anxiety, humiliation, and fear, because our official documents and records announce a gender at odds with our core personal identity. This means that, for example, a trans woman like myself must display a male gender marker every time she seeks to:
- apply for employment
- enroll in school
- open a bank account
- apply for public benefits
- or even seek help in a crisis
Lack of gender recognition, and the ever present documentation of the wrong gender identifier not only “outs” individuals involuntarily in numerous and often vulnerable situations; it not only thrusts one’s trans status into the forefront in every part of social and economic life; it does even more than that. Lack of gender recognition also has the effect if conveying to everyone we encounter the stigmatizing message that we are not who we say we are, and implicitly that our core identity is a kind of fraud, to be disregarded or regarded with disdain. In effect, lack of gender recognition imposes a mark of inferior social status.
The impact throughout the individual’s life can be stark. In a recent US survey, 1/3 of trans people had no form of official document reflecting their identity, and 1/2 had records with a mix of gender markers. Forty percent had been harassed on at least one occasion when they presented identification not matching their gender identity. Fifteen percent were asked to leave a place of business on at least one occasion in reaction to presenting such incongruous identification. And one trans person out of 30 reported that had been attacked physically on at least one occasion in reaction to showing incongruent ID. Overall, those whose gender was not officially recognized faced higher rates of job and housing discrimination These data are from the US but the impact is similar and often more extreme across the world. Lack of gender recognition is thus inextricable from other forms of discrimination and violence against trans people.
Across the many US jurisdictions as across the nations of Europe, barriers to gender recognition take varied forms. In some places, it takes the form of a total refusal to ever recognize a change from the birth-assigned gender, so that all trans people, without exception, must go through entire life constantly outed, humiliated, stigmatized and vulnerable. In other places, gender recognition is subject to the arbitrary discretion of judges or other officials, is influenced by individual prejudices, and is often based on invasive inquiries into every aspect of a person’s life. Still common in many jurisdictions are mandatory surgery requirements, which instead of supporting individuals in making varied medical decisions based on their individual needs and values, impose often unwanted, unneeded, and for some even medically contraindicated procedures. While access to health care is critical for all people, unwanted and unneeded procedures are a violation of bodily integrity, often resulting in involuntary sterilization, exacted as the price of exercising important rights.
In this area as in so many others, we must recognize that what might at one time have seemed common-sense practices may in actuality be inconsistent with fundamental rights of dignity, privacy, equality, and self-determination. I hope our discussion today will illuminate gender recognition as a critical component of any agenda regarding the human rights of LGBT people, as well as of intersex people who are also impacted by this issue and many of the others we are discussing.
I am incredibly grateful to the organizers from ILGA Europe, TGEU, and the French and Polish governments, as well as our partners in the Council for Global Equality, for this wonderful opportunity to participate in a process that will hopefully translate into meaningful action at the United Nations level in the coming year.