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Transgender Day of Remembrance

Updated: Nov 13, 2018

by Tiago Carolino, Representative of the Queereropeans Association at the College of Europe (European Political and Governance Studies - Manuel Marín Promotion)

Words maked with an * are defined at the end of this article.

On November 20th, we commemorate the countless murders of transgender* people around the world, who were victims of the transphobia that permeates our societies.

As a cisgender* gay man, I am far from being the best placed to speak about the experiences of transgender people. However, as we have been invited to contribute to this issue of the journal, I might as well use this opportunity to draw attention to this day and invite the student community to actively seek to listen to the voices of transgender and non-binary* people.

The way transgender people are represented in our society, when they are not unapologetically demonised, often tends to focus on their plights and experiences of hardship, in a way that compels the audience to feel pity for them. I will try my best not to recreate this harmful narrative, which is difficult to avoid as we shed light on the senseless violence ending the lives of transgender and gender non-conforming* individuals worldwide.

So instead of sharing with you the statistics on transphobic murders, and the rate of suicide attempts amongst transgender individuals, let’s instead focus on the violence that we, as a society, impose.

The LGBTQI+* community, and in particular white cisgender homosexual men and women, can sometimes be under the impression that the fight is over. Now that some gay people can live their lives openly without the need to hide, now that same-sex couples can get married and start a family of their own in some countries, now that homosexuality has broadly been tolerated, maybe accepted, in some parts of our western societies, some of us feel that there are no more battles to be fought. There are many examples of once-marginalised communities, who after becoming normalised, tend to reproduce oppression against others. Donald Trump, while running for President, proudly labelled Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists” and boasted about building a wall on the Mexican border to “protect” the United States. However, on election day, it is estimated that 29% of Latino Americans voted for him. I see it also in my home country, where second-generation French citizens proudly support far-right candidates, forgetting that only two generations ago, their grand-parents crossed a border, sometimes illegally, and were themselves targeted by the political movements their grandchildren now support.

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington DC (USA), 17 May 2015

From the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to the legalisation of civil partnerships or even marriage for same-sex couples, transgender people have always fought for rights they would not necessarily themselves enjoy. The Stonewall riots (1969), which are largely seen as a turning point for the “gay rights movement” in the United States and western societies, were started by a black transgender woman, Martha P. Johnson, who famously threw the first stone to stand up against violent police raids in gay bars. At the time, transgender people also yearned to have their voices heard and their existence recognised, but our community hushed them down, telling them that their claim were seen as too “extreme” for greater society, and that their time would come later.

Fifty years later, so much progress has been achieved for us gay men and women. But what about transgender people? While we can, legally at least, work and live free from discrimination, while our love and families are recognised in some countries, what about transgender people? Fifty years later, unfortunately, trans and non-binary people are still fighting for their very fundamental rights to exist, and to be recognised as full and sane individuals. Which is why it can be extremely infuriating to hear people belonging to the LGBTQI+ community claiming that there is no more need to fight for equality.

Did you know that only in June of this year, 2018, the World Health Organisation stopped classifying transgender people as mentally ill? Did you know that until the recent ECtHR judgement in AP, Garçon, and Nicot v. France (2017), many European countries required transgender people to undergo forced sterilisation procedures to be able to legally change their gender? As the name of the case indicates, I am not proud to say that my very own country was one of them. And if France changed its transphobic laws, many European countries still refuse to comply with the ruling and still require transgender people to undergo forced sterilisation to legally change their gender. This has been recognised by the ECtHR as a violation of the fundamental right to private and family life (Art 8 ECHR), and the judgement (§131) even made direct reference to the fundamental right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment (Art 3 ECHR).

In recent years, trans rights have made a huge leap forward, and we progressively see more and more positive representations of trans people in popular culture. One thing we can be proud of as Europeans, is the example that is being set by one of our Member State, and which deserves all the recognition it can get: Malta.

Malta is arguably a small country: the smallest of the EU, both in terms of population and area. However, Malta is a great country, and is worldwide seen as an example in terms of LGBTQI+ rights, especially when it comes to transgender and intersex* rights. In 2015, Malta enacted the “Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act”, which protects intersex children from non-consensual surgical interventions, and enables trans people to be legally recognised based on self-determination (without the need for forced medical treatment or psychological assessment). Malta has been topping ILGA Europe’s rankings ever since and is setting the best practices standards worldwide.

This is definitely a reason to rejoice, but this sort of progress is unfortunately always threatened. In late October, it was revealed that the Trump administration was “considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth” which “would essentially eradicate federal recognition of the estimated 1.4 million Americans who have opted to recognize themselves — surgically or otherwise — as a gender other than the one they were born into.” (New York Times). This phenomenon is not circumscribed to the US, and even in the EU, we witness active resistance. The Bulgarian government, which, until recently, held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention (on women’s rights), notably under misguided and transphobic pretence.

The violence that is imposed upon transgender people takes many forms. One of which are the murders and suicides that we sadly commemorate on Transgender Day of Remembrance. But it is also a systemic violence, which we as a society are blind to, because it does not affect us. It is the violence of a society which does not fully recognise transgender identities, and does not deem trans and non-binary peoples’ gender identities as valid until it matches certain expectations and standards. It is the violence of a society which does not see the problem with asking transgender people the most intrusive and insensitive questions, from their deadname* to their genitalia. It is the violence of a society which obsesses over a clear and unbridgeable divide between men and women, and rejects all the lives dispelling this narrow conception of human beings. And because societal oppressions are superimposed, it should be mentioned here that the first victims of transphobia are by far trans women of colour.

So as Transgender Awareness Week (Nov 12-20) approaches, I would like to invite the student community of the College to listen to the transgender people who have decided to share their experiences with the world. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Some personal favourites include:

  • ContraPoints (YouTube): for incredibly insightful philosophical debates, with high-quality videos (not all centred around gender identity), from the perspective of a very funny and intelligent transgender woman.

  • Chase Ross (YouTube): for content directly related to transgender identity, from the perspective of a trans gay man, and committed trans rights activist.

  • Assigned Male/Assignée Garçon (Comics): for a bilingual French/English webcomic by Sophie Labelle which features a young trans girl and discusses issues of gender norms and privilege without falling into the trans suffering trope.

Disclaimer: I do not argue in this article that homosexual people do not suffer from oppression and discrimination. Homophobia is real and can be experienced in every part of the world and in every social class. However, it is becoming easier for some homosexuals to lead a life minimally impacted by homophobia, in a way that can lead them to become oblivious to the many systemic oppressions impacting the LGBTQI+ community.

Basic concepts in alphabetical order

- Cisgender = describes a person who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth.

- Gender non-conforming = a person who does not meet societal expectations of gender expression.

- Deadname = some trans people choose to adopt a new name, to reflect their gender identity, and to present themselves to the world in a way that aligns with their gender. Some call the name they were given at birth their “deadname”. It is extremely intrusive to ask a transgender person about their deadname, and outright rude to purposely refer to them using their deadname.

- Intersex = people who were born with characteristics that do not fit the typical definition of a female or male body. They are often surgically altered as infants to fit society’s expectations, at an age when they are unable to consent, which can be a great source of pain as they grow up and discover their own identity.

- LGBTQI+ = Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and more.

- Non-binary. Gender binary = refers to the conception of gender as binary, either man or woman. Most transgender men and women identify on this binary scale, but numerous people can identify outside of this binary conception, on what is called the gender spectrum. Those who identify outside of the binary use a number of labels including “non-binary” which often serves as an umbrella term.

- Transgender (or trans) = describes a person whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth.

  • The use of the word “transsexual” should be avoided, as it heavily focuses on sex, while it is the gender identity which is at stake. It also reinforces the idea that transgender people have to change their genitalia to fully transition, which does not reflect a lot of transgender experiences.

- Transitioning = The process that some transgender people undergo so that the way they present themselves reflects their gender identity. It can for example include changing their legal name and gender, hormone therapy, surgery or none of the above. There is no single way to transition.

Useful resources

*Article reviewed by Zack Levy-Dyer, Trainee in the LGBTI Intergroup of the European Parliament

The more, the merrier - Issue n. 2, 9 November 2018


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