“Trans activism isn’t just about pronouns and bathrooms.”
“The mainstream media,” continues trans writer, Misha Falk, “usually reduces demands made by trans activists to being about what pronouns people should use or whether trans women should be allowed to use women’s bathrooms or participate in women’s sports.”
While these issues are certainly important, the focus on them can come at the expense of a more fundamental struggle to live in a world where trans people’s human rights are consistently violated.
From bans on gender-affirming care to restrictions on name changes, lawmakers globally have introduced a slew of anti-trans legislation in recent years that inflict on trans people’s human rights, including the right to life, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination. Trans people already experience shocking rates of violence and discrimination, and such anti-trans legislation puts an already vulnerable community further at risk.
The year 2022 saw 327 reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people around the world; as these are just those reported, however, the real number is likely much higher. Violence against the trans community is so widespread that, since 1999, advocates have gathered to commemorate transgender victims of violence on November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
As enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), human rights are rights inherent to all human beings. According to the UDHR, a foundational text in the history of human and civil rights, we are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status, such as age, disability, health status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
As its title suggests, the UDHR is universal — meaning it applies to all people, in all countries around the world. Although it is not legally binding, all countries are obligated under international human rights law to promote and protect the human rights of all persons without discrimination. Yet, in many countries, transgender people continue to have these rights violated. For instance, as highlighted by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), laws against cross dressing are used to punish transgender people on the basis of their gender identity and expression.
For years, pioneering transgender activists such as Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Raquel Willis, as well as LGBTQ+ organizations such as Stonewall and other human rights groups, have been fighting for trans rights worldwide. And although progress has been made, the recent rise of transphobic narratives both in the media and at a senior political level show that there is still a long way to go.
As British trans activist, Munroe Bergdorf, said: “Transphobia — just like racism, sexism, or homophobia — is not an opinion, it is discrimination based on prejudice. In order to progress towards a fair, equal, and safe society for trans people to live in, we all need to recognize it as such.”
Here are five human rights that transgender people are still fighting for around the world.
1. The right to life, and to live in freedom and safety.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person, under the UDHR. This means that nobody, including the government, can try to end your life. It also means governments should take appropriate measures to safeguard life by making laws to protect all their citizens and, in some circumstances, by taking steps to protect citizens if their lives are at risk.
Despite this, transgender individuals across the globe are targets of hate crimes; in Russia, the US, UK, Switzerland, Pakistan, Uganda, and more, there have been cases of violence and killings against the transgender community. In 2022 alone, there were 327 reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people around the world.
In addition to this, several countries worldwide have imposed anti-LGBTQ+ laws that criminalize transgender individuals, further subjecting them to violence and discrimination within prison systems. For instance, in Qatar, transgender Qataris can be detained for "violating public morality", which requires no trial or official charge in the country. During the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Human Rights Watch reported that security forces arbitrarily arrested LGBTQ+ people and subjected them to ill-treatment in detention in the country.
The murder of 16-year-old Brianna Ghey, a trans teenager in the UK; the fatal shooting of Maria Jose Rivera Rivera in Texas, US; and the stabbing of Renna Rodrigues in Brazil are just a few shocking examples from the first months of 2023 that underscore what the UN Human Rights office has called “levels of violence and discrimination that offend the human conscience.”
Speaking of Ghey’s tragic death, Munroe Bergdorf said: “This incessant and violent culture war that the trans community is being relentlessly subjected to... is having real life consequences on our mental health and physical safety. When you advocate for exclusion, erasure, and segregation, you are advocating for death, harm, and pain.”
2. The right to live free from torture and degrading treatment.
Everyone has the right to be free from torture and from cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment, including for reasons relating to sexual orientation or gender identity.
Despite this, transgender individuals worldwide are often forced to undergo so-called “conversion therapy” — a practice that the UN has judged tantamount to “acts of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
The United Nations Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (IESOGI) defines so-called “conversion therapy” as an umbrella term to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These interventions can include psychotherapy, isolation, humiliation, exorcism, prayer, physical assault, force-feeding, and starvation.
Such practices claim to aim to “convert” people from gay, lesbian, or bisexual to heterosexual and from trans or gender diverse to cisgender. These practices rely on the medically false idea that LGBTQ+ and other gender diverse persons are sick; inflicting severe pain and suffering, and resulting in long-lasting psychological and physical damage. Only five countries — Malta, Brazil, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Germany — have totally banned conversion therapy despite the practice being globally widespread. A report from the UN, published in May 2020, found that the so-called conversion therapy is practiced in at least 68 countries, while estimates suggest it is practiced in every country.
In the UK, research by LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity Galop uncovered that 24% of respondents who had endured so-called “conversion therapy” had been subject to sexual violence as a means to change, “cure”, or suppress the victim’s LGBTQ+ identity — including "corrective rape" and other forms of assault. Among trans people, the number was even higher.
In April 2022, the UK government announced plans to ban “conversion therapy” for gay or bisexual people in England and Wales — but not for transgender people.
Transgender activist Ivy Femke Taylor said at the time: “When the government does something like this, which is to exclude trans people from a ban on conversion therapy, which is internationally recognised as a form of torture… the government is sending a very clear message that basically it’s okay to torture trans people.”
After further criticism from advocates and human rights groups, that a ban not including trans people was “not a real ban”, the bill was updated to include trans people in January 2023, a real success story for trans activists fighting for their human rights in the UK.
3. The right to health.
As detailed by the OHCHR, the right to health contains freedoms and entitlements such as the right to be free from non-consensual medical treatment or forced sterilization, and the right to a system of health protection and health services. All people who need medical care should be able to see their doctor and other health professionals without worrying about being mistreated, harassed, or denied service outright.
Yet, globally, trans people experience issues accessing culturally competent and equitable health care services, both generally and for gender-affirming services.
Transgender individuals have been victims of violence in health care settings and subjected to forced psychiatric evaluations, unwanted surgeries, sterilization, and other coercive medical procedures, often justified by discriminatory medical classifications.
In South Africa, if a transgender individual is considering gender-affirming surgery via the health public system, for example, the wait is currently 25 years.
Other barriers South African transgender individuals face when accessing gender affirming-care in the country include financial barriers (if going through the private sector route) and geographic accessibility, with gender-affirming care mostly only being available in major urban centers of provinces such as Gauteng, the Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. There is, meanwhile, only one surgeon in the country who specializes in gender-affirming surgery and who, at the moment, is only able to operate on four individuals a year.
“There are huge waiting lists and a scarcity of surgical expertise in South Africa. In the private sector, it costs hundreds of thousands of Rands while in the public sector, waiting periods are often quoted as being north of two and a half decades,” says Dr. Anastacia Tomson, an author and activist focusing on queer and transgender rights.
In the UK, too, a lack of health professionals with expertise in transgender medicine is a major barrier to transgender individuals accessing adequate health care. Transgender issues, health, and transgender anatomy is not taught in conventional medical curricula within the UK and too few doctors have the knowledge and comfort level to properly support transgender individuals' health needs. Transgender individuals in the UK also experience health care discrimination in the form of transphobia from health professionals, experiencing microaggressions, misgendering, and the use of incorrect pronouns.
These poor experiences with health care providers has discouraged many trans people from accessing medical treatment and support when they need it, which in turn can lead to poor mental and physical health outcomes.
4. The right to inclusive education
All children have the right to education in a setting that is free from discrimination and exclusion, including trans children.
However, bullying, harassment, and the exclusion of LGBTQ+ people in educational institutions is a worldwide problem faced by a significant proportion of LGBTQ+ students. LGBTQ+ students face teasing, name-calling and public ridicule, intimidation, social isolation, cyber bullying, physical and sexual assault, and even death threats. Trans students face additional obstacles with gendered uniforms, official documents or records that don't reflect their gender identity, and single-sex facilities such as toilets and changing rooms in educational institutions.
In Argentina, when trans activist Viviana Gonzalez was 12 years old, she imagined a future as a doctor, a teacher, or an artist. But the school administrator in her home town saw her long hair, the boy’s name on her ID, and kicked her out, as she describes “like a dog”, criticizing her for wearing “a costume”. Gonzalez refused to cut her hair and wear a tie. “I was already Viviana. I didn’t want to dress up like a boy,” said Gonzalez.
5. The right to an adequate standard of living
According to the UDHR, everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including housing and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control.
Despite this, a 2022 report found that a quarter of trans people in the European Union report having experienced homelessness or housing difficulties at some point in their lives. One in five transgender individuals living in the US, meanwhile, have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. This is even more stark for transgender women of color who experience significantly higher rates of homelessness than their white and transgender male counterparts.
In the US, a lack of secure housing leaves many transgender people vulnerable to violence and unsafe living conditions. Factors such as family rejection, unemployment, and housing discrimination (e.g. being evicted based on one’s gender identity) may contribute to this reality, compounding the effects of poverty. In shelters meanwhile, some trans indivduals experience sexual and physical harassment, while many social services and shelters that work with transgender individuals often fail to culturally and appropriately serve transgender homeless people, including denying them shelter based on their gender identity and inappropriately housing them in a gendered space they do not identify with.
Similarly, in Egypt, LGBTQ+ people continue to face challenges when it comes to finding safe and secure housing, including being evicted, denied housing, and harassed because of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Activists have been fighting for adequate housing for the trans community for years, including pioneers such as the late trans rights activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, who founded the organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in the 1960s for vulnerable and homeless trans people. The work Rivera and Johnson started helped pave the way for other trans activists and organizations to continue the fight for transgender housing rights globally, including; trans activist Marcela Romero in Argentina; My Sistah’s House in Memphis, US; Stonewall Housing in the UK; and Garima Greh in India, each of which are providing long-term housing solutions for trans people in their countries.