Members of the LGBTQ+ community experience greater stigma and discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made these challenges worse. For people who identify as transgender, the risks of encountering violence and harrassment are higher than for others, making it necessary for governments to promote policies that support transgender rights.
The transgender community faces unique challenges that traps them in the cycle of poverty. Because of discrimination that prevents them from securing a reliable source of income, some transgender people find jobs in the informal labor sector, which are often low-wage and more vulnerable than others. The rejection of transgender people by families, in addition to social stigma and a lack of institutional support, contributes to higher rates of homelessness.
Discrimination also has deadly consequences. The advocacy network Transgender Europe combats anti-trans discrimination by promoting equal rights and tracking hate crimes. According to data tracked through their Trans Murder Monitoring project, at least 250 transgender and gender non-conforming people were murdered between January and September 2020.
While these grim statistics serve as a reminder that more people need to support the transgender community, progress has been made in the fight to secure equal rights.
In June, 27 UN member states called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to protect the human rights of trans people, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Association (ILGA). The act proved to be a historic first for the discussion of challenges faced by the transgender community at an international level.
Of course, more work needs to be done before we can see an end to the discrimination of transgender people and a more equitable and just world for all. Individual countries can take action to acknowledge the humanity of trans people by promoting LGBTQ+ rights, which can help end stigma and discrimination.
To bring about this reality, here are five ways that countries can promote transgender rights as human rights.
1. End the overrepresentation of transgender people in the criminal justice system.
In countries that report higher rates of prosecution of LGBTQ+ people, laws are often manipulated to target transgender people even when there is no official criminalization of transgender identities.
According to the Trans Legal Mapping Report, which analyzes the impact of laws and policies on the global transgender community, 37 countries have laws that target transgender people by prosecuting for fraud and same-sex conduct.
Meanwhile, 13 countries explicitly criminalize transgender identities — Brunei, The Gambia, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malawi, Malaysia, Nigeria, Oman, South Sudan, Tonga, and the United Arab Emirates — by focusing on gender expression. For example, in many of these nations, transgender people can be prosecuted for “cross dressing,” or behaving in a manner consistent with their gender identity.
Even governments that do not have a documented history of manipulating the legal system to target the LGBTQ+ community have laws that disproportionately affect trans people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in the United States’ criminal justice system. Because of the specific challenges transgender people face — such as abusive situations or a lack of acceptance at home — some rely on drug sales, theft, or sex work to survive, increasing their risk of arrest.
In some nations, laws that criminalize transgender identities stem from their colonial past and must be reformed to reflect the humanity of trans people everywhere. Countries that prosecute for sex work and nonviolent drug offenses should end the criminalization of these activities and focus efforts on uplifting the transgender community.
2. Allow people to legally change their gender on official documents.
The demand for legal recognition of transgender identities has gained momentum in recent years. Last month, the Spanish government announced the “self-ID” draft bill, which would allow any person over the age of 14 to change their gender on legal documents without requiring a medical diagnosis or hormone therapy. If signed into law, Spain will join several other countries around the world that allow legal gender recognition through a self-determination model, including Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, and Portugal.
The British government introduced self-ID legislation in 2020 that led to widespread backlash from women’s rights activists and was eventually scrapped. Opponents of the legislation said that allowing people to legally change their gender would open the door for abusers to access women-only spaces, though experts point out that no evidence supports that claim.
The process of allowing transgender people to legally change their gender on official documents is about more than recognizing their identities; it will also lead to reduced cases of discrimination and violence. Transgender people who are unable to legally change their gender report higher rates of discrimination when their appearance does not match the gender listed on official documents, leading to housing, job, and income instability.
Human rights treaties guarantee a person’s right to self-recognition, which is threatened when transgender people are unable to legally affirm their gender identity. Countries that seek to promote equity and justice must recognize transgender identities and clear a path for legalizing their rights.
3. Prevent legislation from targeting transgender people.
As more countries take steps to promote the humanity of the LGBTQ+ community, some governments are introducing obstacles to equal rights. Over the past year, Ghana introduced legislation to curtail LGBTQ+ advocacy while Hungary passed a law banning LGBTQ+ content for minors, making it harder for LGBTQ+ people to be affirmed and supported by their communities.
In the US, a dangerous trend of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is targeting transgender youth, leading to the possibility of increased discrimination against transgender people as politicians support baseless claims under the guise of protecting children.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the universal rights of all people to be free and equal in dignity. Any piece of legislation that attempts to deny the humanity of transgender people is a direct affront to the humans rights of all people. For this reason, countries need to prevent any law that discriminates against transgender people from being implemented.
4. Support systemic reforms that are more inclusive of transgender identities.
In the report “Vulnerability Amplified,” the global LGBTQ+ advocacy organization OutRight Action International found that the LGBTQ+ community faces greater risks of suffering from COVID-19 because of its reluctance to engage with the health care system. This is especially true for transgender individuals who may face ridicule or mistreatment, particularly if their legal documents do not match their gender identity.
Stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community also lead to increased stigma. Health care providers who make assumptions about LGBTQ+ people based on their sex lives may not follow protocols to determine the source of the problem and develop a course of treatment.
The health care system can support transgender people by learning about the specific challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community and how to respond to them. Using the correct pronouns and affirming the gender identity of trans people within the health care environment can greatly improve the experience of people seeking care.
As legislators in Hungary — as well as in state governments throughout the US — pursue legislation that prevents widespread knowledge of LGBTQ+ content, it is more important than ever for countries to support reforms to education, too. School-aged children should have the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ+ identities and sexual health.
Ignorance about transgender people leads to increased cases of discrimination. While biases run deep, countries can invest in reforming systems that cause harm.
5. Protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
While anti-discrimination laws protect people based on their religious beliefs, race, and sex, governments must strengthen their support for the transgender community by legally protecting them from discrimination.
The US Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, passed in the House of Representatives in March 2021 and must now pass in the Senate before it can be signed into law.
While allowing transgender people to legally change their gender on official documents is important to decrease stigma, advocates say it will not prevent cases of discrimination from taking place. In order to help lift the transgender community out of poverty, countries will need to implement policies that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination.