By DARBY HICKEY
Two reports released earlier this month paint a disturbing picture of the global status of trans communities – a portrait of human rights violations, violence and marginalization.
Documenting the fight for human rights of trans people, The Night Is Another Country drills down on the situation of activists in Latin America and the Caribbean. More than 80 percent of trans human rights defenders reported experiencing violence or threats of harm from government officials. The report details the systemic scope of abuses against trans communities, including extrajudicial executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and arbitrary detentions. This intertwines with the omnipresent transphobia in government (and society more broadly), creating a climate of impunity for those who violate the human rights of trans people. Perhaps most disturbing of all, the research also shows that the very activists demanding respect for the human dignity of trans people are at extreme risk of violence and other violations themselves – particularly if they are involved in commercial sex, as many are.
Taking a broader look at the well being of trans people around the world, Transrespect Versus Transphobia seeks to provide a comparative review of the state of trans people’s rights globally. Drawing on input from hundreds of activists and community leaders in 72 countries, the report documents the murders of trans people, as well as legal and health care contexts. Like much research on under-investigated topics, it raises more questions than it answers – for example, the low rates of reported violence in certain regions may stem more from lack of activism or trans visibility than from lack of violence, requiring further study. Nonetheless, the report uncovers significant patterns. Trans people who belong to other marginalized groups (migrants, sex workers, ethnic or racial sub-populations within a country) are disproportionately represented among murder victims. In some countries, discriminatory laws are enforced vigorously, but other times such laws are generally ignored. In many places, government officials pursue discrimination fervently, regardless of what’s actually in the law, or use other legal tools to target trans people.
Much of the violence and discrimination faced by transgender people is of course not unique – broader LGB communities also experience such harm, as well as other socially stigmatized groups. Yet these reports show how trans people are subject to especially extreme abuse, from many angles. Lest anyone use these stories as reason to rejoice for not living in one of “those barbaric countries” it’s worth noting that the U.S. racks up one of the higher murder rates of trans people worldwide. Routine police mistreatment and abuse of trans women in one neighborhood of New York City was recently documented – with stories remarkably similar to those told in Bogota, Johannesburg or New Dehli.
It is also important to note that much of the political agenda advanced in the name of LGBT rights – whether same-sex marriage or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – have little relevance to these communities. A marriage license won’t stop a bullet. As noted in a statement put out on Dec. 17 by 50 organizations, the LGBT rights movement needs to better address issues of criminalization of trans people.
Despite the bleak picture — or perhaps precisely because of it — there are clear directions for improvement. Governments must take violence and human rights abuses seriously and work to address them, when committed against trans communities but also more broadly since the trans people most vulnerable to abuse are members of other marginalized groups. Legal reform is a priority. Removing discriminatory laws and passing new ones that ensure rights must be accompanied by meaningful implementation. Key to this is an overhaul of laws and policing practices regarding commercial sex, in light of the particularly damaging impact these have on trans communities. Campaigns addressing human rights protections, particularly those focused on gender, must include trans issues.
Perhaps most importantly, trans people must be at the forefront of the fight for recognition of our fundamental status as human. As trans leaders are attacked, raped and murdered around the world, it is past time to give activists more support.
Darby Hickey is a D.C.-based writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.