The Trans Revolution

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The Trans Revolution

It’s time for everyone to change their minds. Vanessa Baird writes about the story of transgender rights – it could make us all free.


A trans person at the 2015 Korea Queer Festival, Seoul. © Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

The sun is coming in the windows of a house in Old Street, East London. Inside people are making coffee and tea, looking at second-hand clothes and buying hand-made bears and cakes.

Most are teenagers, some are parents, some are volunteers. The teenagers talk about music, social media, college courses. And the hormone and drugs they are taking to change gender. ‘When did you start?’ ‘How is it going?’ One of them wants to see results quickly. Another one tells them that it takes time.

These are transgender – or trans – young people. This meeting is to get money for a camping trip by Gendered Intelligence. This is a group that helps young people in a world that has very fixed ideas about gender - and also to tell more people about it.

There is a screen showing video blogs. Young trans people talk to cameras about problems they have: voice, language, make-up; saying ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’; and cuts in health services. And they give advice.

This group is part of a slow social revolution. Some in this room are clearly trans boys, some trans girls, some it is difficult to say. But they are being honest and talking about future plans, in a supportive environment.

Jay Stewart, who started Gendered Intelligence, says: ‘We are about to start a gender revolution.’

A different way to see the world

There are a lot of trans people in the news around the world:

Tamara Adrian, a Venezuelan woman, is the first trans person to try for her country’s Congress. Nepal is giving someone its first ‘Third Gender’ passport. AJ Kearns, an Australian trans man, stopped his hormone treatment and gave birth to a baby daughter.

And one story that social media is always talking about: Caitlin Jenner, who was an Olympic athlete, has her own TV show – I am Cait – to show her transition.

But there are also negative stories. In the US, Tamara Dominguez, a Kansas trans woman got out of a black car. Then the car ran her over, and went back to run her over again. She was the 17th trans person to be murdered in the US this year.

There is not much information about trans people and their lives. But the information we have is shocking. Life expectancies are half the national average in some countries of Latin America; unemployment and poverty are much higher; public health services often do not give trans people basic medical care.

Since 2009 the Trans Murder Monitoring project has been collecting international data. There are more victims now, and the victims are getting younger. In 2014 the youngest was an eight-year-old trans girl in Rio de Janeiro. Her father beat her to death.

The global suicide rates of trans people are about 50 times higher than the average.

Jay Stewart says the most important problem of the young people he is working with in Britain is mental health. Some of our people are very shy. They have bad experiences with other young people who do not accept trans people.’

What do the different words mean:

Out of the shadows

We see more trans people now. In the past, medical experts told trans people they needed to cut off completely from their family, friends, home and job – and start a new life, alone.

The internet helps connect trans people. The meaning ‘trans’ has expanded, and there are more ways of helping people understand trans people.

But trans people everywhere are still on the edge of society. In a lot of Africa and the Middle East people think transgender is the same as homosexuality – and this is a crime (you can go to prison or be killed if you are homosexual). Society often rejects transgender people with humiliation, police harassment or making them leave their homes.


Audrey Mbugua, transgender campaigner in Kenya. Katy Migiro / Reuters.

Audrey Mbugua (Kenyan activist and suicide survivor) says many people think transgender people should be prostitutes. She is fighting for trans rights and started the Trans Education and Advocacy NGO. She is fighting to get her name changed on official documents and to get surgery to change her gender – this is not allowed in Kenya (but there are doctors who are happy to do it).

International campaigns are fighting for legal gender recognition and rights. It is so important to have official documents – for work, school, hospitals, police, travel - that show your gender.

Trans people face more violence and poverty and often cannot get jobs.

There are many new laws in Europe, North America and Australasia. But these often break the human rights of transgender people.

More than 20 countries in Europe (eg. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Ukraine and Russia) will not give new official documents before transgender people have had surgery to remove reproductive organs and sterilization. In Canada, they have ended this condition after legal battles.

Forced sterilization breaks the UN Convention Against Torture. The Special Rapporteur on Torture has told countries to stop this. Many European countries also say people who want gender reassignment must be single or divorced. Some counties say they must not have children.


Activists in Manila protest after the murder of Filipina trans woman Jennifer Laude. US marine Joseph Scott Pemberton murdered her. His defence was ‘trans panic’. Romeo Ranoco / Reuters

5,000 ways of being

These restrictions show that people really do not understand how different and complex transgender, and gender, can be.

Jennifer Finney Boylan (US trans activist) says that all trans people have different explanations of what it means to be trans.

Some feel, when they are young, that they were born ‘into the wrong body’ and only surgery or hormones will make it possible for them to live. Juliet Jacques (British writer) says she could not survive in a male body. For others, it’s a slow process. They only understand what the problem is when they are adults.

Some have treatment to change gender and try to move back into society with a new secret identity. Sometimes they don't say they are ‘trans’.

Others feel that when they say they are transgender, this is a personal and political liberation. They can now be anywhere along the gender line between male and female.

And many more don’t fit any of these descriptions.

People who make laws often want to keep the two genders. They think differences in gender need correction, not respect.

But different people need and want different kinds of medical help, or none at all. And people have different feelings about sexuality and family. Many couples who married before changing gender, choose to stay together afterwards.

In Argentina, the law makers did it differently. They asked transgender groups and included all their main ideas, says activist Lohana Berkins. The result: the world’s most progressive legislation – and this has helped the new laws in Ireland and Denmark.

Argentina’s 2012 Gender Law was the first to allow people to say which gender they are with no medical ‘verification’. They can get new documents eg. birth certificates. Even children can change gender and schools must respect this. The 2012 law also allows everyone reassignment treatment; and it protects people from discrimination. This new law means that trans youth now are confident about expressing their identity in different ways and do not need so much medical help.

For people who are born intersex, it is very important to say who they are without medical intervention. Many trans people try very hard to get (and have enough money for) treatment. But it is very important to stop doctors ‘correcting’ the gender of intersex children before they are old enough to decide which gender they are.

And in the Global South ...

Everywhere in the world, groups of trans people have more unemployment, underemployment and poverty. But in the Global South this is worse because trans people have less education and less help from families – many of their families reject them. In Uganda, activists report that many intersex babies are killed soon after birth. People hide others because of shame and fear.

In rich countries, it is often complicated and expensive to get treatment to change genders. But in the Global South, it’s often impossible, because of economics and prejudice. This affects people’s body image and self worth – and is the cause of more suicide. In Peru and Bolivia trans women prefer to treat themselves. They have parties where they inject silicone – but this can kill them if they use industrial silicone.

But recently, there has been a lot of activism in the Global South, too.

In April 2014, the Indian Supreme Court accepted the status of hijras as a ‘Third Gender’. They ordered the government to give them medical and other support. There are three million hijras in India, and the government is taking time to give them their rights.

Some people say the hijras of India, kathoeys (ladyboys) in Thailand and the fa’afafine in Samoa, are proof that trans people are accepted in non-Western cultures. They are visible, and sometimes noisy, in the culture. But most of them are at the edge of society, living from sex work and begging. Now there are a few hijra in politics and the media, eg. Madhu Bai Kinnar, who became India’s first hijra mayor in 2015.

More than two genders

Trans and gender-variant people give us a challenge and are an opportunity for getting more equality and citizenship rights for us all. There is a lot of oppression because people expect two genders, male and female, and men have a lot of control over women. People believe women and men are different, so should have different rights, roles and privileges. The men in control do not like the idea that gender is a social construct.

Capitalism benefits from this thinking eg. lower-paid jobs for women, all the unpaid domestic work women do, and the very big markets for ‘his’ and ‘hers’ products. Capitalism says children need a fixed identity from when they are babies when people buy ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ toys, clothes, colours and activities.


Hijras in Delhi celebrate the Indian Supreme Court’s recognition as the ‘Third Gender’. Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters

Lots of people try to stop trans people fighting for their rights: traditionalists (who want to punish people who are different from normal); people who think it is one of the most important things in life to be either male or female; and even radical feminists, who do not include trans women in places for women.

People need to open their minds. People accept that there are many types of sexuality. They need to accept that there are many types of gender. It’s like trying to make a rainbow only black and white.

If we accept that there are not only two genders, life can be simpler and fairer. There is no need for different rights and laws for different types of people. People can marry; people can have children; people can travel. You don’t have to say your gender any more than you have to say the colour of your eyes.


Jay Stewart, of Gendered Intelligence: ‘Gender is not what you are, but what you do.’ Faizan Fiaz

Things are changing now and some of the smaller countries in the world are leading the changes.

New Zealand/Aotearoa have said that marriage is the union between two people (sex, sexual orientation or gender identity are not important). And now they allow people to choose X-gender on passports.

Jay Stewart says that a third of the young people he works with say they are not male and not female. They feel they are ‘something else’. He says: ‘People need to stop thinking of two genders. And laws will need to change so trans people can live and be happy like normal citizens.’

Finally, a little story from Jennifer Finley Boylan. When she was going through her transition, she remembers walking past a woman and her young daughter. The little girl started at her, then asked her mother: ‘What was that?’

‘That,’ said the mother, ‘was a human being.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).