The struggle of transgender people and their rights is slowly gathering global attention and momentum, and progress can be found in some of the most unlikely places.
A recent UN Human Rights Council resolution, ‘Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,’ was passed 23 – 18 (6 abstentions) and will allow an independent monitor to document hate crimes and human rights violations against transgender and LGBTI communities. However real change is occurring at the grassroots, within local jurisdictions and communities, which is where minds will be changed and hearts won over, to protect and celebrate the transgender community.
The world’s largest democracy has in recent years taken large steps towards one of the fundamental principles of democratic countries – the protection of minority rights. In April 2014 the Indian Supreme Court declared transgender a legal third gender, ensuring that birth certificates, driving licences and passports must recognise a third gender. The decision was a positive development for the estimated 2 million transgender people in India.
This year, in the eastern state of Odisha the state government took another positive step, granting transgender people BPL status (Below Poverty Line). Many transgender people in India, like the rest of the world suffer discrimination, abuse and exclusion from mainstream society. Employment is hard to come by and many ‘hijras’ (male to female transgender) are forced into sex work or begging. With the BPL status transgender people in Odisha are able to access free housing, food rations and capital loans to start their own businesses.
The transgender movement is also coming to Bollywood. The transgender pop group 6 Pack Band have featured in some of 2016’s biggest Bollywood movies, have gathered a large online following and have attracted millions of YouTube views. The success of 6 Pack Band compliments the grassroots work and struggles of people like Abhina Aber, whose ‘Dancing Queens’ group have been performing, advocating and employing transgender and LGBTI Indians for many years in Mumbai.
Islam would be the last place many people would expect to find progressive thinking on transgender issues. Furthermore, to have such progressive thinking emanating from religious leaders in Pakistan would be a further surprise. While Australia still prohibits same sex marriage, a group of Pakistani clerics have evolved to even more progressive ideas.
Transgender people in Pakistan have since 2011 had the right to vote and in 2012 were granted equal rights by the Supreme Court, however in 2016 a group of clerics in Lahore have made some stunning announcements and issued fatwa’s declaring equal treatment for transgender people. While not legally binding, the fatwa’s can be highly influential, in a country where religious leaders can often wield more power than courts and government.
The group of clerics, known as Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat declared that transgender people should be allowed to marry – both to other transgender people or with non-trans people, have the right to be buried in Muslim cemeteries and be entitled to family inheritances. The clerics also declared it forbidden to make fun of, tease, humiliate or consider transgender people inferior.
‘Pinkwashing’ is the accusation that Israel exploits their LGBTI community and celebrates their rights and freedoms as a PR stunt, to counter the absolute misery and total restrictions on Palestinian rights and freedoms. Wherever the truth lies in the ‘pinkwashing’ claims, there are positive steps being made for the transgender community in Israel.
This year saw the country host its first ever transgender beauty pageant, won by 21 year old Ta’alin Abu Hanna, a Christian Arab-Israeli ballet dancer. Abu Hanna will represent Israel at the international pageant in Barcelona in September. While beauty pageants are hardly the mark of a progressive society, for transgender people to be considered and recognised as beautiful and have their beauty celebrated is a step in the right direction for wider acceptance.
Elsewhere in Israel, a 22 year old IDF lieutenant has become the first openly transgender person to serve in the Israeli Defence Force. Shachar (surname unpublished, in line with IDF protocol) was born female, however at age 16 realised he was a boy and began adjusting according. In an important symbolic step he added a pocket to his IDF uniform at age 19 and kept going from there. Shachar now acts as a counsellor for other transgender soldiers and provides advice to senior officers on transgender issues.
In other places…
Transgender progress is also being felt in many other corners of the world. The UNHRC declaration was tabled by 7 South American countries (Argentina, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Coast Rica, Mexico and Uruguay) and had strong government and NGO support from the global south. While many African governments were amongst those to oppose or abstain from voting, transgender and LGBTI rights are starting to gain traction in countries like South Africa where same sex marriage is legalised and Cape Verde where homosexual sex is legal. The Ugandan government famously backed down from extreme anti LGBTI laws in recent years after pressure from the international community. Elsewhere, many African countries permit homosexual sex, though largely because of the absence of prohibitive laws, rather than any general acceptance of the transgender and LGBTI communities.
Finally, the fictional world of comic books has seen many groundbreaking characters and moments in the past few years including bisexual characters, gay kisses and ‘The 99,’ a Kuwaiti produced comic book featuring Islamic superheroes. Later this year the Alters series with debut Chalice, believed to the first transgender superhero. Chalice is a mutant, like her X Men comic cousins and will fight alongside other characters including a homeless woman who advocates for her community as well as providing for her children, a man suffering from PTSD and a quadriplegic. The Alters writers have been inspired by events in their own life and hope to provide inspiration to young people faced with similar challenges.
The ongoing struggle of transgender people and LGBTI communities will not be easy, in fact no struggle for minority rights ever has been or ever will be, though what these stories show is that progress can come from some of the most unlikely places. Outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has been a powerful voice of transgender and LGBTI advocacy, with his most controversial speech in 2012 resulting in a walkout by some countries. Nevertheless, Ban correctly declared that, ‘…a pattern of violence and discrimination directed at people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender… is a monumental tragedy for those affected and a stain on our collective conscience.’ In 2010 he also declared that, ‘when there is a tension between cultural attitudes and universal human rights, rights must carry the day.’