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Justus Eisfeld's speech at the UN Panel on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity


On June 13, 2009, Justus Eisfeld (shown in the pic above) who sits in the advisory board of the LGBT Program of Human Rights Watch and Transgender Europe delivered a speech at the UN Panel on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Geneva, Switzerland. I am posting his speech in its entirety below. If you read it, you will realize that trans people in Europe share the same life-and-death concerns with trans people in the Philippines and elsewhere. In it, he also makes mention of intersex people, or those who are born with ambiguous genitals, chromosomes and hormones. I do not agree with the other term he uses for them: "people born with disorders of sex development." Intersex rights advocates have maintained that this newer term being used to describe them did not come from them but from sexologists. They reject in on that account and for the further stigma it inadvertently brings to their condition. See the Intersex International website for more information on intersex rights. Eisfeld's speech is a positive development, nonetheless, in advocating for transgender human rights in an international forum. Just delivering the speech itself is historic in its own right. I applaud Justus and all the work that he does for the global trans community.

Dear Chairwoman, distinguished participants,

Thank you for inviting me for this historic event, and for giving me the chance to speak about the work that the UN can to to combat the human rights abuses that transgender people face, as well as give you some positive examples of how these abuses and obstacles can be overcome.

I feel that I live in exciting times, when the UN, along with its member states, start to realize that the human rights of trans people matter, when in fact gender identity is included in panel discussions like this one, and when member states include gender identity in statements like the December one.

There is work to do for trans people in all UN member states, including those who have pledged to work for human rights of all citizens, regardless of their gender identity. This also gives trans people the encouragement to demand that the signatory countries stand by their words and carry out what they say.

When I talk about trans or transgender people I use this term in the most inclusive way: Everybody who does not fit neatly into the stereotypes that go with the gender they were assigned at birth. That could be the man with the sway in his walk, the woman who wears her hair short, but also those who cross the gender lines in more obvious ways, when their intersex body does not neatly match either man *or* woman, or by identifying as transvestite or transsexual like myself.

Whenever somebody in society crosses the line of what is considered to be ‘normal’ for a man or ‘normal’ for a woman we start treading on dangerous ground. Transgender people face obstacles mainly in different ways:
we encounter violence and discrimination,
we are denied healthcare,
we have to prove sterility to match our paperwork with our identity or cannot change our papers at all.

Firstly, Violence is the most visible. In the UK – and I mention the UK only because it is one of the few countries with any reliable data, not because the situation is any better or worse than elsewhere - 73% of trans people reported negative comments, verbal, physical or sexual abuse or threatening behavior. The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has repeatedly drawn attention to the murders of transgender people in Venezuela, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia and Honduras. Hateful murders of transgender people have been reported from most countries of the world. Some of the murders were committed by police officers and more often than not have police officers turned the other way when friends and families demanded an investigation. On a positive note just two days ago, the Scottish parliament passed a transgender-inclusive hate-crimes bill unanimously, being the first in Europe to do so.

Secondly, access to healthcare can be a problem just as lethal as physical violence. When trans people go to a doctor for a broken bone or the flu, most of us will be treated badly, be refused for treatment altogether or simply avoid to go in the first place because of negative experiences. About 30% of trans people in the UK have that experience. Transgender-specific healthcare is often not covered by health insurance systems, even though the very same hormones are available for other patients. Way too many trans people therefore seek self-medication, and use hormones they purchase on the black market, without proper instruction on dosage, safe needle use or regular check-ups. Way too many trans people also self-medicate with amateur injections of silicone, sometimes even industrial-grade silicone. Lack of access to healthcare kills trans people every day, because we bleed to death, have silicone clotting our blood vessels or simply just kill ourselves because we can’t stand the pressure of not conforming to a gender that was assigned to us at birth. About a third of trans people in Sweden, the UK and Europe in general have attempted suicide at least once.

Intersex people or people with disorders of sex development, become the victims of surgeries which leave the person with mutilated genitalia and no sexual functioning. These surgeries are performed without the consent of the patient, who is often a small child at the time the procedures are performed. On a positive note, Brazil has just started to integrate transgender-specific healthcare into the regular public healthcare plans, and surgeries for transgender people with a special permission are free in Chile and Argentina.

Thirdly, changing one’s paperwork to match the identity of that person is a nightmare all over the world. In about 90% of the EU member states, including the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, sterilization, other surgeries or hormone treatment are a requirement just to be able to change one letter in a passport or birth certificate. In other words: these states are prescribing surgeries and hormones without a doctor’s license. Ireland and Lithuania have so far failed to react to their conviction by the European Court of Human Rights and still deny trans people the right to change their birth certificate or personal identification number several years after the verdict. A positive example in this respect is Kazakhstan which allows their transgender citizens to change their paperwork without any kind of medical treatment in a ministerial order from 2003.

I could go on much longer.
I could talk about rejection by family members, by friends and by neighbors.
I could talk about the humiliating feeling of being diagnosed with a personality disorder.

But this list is getting too depressing already.

What the UN statement does is to give trans people the hope that our governments will take up our issues, and will look at their own laws and correct problems where they exist. None of the signatory states of the UN statement are there yet. In fact all of the core group members and organizers of this panel seriously violate the human rights of trans people at this moment. But by signing this statement and by organizing this panel these countries open the door and demonstrates the willingness to look at their issues at home and treat trans people better in the future.
I would like to invite the High Commissioner to look into the human rights abuses that trans people face and to make an overview of these issues in the laws which regulate a change of paperwork.

I would like to invite Ireland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France, and Norway to lead the way in this process by announcing that name and gender changes will be possible to all trans and intersex people who feel the need to do so – irrespective of whether or not they have had surgeries, hormone treatments or a personality disorder diagnosis.

I would like to invite all countries to follow the example of Bolivia and outlaw discrimination against trans people in their constitution or in other laws.
I would like to ask all other countries to do the same and – hopefully – follow that good example.

Thank you.

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