June 29, 2016
Speech by Julia Ehrt, Executive Director of Transgender Europe (TGEU)
Before I had my coming out, which was more than 15 years ago, even having the thought that I might not be male was quite impossible. It was not that this was forbidden. No. It was more that it was not possible. Judith Butler calls this an “ineligible concept”. It is a concept that is not there. Transgressing gender boundaries is an ineligible concept. It means it is socially unavailable, unspeakable. So, in that sense, it is not there, totally unavailable. And even if it was, somehow you know it was still forbidden.
Well, things have changed over the last 20 years: information on trans identities is at least widely available on the internet, basic legal provisions are in place in many states, and self-help groups supporting trans persons in their coming out and beyond are mushrooming.
However, widely, being trans continues to be an ineligible concept in many societies and in many contexts.
So let us look at the bigger picture of LGBTI rights and awareness. I’ll come back to trans. Things have shifted tremendously for the better in the last decades: certainly for the gay then the lesbian and bi communities, and eventually also for the trans and inter communities (at least to some extent). Acceptance for LGBTI people is as high as it never was in the past 100 years: we have gay mayors, ministers, actors, managers; it is forbidden to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation across the EU; and an increasing number of states have introduced marriage equality or at least some form of legal partnership recognition for same-sex couples.
In Sweden, UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Ireland, and Spain, acceptance of gay and lesbians is at an all-time high reaching, according to the most recent EuroBarometer rates (beyond 80%), and many lesbians and gay people can live a no less comfortable or no less decent life in comparison to their fellow national citizens.
So, are we done?
We all know we are not. And it is not only because in Europe the far right and national movements are on the rise. It is not only because spaces for civil society to act are shrinking. It is not only because with the UK leaving the EU, the very idea of common European values, such as freedom of movement, freedom of speech, fundamental rights, equal opportunities, are under threat. It is also because we have left people behind – or, to be a little sharper on this issue, we have not made enough effort to take everyone with us. Because let us face it: many of our successes in the past decades strongly benefited white middle and upper class persons. We might be done if we only cared about white gay men and lesbian women. Not that anywhere on this planet women are actually equal to men, but to fight that we could well join the women’s movement.
We might be done if we only looked at a certain number of countries in Europe.
Are we also done for the gay sex worker, the trans sex worker from Cambodia who has fled to your country? Have they equal access to justice, economic well-being, and the labour market?
Are we done for the trans persons who still in 22 countries have to undergo a sterilisation to get something as simple as a change of name and gender in their birth certificates and passports?
Are we done for the lesbian roma person living in South Eastern Europe very likely having a hard time as a lesbian in her community, and probably equally likely facing atrocities as a roma outside of the roma community.
Are we done for the person in the wheelchair who happens to be gay and who probably cannot even access 90% of all toilets in the EU public spaces?
What is the meaning of gay marriage to an intersex person whose genitals have been ruined twenty-five years ago by a doctor who continues to believe he or she has saved the child from ill? What does it mean for the intersex baby being born tonight who will still go through the same perverted routine?
When we think of our successes, about what our movement has achieved in the last decades, we also need to critically assess whom this successes have been for, whom have we left behind, whom are we excluding.
Let me come back to what I said earlier: that we did not leave people behind but we have not made enough effort to take everyone with us.
We live in societies that exclude, that discriminate, that are racist, xenophobic, misogynist. We come from communities that are facing transphobia, interphobia, bi, and homophobia. We, as a community, and many of us as individuals, have experienced exclusion, ridicule, and discrimination. And we have replicated this pattern of exclusion and discrimination in our community. This becomes apparent when we look at how trans issues were dealt with 10 years ago, how inter issues continue to be dealt with, how welcoming and supportive we are towards refugees, towards sex workers, towards other marginalised groups in our communities, or towards persons who come from low income families. We are replicating that very pattern of exclusion that surrounds us; we have replicated a pattern against which we are dedicated to fight.
We have not managed to sufficiently identify and challenge these mechanisms of exclusion, which are ubiquitous in our societies, within our precious LGBTI community.
We have to make an effort to unlearn internalised mechanisms of exclusion to become a more inclusive and supportive human rights movement. A movement that embraces its differences to be even more united and, in fact, celebratory of our communities’ diversity.
This means some of us will lose privileges, but this will make us stronger, more credible, and more truthful, as individuals and as a community. And this is the message we need to mainstream in our community and to send to all of society: we have something to offer. We have learnt from our experiences of exclusion. We have learnt how to challenge those. And this is as relevant for our community as it is for the society as a whole.
That is something that each and every one of us can do, should do, and has to do, in our everyday lives. We need to name –every single one of us needs to name– exclusion, violations of our own core values, fundamental rights, equal opportunities, solidarity, when we see or observe it. We have to name xenophobic behaviour, racism, intolerance, trans, homo, bi, and interphobia when we notice it among our peers, among our friends, among our family members, among our partners, among our colleagues. And everybody can do that, every single day. And that, this groundwork, is what will change people’s hearts and minds. That is what will impact our societies. That is what will spread.
Because it sends a message that a just society, an equal society, a society that is united in its diversity, is a society in which everyone can live a more fulfilling and happy life.
Having said that, let us as well not underestimate the relevance of good and progressive legislation. Legislation that allows us to name and challenge inequalities and violence, legislation that protects us –and Orlando, and thousands of LGBTI people being murdered across the globe shows how actual and direct the threats to our communities are–, legislation that offers everyone equal opportunities. Let us not underestimate the relevance of political leadership in advancing rights of LGBTI people, the important work civil society organisations are doing every day together with hundreds of persons working in the institutions of the EU, the CoE, and governments to advance our rights. Because those rights form the basis for our progress. They also secure progress and make it harder to take it back.
And advancing those rights is dire work! It needs political leadership on the one end, but equally needs people in the institutions who are prepared to go the extra mile for the good cause. People like many of you here tonight, who work as door openers, as drivers, and anchors for change, without whom legal progress would be even more difficult to achieve! And legal reform is one of the key drivers for social change, a catalyst that facilities change.
But eventually we want to live in societies which do not even need legislation to protect us –it should be clear from the start that each and every one should enjoy equal rights and opportunities. And in this sense, passing progressive legislation –which is important, which is a success, and should be celebrated as such– is never an end: it is always a beginning!