Posted on 8. September 2009 in Law, discrimination & human rights


The transgender rights deficit

Across Europe transgender rights lag behind those of other groups. We’re working to change that

Thomas Hammarberg Saturday 5 September 2009 09.00 BST

The human rights situation of transgender persons has long been ignored and neglected, although the problems they face are serious and often specific to this group alone. Transgender people experience a high degree of discrimination, intolerance and outright violence. Their basic human rights are often violated, including the right to life, the right to physical integrity and the right to health.

During my official visits to the 47 member States of the Council of Europe, I have been struck by the lack of knowledge about the human rights issues at stake for transgender persons, even among political decision-makers.

In a number of countries, the problem starts at the level of official recognition. Transgender people who no longer identify with their birth gender – as highlighted in last night’s Channel 4 documentary, The Boy Who Was Born a Girl – and who seek changes to their birth certificates, passports and other documents, often encounter difficulties. This in turn leads to a number of very concrete problems in daily life when showing one’s ID – in the bank or the post office, when using a credit card, or crossing borders.

Regrettably, in a large part of Europe official records can be changed only upon proof that the transgender person has been sterilised or declared infertile, or has undergone other medical procedures, such as gender reassignment surgery or hormone treatment. The individual’s sincere affirmation of their gender identity is not seen as sufficient, and the suitability of the medical procedures for the person in question is not considered.

Additionally, many countries require that a married person divorces before his or her new gender can be recognised, even though the couple itself does not want to divorce. This may have an impact on children of the marriage, as, in several countries, the parent who has undergone the gender change will lose custody rights.

Even access to ordinary healthcare is a problem for transgender people. The lack of trained staff familiar with the specific healthcare needs of transgender people – or simply prejudice towards transgender them – render them vulnerable to unpredictable and sometimes hostile reactions.

Pension rights are also threatened. In the United Kingdom, male to female transgender people have been struggling to get their gender status accepted for the purpose of pension benefits. In spite of overwhelming legal arguments they have so far been denied the pension rights that other women in the country (who were born female) enjoy without question.

These are only few of the obstacles transgender people face in day-to-day life. Other serious problems are harassment and discrimination at work, stigmatisation, a high rate of unemployment and difficulties accessing the job market.

On the positive side, some of the problems have been acknowledged and “good practice” is increasing. For instance, some constitutional courts acknowledged that national laws violate the human rights of transgender people. In the United Kingdom the Gender Recognition Bill can, to a large extent, and excepting the divorce requirement, be considered an example of good practice. It was drafted with the participation of transgender people and avoided violations of rights like forced sterilisation, medical treatment conditions, or excessive bureaucracy.

In the field of employment, some trade unions, such as the Dutch ABVAKABO and the UK trade union Unison, have developed guidelines for employers on protecting transgender people at work. Moreover, the UK Public Sector Gender Equality Duty requires that all public authorities in the UK eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment on the grounds of sex and that they promote equality of opportunity between women and men “including transsexuals of both genders”.

In the UK, Germany and the Netherlands there are support groups for children, teenagers and their parents who have questions around gender identity. Their work is crucial. However, there are not enough of these services available and the public funding for those that do exist is scarce: most are under constant threat of closure.

A few local school and university boards across Europe have acknowledged the need to address the high instances of bullying and exclusion experienced by transgender youth. For example, the UK Government Department for Children, Schools and Families is working with the major transgender support groups in the UK to produce guidance for schools on transphobic bullying.

All these good examples show that mindsets are changing. But more is still needed. European countries should speed up efforts to stamp out transphobia and ensure that transgender persons are no longer discriminated against in any field. For this, they should share examples of best practice and engage in educational campaigns promoting respect and mutual understanding. The information deficit on the specific problems of transgender people and the bullying and ridiculing they are subject to also need to be addressed.

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009