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What the International Transgender Day of Visibility tells us about trans history, our societies and discrimination

Date:29 April 2021
Lea Lemke 
Lea Lemke 

Since 2009 in the United States and since 2014 internationally, the 31st March has been celebrated as the Transgender Day of Visibility (TDoV). It is a day where trans people and allies come together, show solidarity and find support among each other. In this context, I use the adjective trans as an umbrella term to describe people whose assigned sex at birth does not fit their gender identity partly or wholly. It includes (but is not limited to) transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer individuals. Usual events that take place on TDoV are panels, Q&A’s, and support group sessions for trans people and their loved ones. I have been aware of the struggles of the trans community generally for a while now. However, this year’s TDoV, as well as an essay I wrote for my Responsible Activism and Global Health course last term about the influence of the transgender rights movement on German policy-making, have led me to reflect more on what these struggles include specifically and how they affect rights anchored in constitutional law such as the right to self-determination and human dignity. Therefore, I am happy to share four main lessons I took from my research for the essay, as well as my observation and perception of this year’s TDoV.

First learning: Celebration of successes
Firstly, since its initiation by Rachel Crandall, a trans activist from Michigan, the 31st March has been taken as an occasion to look back and reflect on the path transgender individuals and their rights have gone. The community celebrates successes such as structural developments that allowed the trans community to establish support networks for themselves and their loved ones, ever evolving networks for activists in the scene who are connecting with each other, reaching not only members of the community but also the political scene. It is celebrated that society is slowly starting to question the prevailing cis-normativity, as well as traditional gender roles; that legal steps have been taken to make gender recognition easier in a lot of places, and that since 2018, “transsexuality” is no longer listed as a mental disorder by the World Health Organisation.

While the TDoV brings the beautiful opportunity to take a step back and see how far the trans community has come, it also becomes apparent how much work remains.

Second lesson: There is still a long way to go
Therefore, my second lesson is that we are far from being done.

Some countries like Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Ireland, Uruguay and Denmark have progressive policies for legal gender recognition based on self-determination of the individuals which allows the person who identifies as trans and would like to change their gender entry legally to be respected and taken seriously based on their own statement of gender belonging. Ultimately, one is being taken seriously about one’s wants and needs to change the gender entry independently of other people. While this system of self-determination is in the previously mentioned countries, other countries like Germany still require independent medical examinations that often include being harshly called into question about one’s gender identity and having to answer inappropriate questions about sexual fantasies and desires. In Japan, one needs to be sterilised before being able to acquire matching legal documents. Hungary is currently trying to restrict trans people from changing their legal gender completely. In the US, we see an increasing number of states, for example, Arkansas, passing bills that ban gender-affirming healthcare that especially affect youth. Consequently, stigmatisation, psycho-pathologisation and hindered access to healthcare remains, expressed in regressive policies. The issues mentioned above do not fully take into account the multi-faceted forms of discrimination experienced by the trans community in, unfortunately, all domains of life due to xenophobia, racism, transphobia, classism and misogyny. Like many other marginalised groups, intersectionality is also a topic for people of the trans community. The issue of being multiply negatively affected by gender identity, race, or nationality can be seen in lower rates of unemployment for especially trans women, educational settings that far too often neither provide sufficient information on non-cisgender identities nor succeed at making trans students feel understood, respected and safe, and high risks of violence for especially trans women of colour.

In short, the TDoV is taken as an occasion to focus on the lacking protection and support in several domains such as health systems, education, employment and politics, and push to get these on the agenda of policy-makers.

Third lesson: Marginalised groups have the power to stand up for their rights themselves
The push of the trans community for more inclusive policies, consolidation when making decisions that affect them and representation in crucial positions (like for example national parliaments) lead me to my third lesson. In an interview I conducted with Tessa Ganserer, the currently only openly trans person in a German parliament who advocates LGBTQIA+ matters, she made one point clear: “We do not need anyone to speak up for ourselves”. The trans community is well-able to voice their needs and wants, direct them to people in power, and be outspoken about what rights and protection are still missing, and how society can function as allies.

Fourth lesson: The responsibility of allies
The responsibility of allies is my last learning in regards to my research and how I perceived this year’s TDoV. Ganser further elaborated that allies are needed when members of the trans community are faced with hate speech and openly displayed discrimination and hatred. These are the moments when allies need to be in place and function as the backbone of the transgender rights movement, ensuring that the voices of hate do not become more prominent than the voices of the movement. While I personally might not be impacted by regressive trans policies or discrimination based on my gender identity, I see it as my responsibility to keep learning about the matter of the trans community, how I might be reinforcing the socially and culturally ingrained stereotypes and assumption, how I can unlearn them, and be an active ally.

I hope to have shed some light on a community you might not have been acquainted with a lot so far and that we can together understand what is holding the trans community back from reaching the needed societal and state support. Considering that June is dedicated to advocating LGBTQIA+ matters, it is my hope that this opportunity is taken to further highlight and reflect on trans issues; that matters concerning the trans community will be part of the discussions that arise and that these are not only on people’s agendas in June but that they stay on them also in the months and years after.