Trans people (also) deserve equal treatment

2010-09-08 For many years, Nordic and European equality policies have had a strong focus on women’s and homosexual rights. Now trans people have become the new minority, attracting increasing attention from politicians.

When Norway in 2012 passes a new national anti-discrimination law this coming autumn – called Et helhetlig diskrimineringsvern (A comprehensive protection against discrimination) – a group of citizens will enjoy a far better state protection against discrimination: trans people, too, should be able to live a life without discrimination because they do not correspond to society’s traditional notions of gender.

That is the idea of the law proposal, which is currently being prepared. Norwegian law already protects transgender people from discrimination – but only those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery. Now also other trans people will be covered by the law when discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and gender expression will be prohibited.

Thus, Norway is taking an important step in its equality and anti-discrimination policy which accurately reflects the current trend within the European field of human rights.

While politicians, organisations and researchers have been preoccupied with ensuring better rights for sexual minorities such as gay men, lesbians and bisexuals and with mainstreaming legislation in order to guarantee men and women equal opportunities and equal treatment, trans people have been a more or less neglected group. Until very recently.

The European Parliament has just decided that future equality efforts of the EU will also target trans people. And in Sweden, Denmark and Finland trans people are starting to make it onto the political agenda.

As spokesperson on minority issues and human rights issues for SF (the Socialist People’s Party) in Denmark, Kamal Qureshi, said in an interview last year:

– Everyone, regardless of turban, headscarf, Mohawk or transgender status should have the opportunity to be who they are and create the life they want, with education, job and family.

Omnipresent problems

In more or less all countries in Europe, trans people are subject to severe discrimination. The few surveys that have been conducted within the field so far tell us as much.

According to Mandana Zarrehparvar, equal treatment expert at the Danish Institute for Human Rights and chairman at Equinet, European Network of Equality Bodies, transgendered people are a very vulnerable group, afflicted by special problems that unfortunately have remained hidden until now.

Trans people have a hard time finding work – the EU Fundamental Rights Agency has found that in some European countries the unemployment rate for trans people amounts to 50%. They have difficulties receiving basic health care services, for instance because the medical staff are ignorant about transgender or even hostile towards transgendered individuals. They face major legal challenges because they cannot without further ado change their gender status on their official ID papers. This has consequences, be it when picking up a package at the post office or collecting old age pension.

They are the victims of hate crimes more frequently than e.g. homosexuals. And on top of that, transgenderism is still officially defined as a psychiatric disorder by the national health authorities and WHO, the World Health Organisation.

– I am shocked by the lack of knowledge concerning what human rights issues are at stake for trans people – even among political decision makers, said Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, upon presenting a report on trans people’s rights in the Council of Europe member states last year.

– This is probably the reason why more hasn’t been done to raise the question of transphobia and discrimination on the grounds of gender identity. The result is that individuals all over Europe experience discrimination in the labour market, within the health care system and as regards housing.

The category of “gender” has its own minorities

According to Mandana Zarrehparvar, in order to ensure improved protection against discrimination for transgendered people, conceptual clarification would be a necessary first step. The problem is that transgendered people have always been categorised as part of the LGBT group – i.e. homo- and bisexuals. And this is downright incorrect.

– Society is characterised by a complete misconception of what it means to be transgendered. It has nothing to do with sexual orientation – the two phenomena shouldn’t be confused. Being transgendered has to do with and should be recognised as a matter of gender identity, entailing very specific problematics, she says.

Having the conceptual clarification down, the next step is to update the national legislation in the individual member states. One of the problems of the current legislations is that they are not specific enough.

For instance, all Nordic countries prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, but they fail to accommodate the fact that the category itself has its own minorities.

The Finnish constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender. But according to Finnish Minister for Gender Equality Stefan Wallin, the situation is worse for the gender minorities, seeing that there is no special legislation expressly prohibiting discrimination against them. He made this statement at a meeting with the Finnish transvestite society DreamwearClub in May.

Consequently, the Finnish ministry of social affairs and health has now commenced work to revise the Finnish law on protection of gender minorities.

In Denmark, too, politicians are discussing transgender rights.

In Sweden a new Discrimination Act came into force in 2009. The Act prohibits discrimination on the grounds of transgender identity or expression. The National Board of Health and Welfare aslo published a report on trans rights in June this year. Among other things, it proposes the right of all Swedes to change their legal gender to match the gender they feel is appropriate.

By Ulrikke Moustgaard

Logotype Nordic Council of Ministers Logotype Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research Logotype University of Gothenburg