transgender people face fear and hate across Europe

Transgender people face fear and hate across Europe

LEIGH PHILLIPS, 21.11.2008, EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Attitudes towards gays and lesbians in much of Europe and around the world may have made remarkable advances over the last 20 years, even if some regions of the EU are more hospitable than others. But for transgender people, discrimination, marginalisation and outright hostility remain part of daily experience.

A transgender woman protests discrimination at a Paris demonstration (Photo: wikipedia)

Transsexual people are often fired from their jobs when undergoing gender reassignment procedures. They are turfed out of their apartments, refused insurance and confronted with bigotry within the health community. Gender non-conformity is still used as an excuse for harassment, violence and even murder

A report on homophobia and sexual orientation discrimination in the 27-country bloc by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency published in June 2008 identified serious gaps in national legislation in regards to transgender people's rights

On Thursday (20 November), transgender people around the world observed the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, held to remember the murder of Rita Hester, a transgender woman from Boston, and all other transgender people who have been killed because they do not fit into the traditional mould. Ms Hester's murder - like most anti-transgender murder cases - has yet to be solved.

The Council of Europe, the Strasbourg-based European integration organisation - not to be confused with the Council of the European Union - has recently taken up the cause of promoting transgender rights across Europe.

On the day of remembrance, the EUobserver spoke to Thomas Hammarberg, the council's human rights commissioner.

A lack of awareness on the subject together with old ideas about gender provide the breeding ground for hate, he believes, and is working hard to enlighten people about the issue.

Earlier this week, Mr Hammarberg held a meeting bringing together experts on the subject from Portugal, Serbia, Turkey, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Sweden, and France to help devise a work programme for his organisation to tackle discrimination against transgender people.

"Ignorance seems to be the main reason [behind the discrimination] and this lack of knowledge has led to prejudices which in turn have opened for discrimination and even hate crimes," he said.

"But it also stems from traditional concepts of what it means to be masculine or feminine in our society. We tend to shy away from discussions about sexuality and gender identity, but we need to deal with these issues head on."

Refused state funding

There is hardly any area where discrimination does not take place, he believes.

"It starts with the social and legal conditions imposed on acquiring a different gender. In many countries, there is a requirement to undergo hormonal treatment therapy or surgery in order to obtain an official recognition of gender reassignment. Only in a few states, such as Spain, Hungary and the United Kingdom, does no such requirement exist."

"In many European States, gender reassignment requires obligatory sterilisation or that the person has to prove that he or she is not married, which could end in a forced divorce."

Another major area where transgender people face discrimination comes in the realm of health-care. A recent Europe-wide study from the International Gay and Lesbian Association - Europe and Transgender Europe showed that more than 80 percent of the respondents were refused state-funding for gender transforming hormone treatments.

"This is a shocking statistic," said Mr Hammarberg, who explained that beyond health-care issues, unemployment is rampant amongst transgender people.

"It's extremely high - sometimes reaching up to 50 percent," he said. "This leads to social exclusion, isolation and sometimes worse. The suicide rate among transgender persons is significantly higher than other groups in society, at 30 percent.

Dealing with housing, insurance, public or private service providers are regularly occasions for discrimination: "I receive information on transgender people losing their jobs or being excluded from health care and health insurance. The problems are far-reaching."

Hate crimes

He says they can be harassed when just walking down the street, occurrences that "sometimes leading to hate motivated incidents," he said.

"I receive regular reports of harassment, hate crimes and sometimes killings of transgender persons. Only last week a transgender person was killed in Turkey and this has caused shock and outrage among the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] community, as this was not the first such crime."

The commissioner says that there are serious human rights problems affecting transgender people right across Europe, "especially in relation to access to health care, employment, education and the general lack of legal protection."

"However, there are some positive developments in the UK and Spain where relevant laws - Gender Reassignment Acts - have changed for the better."

He described a Dutch organisation which works closely with transgender children and youth and their families and another based in Serbia that offers self-help groups and counselling services.

Gaps at the European Union level

He argued that European Union legislation still has some way to go to ensuring transgender protections.

"There is definitely a need to clarify the anti-discrimination framework for transgender people. The study from the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency showed that discrimination based on gender identity is regarded in many different ways by different member states. Some EU member states consider it as sex discrimination, others, wrongly, as discrimination based on sexual orientation."

"There are a third group of countries which simply do not know how to consider it. This leads to legal uncertainty and is not helped by the current EU directives, which are also not fully clear on these definitions.

"Gender identity - and gender," he pointed out, "are not part of the new foreseen anti-discrimination directive."

But he also called on NGOs to start to work on transgender issues.

"Civil society, as well as governments, need to include transgender human rights issue in their work," he said.

"Transgender people have a right to human rights protection like everyone else," he added. "The time has now come for the human rights movement to start taking the concerns of transgender persons seriously."