Category Archives: Transgender

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”


It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Erased, by presidential decree

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” This statement in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was challenging the first time I read it, many years ago, but I never imagined that the words being destroyed would be about particular human beings. Human beings who are like …


In the latest in the incessant deluge of outrage upon offense upon indignity, the Trump administration has dictated that I be made invisible – at least in official documents being prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of next year’s budget process. Yes, the word transgender is no longer permitted, as are six other presumably highly provocative words: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, fetus, evidencebased and science-based.

In some ways I feel that as Chloe, I’ve only just arrived, so it is unsettling now to find myself about to be erased. Have I been getting too complacent, having managed to get my name, gender marker, passport, drivers’ license, and even birth certificate all formally changed to become “Chloe” and “female”? None of those documents employ the word transgender, so why should I be concerned if President Trump has launched yet another flagrant attack against transgender folk? Will the next words to be banned include “Latina” or “African-American”. No matter – we’ll still each have our names and numbers. Right?

We’ll only be losing our identity.

There is no specific human right to be yourself. Part of being myself includes owning the fact that I was born into a male body and was once classified as a male, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone who ever argued the need for a specific human right to recognize that fact of one’s birth. We exist, and we exist as male or female. Except when we don’t.

Now I (blissfully) inhabit a female body, and am officially accepted by law as a woman – but only fully so in 19 states within these United States. The majority of U.S. states and of the world’s countries either refuse fully to accept people such as me, or they make it nearly impossible bureaucratically to transition to one’s authentic gender. Here in Maryland, I am Chloe, a woman who was never a girl, and I am transgender. I don’t walk around holding a placard stating this identity, but I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be transgender. It is what it is; the journey across the gender binary (the absurd presumption of a binary itself being highly contentious) has been grueling and enormously difficult. But I’m here now. I have every reason to expect my own government to acknowledge my identity in this critically descriptive context – and I bristle at the notion that the White House would act to impose barriers in accessing government-funding for CDC programs affecting transgender persons. Health programs.

Being made invisible is the starting point for dehumanization. In my on-going work at ICRW on social inclusion around the world, I see so many countries with laws that make it impossible for transgender persons to exist in any legal, economic, social, or political way. When you show up as a potential employee, tenant, voter, patient, bank account applicant, airline passenger, or even taxpayer and your official documents describe a person who is not you – by name or gender – you have the door slammed in your face. Again and again. You’re left to survive on the street, through informal employment if you can find it, perhaps as a sex worker if you are young. You cannot get official identity documents that descibe you, as you know yourself to be. So your choices are few, and your chances of having your human dignity acknowledged – must less respected – are scant. Continue reading Erased, by presidential decree

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent

Beyond Abstractions: Confronting Trans-Directed Violence

Note: This blog first appeared on November 20th, 2017 on the Ms. Magazine blog site, and can be directly accessed there at:


Gender-based violence (GBV) is no abstraction.

GBV’s impacts are grievous, debilitating—and can be fatal.  Women and girls are most often the victims of GBV, and by far the majority of perpetrators are men and boys. The fact that GBV is dramatically split along gender lines is disturbing—but for those of us who identify as feminist researchers, we feel fully committed to studying GBV, determining the most effective prevention practices and discerning the best ways to support victims.

We already know a great deal about the prevention of GBV and how to care for those affected. We just don’t know how to stop it. But opening up the conversation on trans-directed GBV may lead us to new and much-needed solutions.

The transgender community is largely synonymous with the experience of gender-based stigma, humiliation, bigotry, exclusion and violence—violence that is physical, situational and structural. Transgender persons are often the lightning rod for GBV—but why? As a transgender woman myself, it lies beyond my comprehension to understand how our personal claims to our authentic sense of identity serve to trigger such widespread extremes of violence. We’re simply being ourselves, and our authenticity brings little if any direct harm to anyone else.

My consciousness of GBV as it affects the transgender and gender non-conforming population is heightened at this time of the year. Around the world, November 20th is commemorated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). For those of us who are transgender, it’s a somber day of reflection and sorrow. Yet TDOR is also a day of solidarity, validation and sensitivity to context.

We know from the many stories shared within our community that those who are remembered today suffered not only a truncated, and frequently grisly, end to their lives, but that they experienced violence and exclusion on a daily basis, for years or even decades. That pervasive ostracization forms the backdrop—as well as the enabler—of so many incidents of acute, debilitating, tragic violence directed at the transgender community, also referred to as trans-directed GBV.

It’s not easy to talk about. By sharing GBV accounts through anecdotal narratives, we tend to elicit either puzzlement or pity. Those who are puzzled often simply can’t relate to such suffering. Those who express care and concern think of transgender people as sad, powerless and marginalized. “Marginal” isn’t a good place to be, and this simplified narrative leaves transgender persons with little hope for change.

Trans-directed GBV comes from a place of rejecting otherness and maintaining foundational gender norms within society. The gender binary, and the unassailable assignment of sex and gender at birth, are central planks in that platform. In so many ways and often with self-righteousness, society staunchly polices that most inflexible societal barrier.

Gender, sex and the panoply of associated gender roles drives a wedge into the heart of our humanity. At its most benign, that policing is a form of structural violence forcing transgender persons to confront ridicule and humiliation, assaults upon our dignity and the comprehensive loss of opportunity and choice in our lives. The doors to a meaningful and dignified life are closed to us, and in most countries, our authentic gender identity is officially repudiated. We become invisible—with no legal, economic, political or social recognition of the names and gender identity that we know ourselves to be.

For many of us, that bleak scenario is simply unbearable. Yet to deny our authentic gender identity would be more unbearable. Yes, the daily reality of living lives of exclusion, stigmatization, rejection and violence is bad—but not as bad as living a lie every day. For many of us, life in the wrong body is wrenching. We transition because we must. We feel a deeply-rooted compulsion to live life as ourselves, despite it all.

“Despite it all” is a heavy package. The anecdotal evidence backs this up, but there’s been very little support for establishing solid data. What happens to us really doesn’t have a measurable impact on the larger society. We’re few in number, estimated now to be just 0.6 per cent of the adult population in the U.S. Decision-makers will argue that there are more important issues towards which we should direct precious research dollars. It’s a common assertion, yet transgender persons offer singular insights into the meaning of gender that are relevant to people everywhere. Our “curious” status may offer an opening to learn more about the causes of GBV, as this affects both us and the cisgender population. Were we to be taken seriously, our sense of gender identity might even shed some light on the path to universal gender equity.

However, we’re rarely taken seriously, at least not in the sense of having our human dignity and worth respected. Arguably, the most reliable current source of data is the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of 2015, which included responses from nearly 28,000 persons above the age of 17 who identify as transgender within the U.S. That’s large for a survey—certainly the largest survey ever to capture the lived experiences of transgender persons.

The results of the USTS tells a powerful story of trans-directed violence, one of the deeply entrenched structural violence faced by the transgender community every day. The USTS notes that 14 percent of transgender respondents in 2015 were unemployed, and 29 percent were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent and 14 percent respectively within the larger U.S. population. The psychological impacts of encountering exclusion and stigma each and every day are harsh, with 39 percent of respondents, compared to just 5 percent of the U.S. population, saying that they experienced deep psychological distress.

The USTS bears witness to the reality that—over time—these levels of distress are unsustainable. 40 percent of respondents admitted to having attempted suicide in their lifetime. This rate is almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population—4.6 percent. The data from the USTS is even worse for transgender persons of color, with attempted suicide rates cited at an alarming 54 percent.

For transgender persons now, and for all those who stand in solidarity to commemorate TDOR each year, we must move forward. Research must be carried out with respect and should include transgender participants. And funding is vital as we aim to get to the roots of trans-directed GBV, moving us all towards solutions based in a greater understanding of diversity.

The precious notion of universal human dignity and human rights demand nothing less.

Chloe Schwenke is the Director of the Global Program for Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House and in the dual role of Senior Advisor on Human Rights at the Africa Bureau and Senior Advisor on LGBT issues globally at USAID during the Obama administration—becoming the first-ever openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs agencies. Chloe received her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park.


It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…

The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”

The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.

Everyone should have been outraged.

Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.

To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics.  She used a clever method to  isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude.  In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.

So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity. Continue reading Raw

Why we march

pride flags

Who were these people, and why were they there? More specifically, why would an international research organization — comprised largely of straight, cisgender (non-transgender) women — be present in such large numbers at a celebration of LGBTQI diversity in the heart of the nation’s capital?

To be fair, participating in Washington D.C.’s Capital Pride is special. Several years ago, when I was coerced by friends to come along and watch the march, I was at first intimidated but soon transfixed by this annual festival of unselfconscious exuberance and boisterous display. At Capital Pride, the smiles, warmth and welcome are pervasive. It hadn’t taken me very long to recognize that I was among my people, and that “my people” were a very diverse crowd indeed.

Over the years, I’ve gone from march observer to proud marcher, attaching myself variously over many Capital Pride marches to GLIFAA (the LGBTQI organization of the US government’s foreign affairs agencies), to DC Center Global (a terrific NGO who welcomes LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers to Washington), or to my faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Each group brought their own enthusiasm and distinctive character to the march, and in each case, I felt honored and energized to be among them as we marched the 1.5 mile route through 150,000 cheering onlookers. The sheer force of the validation and warmth directed toward those of us who identify as part of the LGBTQI community — or as one of our allies — was captivating, empowering, and…well…fun!

pride - trans

Last year, I marched with the Quakers, and as we found our assigned staging spot and waited (and waited, and waited) in the intense heat and humidity for the march to begin, I could not help noticing the zeal and enthusiasm of the group of marchers who were placed behind us in the staging location. I even recognized several of them, was quickly embraced and found myself the happy recipient of one of their trove of small hand-held “Pride fans” — their gifts to the throngs of onlookers. Little did I imagine that one year later, I would be among them, as a part of their organization. That organization is the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

Now — as an employee of ICRW — I haven’t any reason to avoid the question that struck me a year ago — if only for an instant. Why was ICRW at Capital Pride? Why would an organization that has forged a remarkable reputation for sophisticated, high-quality research on women and girls, gender equality and women’s empowerment find common ground with someone like me — a transgender woman — and others in the LGBTQI community? To be clear, I did not have to infer or presume that such common ground existed; ICRW was present in force last June, and will be again next Saturday. Their numbers and their enthusiasm said it all: ICRW is committed to celebrating that common ground.

But why?

As someone who has a relatively unique experience of the world of men — having been socialized and accepted as one for most of my life — the realities experienced by women around the world are sensed only faintly, if at all. The “patriarchy” may seem to be a tired cliché to most men, but for women and girls, the norms, assumptions, privileges and influence enjoyed by men and boys within a world structured around male power and domination are a fundamental fact of life. ICRW has the data to prove this, although few women feel any need to be convinced. What is vitally important, however, is the passionate commitment by those within ICRW — and in the global “women’s” movement more broadly — to the possibility of a better, more equitable world in which gender differences no longer establish ranking, determine access to opportunities, or render half the world as property, sexualized objects, or subjugated vassals. The women and men of ICRW carry a torch for the notion of universal human dignity.

As feminist researchers, we ask the hard questions to shed light on where society must change if that dignity is to be achieved and respected — universally. In short, we accept that we are agents of change, powered by the articulation of persuasive, verifiable, compelling data. It’s how we think and how we see the world around us. It’s what we do and who we are.

No surprise then that ICRW staff naturally and readily enfolds diversity within the universality principle of human dignity. No surprise, too, that ICRW staff — most of whom do not identify as members of the LGBTQI community — still feel an acute solidarity with and care for all minorities who are excluded and stigmatized simply for being minorities. And when it comes to sexual minorities, the only difference is that the data remains grossly incomplete. No one has yet invested the money needed to establish the gaps in social inclusion that LGBTQI people fall into. We have no doubt that the empirical evidence we identify through our future research will substantiate the anecdotal evidence now in wide circulation — that LGBTQI persons around the world face enormous challenges of exclusion, stigmatization, violence, humiliation and abuse.

Until that time comes, and it becomes possible to fill those yawning gaps in data, we will continue to march — proudly and in solidarity with LGBTQI persons — as ICRW women and men whose commitment to gender equity speaks to a deeper commitment. We march for universal human dignity.

Note: This blog first appeared on the website of my employer, the International Center for Research on Women, and can be found there at:

Just one little word.

Trmp medal not copyrighted

Just one little word changes everything.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson observed, in a speech to his staff on May 3rd, that: “I think the real challenge many of us have as we think about constructing our policies and carrying out our policies is: How do we represent our values? And in some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests. If we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests. It doesn’t mean that we leave those values on the sidelines. It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity, and the treatment of people the world over. We do.”

The word I am hung up about, of course, isn’t Tillerson’s missing adjective before “treatment”, although that does invite speculation. No, it is the possessive “our”. When it comes to human rights – this critically important framework of global peace and hope for the future – the “our” has no national boundaries. There is no “America First” in that “our”. Yet that is not what Secretary Tillerson is saying.

When did human rights, and the foundation of human dignity that such rights rest upon, lose the quality of being universal? Does Secretary Tillerson even notice its absence?

To be fair, Secretary Tillerson did reassure the Foreign Service Officers and other staff gathered before him that the State Department and USAID would continue to advocate for human dignity and freedom, yet he failed to state the reason why. Why ought they to do such advocacy? There is only one reason – because it is the right thing to do. We ought to do it – as a moral imperative – in a political world that has left practically no space open for moral deliberations based on universal ethical principles. In the vacuum left by the failure to deliberate the universal “ought” of foreign (and national) affairs, a very parochial “our” has taken over and left us all in fractured, polarized, hostile, and deeply contested spaces.

Every day, on social media and in political diatribes, in our social circles and even in our faith communities, we are frequently subjected to moralizing (i.e. “my way or the highway”) by the talking heads and tweeting/texting fingers of the extremes of the political and social spectrum. They tell us that their brand – and only their brand – of conservatism, or religion, or liberalism, militarism, progressivism, libertarianism, American socialism, or extreme “America First” jingoistic nationalism, is who we are and what we ought to be about.

Screw everyone else.

That “everyone else” includes some very decent, very vulnerable, very “human” people, but under the prevailing narrative we are supposed to forget about the likes of Amna and Meeno in Saudi Arabia. But more on them later. Continue reading Just one little word.

A modest demand for male engagement

High angle view of a businessman standing amidst businesspeople

Looking on from the outside, the world of “gender studies” or related fields in gender-focused research, gender equality policy and programming, and the panoply of ethical questions regarding gender equity appear to take an almost ritualistic form: women talking to women about women.

Yes, there’s much to talk about, and such discourse is certainly not to be dismissed as superficial or trite – although that’s how our culture often casts women’s discourse. Our culture, and cultures around the world, predominantly reflect the values, priorities, and foibles of a “man’s world” framing. For those of us who hunger for an authentic place in which to be a person with full agency and opportunity, respect and resilience, it can be crushingly hard if we happen to be female or gender non-conforming. No surprise then that so many of us reach out for the healing, fortifying solidarity of women.

And men?

Where is men’s place in the gender discourse? They are seldom physically in such conversations, and probably many feel dissuaded or intimidated from participation given that such gatherings are so overwhelmingly “not male”.  Those men who consciously take on a formal role as a “gender advisor,” or some job-description variant thereof, are few – although generally much fêted by women.

For those of us who work on international human rights advocacy and international development, the dimension of “gender” has been kicked about for more than 40 years in a formal sense. As feminist thinking has evolved, and continues to do so, we’ve sought more effective ways to empower women to find our own pathways to lives of greater dignity, freedom, and choice. Throughout the Global South where traditional gendered social and economic roles are stubbornly resistant to change, and even in the more developed “progressive” societies of the Global North, the quest to break free from the glass ceilings, from objectification and commodification, and to push back firmly against misogyny and pervasively sexualized stereotypes continues with little fanfare. It’s what women and girls (and, more and more, those who are gender non-conforming) do. It’s “the way things are” for slightly more than half of humanity.

Let the women gather and talk…where’s the harm in it?

And the men? What’s their stake in this discourse, and in the pent-up demand for change that it represents? To what extent are conversations among men focused on equity, on universal human rights and dignity, on civil and political rights, specifically in the context of also embracing that half of humanity who are women, girls, and those who are gender non-conforming? Continue reading A modest demand for male engagement

The Invisible Ones in Economic Empowerment

Chloe at East African workshop

As the many important conversations begin at this year’s meetings at the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I cannot help but reflect that there is no comfort in being on the bottom of society’s ranking. How can we even begin the conversation about human flourishing and economic empowerment when some persons are excluded entirely? How can we speak of universal dignity as the foundation of our values when the dignity of a small minority — lesbians, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women — is conveniently forgotten, or dismissed as statistically insignificant? And we have so little data about “those people”; as far as public policy is concerned those who have not been described within the parameters of research generally have no real presence at all.

Yet here I am.

Accurately capturing the lives of any marginalized minority begins with a reality check, by acknowledging that to a considerable extent every society structures its social order, power distribution and even each individual’s sense of their own worth on the basis of economic factors. Economic status matters, made manifest through wealth and its distribution, participation in governance and influence, access to technology and a very wide range of opportunities, achieving – through savings, land ownership and investments – some degree of security from life’s unexpected shocks, and having the prospect of a secure retirement when one is elderly and frail.

It all must be fair to work.

Fairness is obligatory if we are all to succeed and have meaningful lives, but fairness is a thin and aspirational concept at best. Everywhere, systems of discrimination are deeply engrained, many people are structurally excluded from a reasonable and equitable chance, and attempts to create inclusive, fair, just, collaborative and caring societies remain elusive. Many people are penalized by society’s prevailing values and cultural norms, which monetize certain activities yet ignore other activities that are every bit as essential (and often more essential) to human flourishing. Just ask any mother how fair the world is, when her untold hours of unpaid work caring for her children, family, and community are simply expected while all around her she sees others – mostly men – earning a monetized income, status, influence and power.

It’s far from fair, yet it can be worse for transgender women.

The world of patriarchy relegates women and girls to certain roles, which – if not fairly compensated monetarily – at least are roles that are held in considerable esteem. Societies generally honor mothers and grandmothers, and (with more qualifications) wives and daughters. Feminists everywhere now struggle to revise and expand those roles within the intersecting realities of their respective cultures, while still retaining the dignity and meaning attached to the roles and the women and girls who fill them.

As this important struggle continues, it is worth recognizing that certain people remain absent entirely, or intentionally excluded. Among the world of women and girls, those who are lesbian or bisexual are frequently stigmatized, shunned or even criminalized, and anecdotal evidence indicates high rates of violence directed at them. Anecdotal evidence is often all we have; there has been very little research done about the lived experiences of lesbians and bisexual women. Even anecdotal evidence is scarce, as in most countries the voices of lesbian and bisexual women are faint – women who happen to be lesbian or bisexual are shamed and set apart in their imposed silence. How do we begin to have the conversation about women’s empowerment when we are considering the realities faced by lesbians or bisexual women? Often we simply choose not to begin that conversation; the vast majority of literature on women’s empowerment simply ignores homosexuality or bisexuality entirely.

But where lesbians or bisexual women’s voices are faint, transgender people are effectively silent. Transgender people’s priorities are not about their sexual orientation (which often is not “gay”), but about their fundamental identity. Globally that identity is not recognized by most jurisdictions, and by being deemed not to legally exist, the very idea of a policy discussion about the empowerment of such transgender women falls apart before it begins. Around the world only a very few such women – and I am one of those fortunate few – are able to have our names and authentic gender legally recognized in our identity documents. Without such documents, there are no prospects of participation in the formal economy, in any democratic processes or in accessing basic services that everyone else takes for granted. The empowerment prospects for people whom society formally misgenders are vanishingly few.

What is the way forward? First, we all must restate our commitment to the foundational concept of universal human dignity, upon which any notion of social inclusion must rest. Only with that commitment does the search for those who have fallen through the cracks make sense. Yet the search requires action, and action requires an acknowledgement that a problem exists. That may be easier said than done: transgender women, lesbians and bisexual women, have found their way onto the “lists” of only a few of the institutions whose recognition opens the door to research funding. The World Bank is making some early steps in this direction, with the appointment of a new Senior Coordinator for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, but the budget that he needs to fulfill his role remains notional for the present. The UNDP has spent some money and carried out some excellent baseline work with sexual minorities (particularly in Asia), and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been outspoken in all the right ways.

Sadly however UN Women is institutionally reticent to truly engage on the plight of LBT persons. For example, UN Women now lags behind international treaties like CEDAW and other UN agencies in its commitment to work on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and sex characteristics. USAID and the U.S. State Department began to make some progress in this direction under President Obama, but the prospects for that to continue under the current administration are negligible. The pattern of support from other bilaterals is mixed, and outside of funding related to HIV/AIDS there is very little funding available. Only the philanthropic foundations are engaged, yet their focus is more on advocacy than on gathering essential baseline data on the lived realities of sexual minorities.

If universal dignity is to mean what it must, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. No one must be allowed to fall through the cracks. While we lack the resources to attend to the empowerment needs of all women and girls, we must start by becoming knowledgeable about those women and girls who appear to be most vulnerable and most in need. Through research, we need to learn about the realities experienced by LBT women and girls, and we must open the policy dialogue to their direct participation.

Note: This blog originally appeared on the website of the International Center for Research on Women on March 13, 2017.