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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

Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

Albright

The day could not have been better positioned for a loud, unrestrained, guttural howl of outrage and indignation. And while I did indeed hear words of anger, disappointment, and deep concern, there wasn’t a single howl. Not one. Disappointing…

It was just last Thursday, March 16th, and early that morning President Trump released his new “Make America Great” budget. It was a “skinny budget”, lacking the detail and policy weight of a comprehensive federal budget document, but it had the attention of everyone in that room.

“That room” was the Helene D. Gayle Global Development Symposium, hosted by the wonderful organization CARE, and held in the Reserve Officers Association building’s conference room. We were convened just across Constitution Avenue from the U.S. Senate offices – where the real budget battle will soon be fought. The audience gathered there was almost entirely women, which aligned with the topic: the plight of women and girls around the world. Still, the idealist might be excused if he or she presumed that the topic of women and girls – half the population of the world – might reasonably attract the attention and concern of men who are active in the international development community, but no. As happens so often, we were mostly women talking to women about women, ironically in a room resplendent of the patriarchy with somber pictures on the walls of distinguished (male) military icons staring down sternly at the impudent female speakers.

The weight of that just-published budget set the mood, despite the stalwart efforts of many speakers to be upbeat and positive. It felt to me that all of us were hunkered down in an attitude of resignation; self-made victims of a disempowering capitulation to “the way things are”. Many speakers spoke in pragmatic and occasionally wistful tones about the usual obstacles and successes, and how we might best find a way ahead for facilitating a type of development that would truly address and engage women and girls as full human beings. But there was no fire in their bellies, and there were no howls. Continue reading Human rights off the agenda – quietly.

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.

See http://www.icrw.org/economic-empowerments-forgotten-ones/

 

For LGBTQ Americans, Resistance Is Not Futile

Note: This opinion blog by Chloe Schwenke was first published on NBC News on

Demonstrators Protest Against President-Elect Donald Trump
A demonstrator wears a “Love Trumps Hate” rainbow flag during a protest in Los Angeles, California, on Nov. 12, 2016. Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images

A new political era is about to begin. What do we do? The harshness of winter has almost certainly dissuaded those who were entertaining the notion of emigrating north to Canada, and we’ve all witnessed with chagrin the various efforts of those who vainly sought to convince the electors in the Electoral College to do what that institution was originally intended for—to stop a demagogue. Is it time to roll over and play dead?

Hardly. As we each reflect on the years ahead, the post-election mood among many LGBT people and our loved ones and allies ranges from seething anger to disempowering dismay. Along with most other minorities in America, the prospect of this new Administration taking up the reins of power across the federal government—and similarly hostile leaders in many state governments—raises important questions about protecting fundamental civil and human rights. While Trump himself has seemed equivocal on LGBT equality, he has filled his Cabinet and West Wing with anti-LGBT extremists, demonized other minorities, and disdained the democratic norms that serve to protect vulnerable groups.

We therefore have reason to fear the new Administration and Congress could roll back (or simply choose not to enforce) numerous critical protections for LGBT people’s health, safety, education, employment, and participation in public life. The reality is inescapable; things will soon be very different in Trump’s and Pence’s White House, and in the 70 percent of state legislative bodies that will now rest firmly in Republican control. We can’t afford inaction or passively waiting until the worst happens.

As many people have already pointed out, the silver lining in this moment is that harsh but empowering jolt of electricity many of us have felt, especially those of us who may have been taking our rights for granted. After all, only 55 percent of the voting age electorate actually turned out, and most did not vote for this incoming President. So now we are all called to action—urgently—and it is very hard to overstate how much is at stake. For transgender Americans, our recently gained access to health care and insurance, protections that have been transformative for many transgender students, housing and employment protections, and efforts to rein in police misconduct and protect trans immigrants are all on the line.

You—yes, you reading this—need to do something. Urgent action, to be effective, needs to be directed, coordinated, sustained, constructive, and positive. Here at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), we will be very busy in the weeks and months ahead giving you detailed information regarding policy and legislative issues of importance to our community. With that information at your fingertips, we’ll strongly urge you to reach out to your representatives in Congress and in your state governments, as we’ve done again and again in the past. So will many of our partners.

That’s what we do as an advocacy organization…only now, it matters more than ever.

It’s become fashionable to demonize our political opponents, as our society moves more and more into polarized factions—each with our own sources of selective news and opinions designed to reinforce our current views and excoriate the other side. In the process, the very human stories that bind us all together fail to get communicated to those who most need to hear them. The fundamental message of LGBT advocates is that we each embody a narrative of human values at the very heart of what it means to be human. We were born to be ourselves, and to be and to love as we must—authentically. So fierce resistance to political strategies aimed against us must be complimented by bringing our very human narrative forward in ways that soften the hard shell of those who act from transphobic bias, ignorance, and harmful ideologies. We need to be ourselves now more than ever, proud and determined and here to stay. Being ourselves is our political message of resistance, and its power is not to be underestimated—but only if we act.

Call your representatives. Write to them. Do it often, speak with intensity and courage, and speak with an intention not only to draw a line in the sand but also to open up hearts and minds. No matter where they fall ideologically, call and write them. If they’re a hardline opponent, they need to be softened with constituent pressure. If they’re already a supporter, they need to be pressed to defend us vocally at every step. Organize a meeting at their office—or if they won’t meet, a protest.

The worst tactic for us now is to assume there is nothing we can do. While expecting politicians to change their ideological stripes may be a fool’s venture, expecting them to revise some of their less well thought out attitudes and values about us may be just enough for now. Those who won’t learn in their hearts will still respond to pressure if we keep building it and moving public opinion. We need you, week in and week out, to participate in making our case, push back, tell our stories, and keep changing the hearts and minds of people across this country.

In his farewell address last week, President Obama spoke of the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change, to carry the hard work of democracy forward. In his words: “I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change—but in yours.”

Chloe Schwenke is the Senior Advisor at the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization winning life-saving change for transgender people.

 

The storm that is already upon us

storm-at-sea

Angry political seas are churning in Washington.

Progressive civil rights organizations are mobilized as perhaps never before, building and expanding coalitions and urging the public to awaken to what is now rapidly taking shape, and how threatening it is to us all. Activists are trying as hard as we can to chart some safe, sane course that doesn’t leave our country – or at least the most vulnerable in our country – smashed upon the jagged rocks of public indifference, political arrogance, and ideological purity. We’re not doe-eyed do-gooders baking cookies for the church fundraiser; we’re battle-hardened experienced realists who are sadly all too aware that the storm we are just beginning to feel in force will result in many, many casualties. We know that we’ll lose in many and perhaps most of our efforts to overcome this mindless devastation, but we look for even small opportunities to prevent or diminish the suffering ahead, to speak out in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us, and to preserve and live out what remains of the best values that have historically defined us as Americans.

It may all sound both dire and slightly heroic, a David and Goliath struggle that will in time become the stuff of legend. The daily reality is something very different. Each day as I go to work at the National Center for Transgender Equality, I know that the hours ahead will be long and hard and that – at best – any progress we make on behalf of protecting the very threatened rights and quality of life of transgender people will be incremental. There will be hours of engagement with the staff of Senators and Representatives, strategy meetings with coalition partners across the civil and human rights spectrum, research and reaching out, and communications. And while all of this goes on, powerful waves of malevolent force will be thundering down upon us and our efforts. Those waves are already here, in force, as we see in the mindless urgency to repeal the Affordable Care Act before any replacement plan is proposed, completely insensitive to the suffering that millions of America’s poorest will face. Transgender persons are disproportionately represented in those ranks of the poor, with recent survey data showing 29% of transgender people living in poverty compared to 14% in the larger U.S. population. Those angry waves seek to defund Planned Parenthood, an essential provider of health services to women across the nation, and the largest single provider of health care to transgender Americans.

The choice of a storm metaphor makes perfect sense to me. There is great force and weight to a storm, but only the most rudimentary direction. A storm lacks logic, rationality, or compassion. It is often accompanied by darkness and cold. It feels unrelenting, and those who are in its path will suffer, or worse. Continue reading The storm that is already upon us

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Washington conference 3

Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

How’s this for a job pitch?

transgender symbol fist

What does “human dignity” mean to you? Does it elicit warm and fuzzy feelings? Is it an inspirational term – a call to a higher moral standard perhaps? Or is it instead some ill-defined intellectual notion, associated vaguely with what it means to be a human being, but not something we can operationalize?

Vague? Not for me. Human dignity is the existential core of who I am, and why I – and every human being – deserve to be respected. And no, I’m not claiming some special status. Human dignity is shared in equal measure by every person, but some of us need to remind others of that fact. For anyone who is transgender, reminding the world around us that we’re as deserving of respect for our core humanity and our authentic identity as they are is a daily undertaking. I’m not sure we’re winning…if transgender people are not busy each day having to advocate for our dignity, we are fighting to have our authenticity recognized. That advocacy takes place both morally and legally, but given the near vacuum around secular moral deliberation the public conversation is much more heavily weighed on the legal. Sadly however, law is a field of battle that is only marginally productive in this context, at least in the absence of an equivalently robust moral engagement.

While there have been some legal victories for the human dignity of transgender people in some countries and some American states, that’s the exception and not the rule. We are generally simply classified as “gay” (which many of us emphatically are not, in terms of our sexual orientation) and left to join our beleaguered L,G,and B allies to face the opprobrium of homophobia that is so virulent around the world. As transgender folk we are mostly invisible, unless we’re among those who are struggling to survive in one of the few avenues open to transgender women – as sex workers – where we face extremes of violence almost beyond comprehension. We seldom get the chance to take our public stand on our own terms or on our priority issues, advocating – legally or morally – as dignified and authentic human beings.

That invisibility is slowly being swept away. Too slowly, yes, and often very awkwardly, but through the rising assertiveness of transgender people we are becoming more present. The world is being called to awareness of our existence through our solidarity in advocating a vigorous, in-your-face claim to human dignity. That’s a claim that is spiritually edgy,  morally profound, and legally troubling, and societies around the world are awkward and resistant, or downright abusive, regarding our assertions of human dignity. But human dignity is what we’ve hung our lives and our futures on – and it’s vital to us that we have that conversation with our respective societies.

After all, we’re not going away.

Human dignity however may not be an ideal tactic. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to detect a significant vein of cynicism about human dignity. Law professor David Hyman of the University of Illinois, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy back in 2003, was dismissive:

Human dignity is an abstract aspiration, but policy decisions are necessarily concrete. These decisions must therefore be created and implemented by those “in the trenches,” but there is little evidence to suggest that anyone in the trenches really wants to use human dignity as the touchstone for decision-making or has any particular expertise in this area.

Continue reading How’s this for a job pitch?

Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan-woman-of-the-fergana-valley

Most of us aren’t glued to the latest developments coming out of Bishkek. In fact, most people have no idea where Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic) even is. That’s unfortunate, because the recent trends in that Central Asian country reflect a scale of un-development and human rights backsliding that ought to be raising alarms around the world.

OK – for me this is also personal. I’ve had the pleasure to work in Kyrgyzstan once, and to come to know several wonderful Kyrgyz people. But even if you don’t have Kyrgyzstan in your history, take my word for it: the plight of more than half of the population of that country of 5.8 million people is approaching what any reasonable person would deem to be “desperate”.

Why the clarion call? Consider this: during its time as a Soviet Republic, many women in Kyrgyzstan enjoyed remarkable access to meaningful employment, especially those who were living in more urban areas where they were able to make their own decisions on the important choices in their lives (like who to marry, or whether to work in the formal economy). They were officially regarded as equal to men in their dignity, and despite a long history of pre-Soviet subjugation of women, many Kyrgyz women made prodigious progress.

And then the Soviet Union collapsed…

Since that time, the government of Kyrgyzstan has largely forsaken its role in the provision of basic public services. But much more worrying to me is the precipitous decline of women in the formal labor market there, with those involved in economic activity going from almost 82% (1991) to just 42% (2007), according to the World Bank. Kyrgyz men too are struggling, with a national unemployment rates of 40%. Employers are now largely unregulated and cavalier in their practices, which translates into a jobs economy that is anything but employee-friendly for Kyrgyz women.

And of course, as happens in so much of the world, Kyrgyz women who are in paid employment are still expected to shoulder all of the traditional domestic duties. Continue reading Disturbing news out of Kyrgyzstan

2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

new-year-2016-glitters-background_1035-468

As someone trained in public policy whose life and career has been international, my end-of-year musings tend toward discerning global trends. Despite the recent flood of dystopian movies and television offerings in the United States, are things getting better and is progress being made? In the face of the rampant barbarity and media-hyped cruelty of movements such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabab, and the Taliban, is civilization getting stronger? Contrary to the grisly death statistics of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, France, or at Garissa University in Kenya, or the many incidences of Boko Haram violence in Africa that the Western press largely ignores, is safety and security improving for most people on this planet? In the crumbling and almost forgotten remains of the Arab Spring, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and Egypt’s latest swing to authoritarianism, and the deepening polarization and distrust of politics in the United States, are democracies still thriving?

And what about respecting human rights and the recognition of human dignity? Do these terms mean much anymore? What of the plight of the most vulnerable among us? Women’s rights? The humane treatment of animals? The plight of the elderly? The human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons? Freedom of expression, movement, participation, conscience?

In short, what about us?

Is the grand experiment known as humanity getting any better? Are we moving slowly toward global peace, not just in the sense of an absence of violence but in the much deeper sense of what peace really entails? Are we “developing” in a moral sense? While most of us have our own intuition on these matters, there aren’t clear answers, and the distortions in our perceptions are legion. The media by its nature focuses on what sells: disasters, terrorism, wars, failures, disappointments, violence, corruption, crime, immorality, betrayal, or avarice. We hear or read very little about integrity, compassion, solidarity, sacrifice, teamwork, bravery, mercy, or humility. Enormously important words like wisdom, virtue, statesmanship, authenticity, and idealism slip from our vocabulary. Continue reading 2015 was harrowing. Why do I embrace 2016?

Malaysia’s intrepid defenders of personhood

Malaysian trans

Who are you? And why are you wearing those clothes?

Most Americans will never be challenged by such questions, except perhaps on Halloween. We are who we are, and we dress as we choose. It takes a stretch of imagination to arrive at a scenario where exercising the individual right to express ourselves through our clothing and our mannerisms is deemed a serious threat to society, or harmful to others, or immoral. Yet when a person’s “expression” settles into a sustained, coherent, and insistent statement about their identity that runs contrary to what the authorities have declared regarding that person’s identity, the law is called upon to resolve this. After all, identity is where personhood starts, so the law has a stake in getting this right.

But how does the law get it right? And is that enough? And what does sex have to do with it?

On the one hand, it seems peculiar that one should need to turn to the courts to substantiate one’s deepest held sense of identity. On the other hand, when that claim of identity is contested, and something important is at stake, then the courts have a job to do.

Many Americans feel that the courts have accomplished that duty, now that the battle for “LGBT rights” is popularly perceived (although incorrectly) to be largely over but for the mopping up of state and local laws that still need to be aligned with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. Yet for the “T” part of LGBT the battle for identity recognition and fair treatment is only just beginning. A long journey lies ahead before transgender Americans across this country enjoy the fundamental civil courtesy of being respected as rational, dignified human beings with full and fair rights under law. It was only one year ago here in my state of Maryland that a law took effect to ban anti-transgender discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, but across the nearby Potomac River in Virginia and in the majority of American states there are no such laws protecting transgender people from discrimination. In 33 of our 50 states, transgender people have a legal ordeal ahead before they begin to benefit from fair treatment as parents, renters, employees, and simply as citizens. We’ll get there, but we’ll have to resort to regular requests to our allies for support. Unlike gays and lesbians, transgender people are very few in number, and without the help of allies our cause will generate little attention.  Along the way to legal reform, we’ll all need to make progress simultaneously in the much more difficult undertaking – informing the American public about the transgender phenomenon so that perverse stereotypes are destroyed, hearts softened, minds made more aware, and we are no longer seen as “abnormal” people who have made a “choice” to lead a perverse “lifestyle”. We’re just people determined to be authentic.

Authenticity is the goal of transgender persons around the world, but in many countries the quest to have one’s gender identity recognized is not only a struggle against discrimination but quickly becomes a fraught ordeal against the institutionalized overlap of state and religion. In general, secular laws are open to challenge based on reason and fairness, but when the laws are founded on or heavily influenced by theology the realistic prospect for a tiny minority of transgender activists to achieve justice is often an exercise in frustration. When such religious principles are held to be above scrutiny or any challenge that is based on science or reason, the struggle can become one of complete futility. And yes, there’s the question of sex. But I will return to that shortly…first I must cast my sights 9,525 miles away. In Malaysia, October 8th provided a graphic example not only of the sense of futility that transgender activists must endure, but also a clear witness of the determination and resilience of such activists to see this long battle through to a just and fair outcome.

The constitution of Malaysia provides for a unique dual justice system—the secular laws (criminal and civil) largely inherited from the colonial era coexist with Sharia laws. The latter are the basic Islamic legal system derived from the religious precepts of Islam. In Malaysia, the two streams of law have come into conflict, and currently Sharia prevails – to the cost of Malaysia’s transgender community. Continue reading Malaysia’s intrepid defenders of personhood