Human Rights: Transgender Visibility and Violence

Human Rights: Transgender Visibility and Violence
Edozie Ameke & Ellen Carpenter consider global trans rights, social difference and violence

The willingness of LGBTQ people in the public sphere to ‘come out’ has arguably been one of the most important catalysts in advancing LGBTQ rights in any country. The media is often used for the purpose of impact, although the visibility of a select few rich, famous, and/or beautiful people may not reflect the reality experienced by the transgender community as a whole. 

Yet for all the media spotlights, there is justifiable concern over the human rights of trans men and women globally. In Jamaica in 2013, Dwayne Jones was stabbed, shot, and run over by a car for attending a party dressed in women’s clothing. In 2016 Islan Nettles, a transgender woman, died of head injuries after she was attacked on a street in Harlem. Her attacker, who had initially flirted with Islan, stated in court that he hit her after his friends had laughed at him for picking up a transwoman, adding that he ‘did not want to be fooled.’   

Although longstanding laws on sexual orientation have been relaxed in Jamaica in recent years, with the Prime Minister Andrew Holness stating in 2018 that he would not object to a gay person serving in his cabinet, work is needed around the world to end such unnecessary violence towards transgender men and women.   

Here in the U.K. we are not always as tolerant as we would like to believe we are. According to Stonewall, 41% of the trans-community have been attacked or threatened with violence in the last five years. Social stigma therefore seems as prevalent here as it is abroad, regardless of liberalisation in our laws since the 1960s, and the more recent equal opportunities clauses introduced to protect individual characteristics like sexuality and gender identification.  

Visibility is perhaps at the heart of violence. The way we dress, the way we behave, is based on gender norms. Whether we live in Britain, the Caribbean or America, we learn from an early age to expect certain mannerisms in women that we do not in men; and to see women in dresses and men in suits. Transgressing such norms has cost individuals like Dwayne Jones their lives.   

Even if the way we dress is not biologically determined but learned socially, the idea of being ‘fooled’ or ‘tricked’ into believing a person is not who they say they are unfortunately remains all too common if gender visibility is not clear, as the Nettles manslaughter case has shown. 

The suspicion that the transgender/ transsexual person is being dishonest about themselves, or deliberately flouting social norms in order to outrage others is often the instinctive response. Yet it is possible that the person may not have been given the chance to express themselves, or is terrified of doing so because of a fear of social ostracization or violence.                    

Given the worrying rate of suicides in the U.K., and the disproportionate levels of social stigma attached to the trans community globally, what can we do to prevent such unnecessary suffering?


Understanding trans terms

Transgender is an umbrella term. It includes transmen and transwomen whose gender identity is the opposite of their birth sex and sometimes termed transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition. The term may also include what is referred to as ‘genderqueer’ for people whose identities are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Less frequently the term is  used broadly to include cross-dressers. 

A transvestite is a person who dresses in clothes of the opposite sex. "Cross-dresser" is generally considered the more modern term. Cross-dressers may not identify with, want to be, nor adopt the behaviours or practices of the opposite gender, and generally do not wish to change their bodies medically.

Contrary to popular opinion, being transgender is independent of sexual orientation. Transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable.

Supporting trans friends

Treat the issue confidentiality and do not ‘out’ them without consent. Transgender people have lost friends, family and even their lives over their gender history. Let them speak out about themselves in their own way and time unless they ask you to do otherwise.  

Be patient with a person who may be exploring their gender identity.

Do your best to be respectful and use any name and pronoun requested. 

Encourage them to see their doctor or a counsellor if they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or you feel that they may be at emotional risk.


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