In the last week or so, the British newspaper “The Observer” has been drawn into a controversy after it published an aggressively trans-phobic opinion piece by serial-controversialist commentator Julie Burchill. The abusive nature of her rhetoric has served as a salutary slap to the complacency of many who viewed the transgender experience as neatly folded within the recent incremental progress made in the UK towards sexual equality. There have been some fascinating responses from the likes of Paris Lees, Roz Kaveney and Brooke Magnanti that have really opened this debate up to wider scrutiny.
In truth, the furore around Burchill’s incendiary comments has highlighted one of the quietly unremarked realities of work around sexual rights. For much of the time when we talk about LGBT equality, the transgender and bisexual rights agendas are viewed as marginal or quietly ignored in favour of the “broader” gay equality agenda. Even within this narrow definition of LGBT, lesbians find themselves struggling to be heard, lending credence to the argument that the onward march of the gay rights movement often leaves gender inequality untroubled in its wake.
In the international sexual rights arena, this blind spot is even more damaging to the life chances of transgender people. As the IDS Sexuality and Development Programme has argued in the past, there is a stark correlation between marginalization and poverty. The denial of sexual rights can contribute to poverty, whilst poverty can make people more vulnerable to sexual rights abuses. Pushed to the margins of society, some groups such as the ‘third gender’ hijra (South Asian communities that transcend simplistic conceptions of physiological sex, gender presentation and performance, presenting a challenge to preconceived notions of a gender continuum) have built their own community support structures, such as self-defined households led by an older feminised guru, in which they gain work as dancers or sex workers. For many however, this can lead to them being involved in risky sexual behaviours with little or no access to condoms or sexual health advice.
Reports such as the UNDP-funded “Lost in Transition: Transgender People, Rights and HIV Vulnerability in the Asia-Pacific Region” are underscoring the paucity of action research taking place with the transgender community to develop service provision tailored to their needs. The authors argue strongly that HIV and sexual health care services will only become socially equitable if a greater amount of research takes place in partnership between governments, community-based organisations and the transgender community. With the caveat that research data remains limited, there is growing anecdotal evidence that the incidence of HIV amongst transgender people in the region is now exceeding rates recorded amongst men who have sex with men and in one South-East Asian city rose from 25% to 34% from 2004-2007.
In the same way as the transgender contribution to such moments of queer equality as the Stonewall Riots (proudly trumpeted by Obama in his second inaugural this week) has been written out of history, the needs of transgender communities are subsumed in the LGBT movements response to international sexual rights campaigning. Yet in common with Northern countries during the early years of gay liberation, transgender and transsexual people remain on the front line of this global struggle, more readily visible and by their very existence problematising received wisdom about fixed gender identities.
And that’s the key point here. Julie Burchill’s article stemmed from a misguided view that the only real woman is one who was born physiologically female (in the traditional sense). Exclusion of transgender women because they are not deemed ‘sufficiently female’ runs against the founding principles that I took from second-wave feminism: that gender is fluid, socially constructed and our struggle should be to broaden our capacity to understand what it means to be both a women and a man, or to live in the space between these accepted orthodoxies of male and female.
In recent years, there has been a sense that many of those engaged in gender and sexual rights in international development have retreated into separate silos so completely that an intersectional analysis of these overlapping forms of oppression currently feels too difficult to bridge. Under the leadership of Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone MP, the UK Government has historically published it’s first transgender equality plan and here the challenge is explicit – in spite of an excellent set of objectives, none of them require a Department for International Development (DfID) response, in spite of this Ministry doing a great deal of work around gender and sexual rights. Perhaps this is one of my New Year’s resolutions – to view this unpleasant episode as a catalytic call to arms for us to problematise the now-dominant assumptions around gender and sexuality in development and find common cause once more.
Read other recent blogs by Stephen Wood:
• What were the PPSC blog’s Top 10 posts of 2012?
• The stark realities lying behind the Ugandan Anti-Homsexuality Bill
• Putting pleasure into safer sex interventions
• Diversifying our strategies for sexual equality