Category Archives: human rights

Trans Surgeries Are Not Cosmetic

Image result for trans rightsI wish I didn’t have to be writing this in 2017, but there’s still disagreement, even among those who vocally support trans people, around whether trans surgeries are really medically necessary. To me, this is an obvious “yes,” but perhaps it’s harder for those who don’t experience dysphoria to understand, so let’s try an analogy.

Read the rest of this entry

This Isn’t About Michelle Kosilek or Trans Murderers, It’s About Human Rights

It’s a blessing and a curse.

One of the issues I’m most passionate about–the rights of trans people in prisons and detention facilities–has been in the news lately.  It should be a chance to raise awareness around this important issue and to use media to push forward the tide of increasing respect for prisoners’ fundamental rights that was evidenced in several recent events, including successful lawsuits in Wisconsin and Massachusetts around transition-related care in prison and the issuance of a final ruling on the Prison Rape Elimination Act that incorporates many of trans advocates’ recommendations regarding trans prisoners.  But it was evident from the start that this would be a tricky story to bend in the direction of education and advocacy on the issues, because this is a story that most people just can’t pull past Us vs. Them.

The headlines that started rolling in last week range from more-or-less balanced to fear-mongering on the conservative opinion side:

  • Judge rules in favor for inmate’s sex change operation (Boston Globe, Sep 4)
  • Judge orders Mass. to pay for inmate’s sex change surgery (Boston Globe, Sep 5)
  • Ruling on prisoner’s sex-change a matter of principle (Boston Globe, Sep 6)
  • Judge goes too far in sex change ruling (Boston Globe, Sep 7)
  • Is denying treatment to transsexual inmates “cruel and unusual?” (The Atlantic, Sep 7)
  • Free sex change for prisoner is distasteful, but justified (Boston Globe, Sep 10)
  • The real war on women–rewarded for killing his wife (, Sep 10)
  • Inmate’s sex change: humane or insane? (Santa Maria Times, Sep 11)

The facts of the case make it tempting, even for transgender people and those engaged in trans rights work, to focus on the individual involved and how heinous it seems that the state would give someone convicted of killing her wife a “free sex change.”  It’s entirely understandable that those who can’t access necessary transition-related health care due to the cost of that care and the lack of insurance coverage would find it frustrating when a prisoner is allowed access to the same care on the state’s dime.  But to focus on Kosilek’s crime, or on the idea of “free benefits” for prisoners, is entirely missing the point.

Yes, it’s strange that someone in prison would have better access to healthcare than someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but the problem here isn’t that a prisoner does have access, it’s that many others don’t.  Prisoners should have access to healthcare as a fundamental human right, and so should everyone else.  True, many people don’t have that access right now, but access to human rights isn’t about ranking people by how much we think they deserve a right and doling it out accordingly.  Healthcare access in this country depends on a lot of things–structural inequality, economic opportunity, whether you can get insurance coverage, and whether your insurance covers the treatment you need, to name a few.  The Kosilek case was about a specific legal determination under one specific standard that gives prisoners in a particular jurisdiction access to health care.  The judge made the right call in this case.  There are many other cases, many other standards, that impact trans people’s right to transition-related care in different situations, and many people don’t have care yet.  That sucks, but it doesn’t mean we should wait until all those cases are solved before we provide healthcare to trans prisoners.  It means that we need to hold our country to a standard of basic human rights in all areas.

I also want to remind folks in general, but particularly some of the commenters on Lesley’s xoJane piece who are heavily focusing on the idea of “free surgery” or “rewarding prisoners,” that it’s the prison system itself that leads to this situation.  When people commit crimes in the United States, we handle it through incarceration.  We incarcerate people in facilities where if they are allowed to work, they can’t make very much money and they certainly can’t afford to pay for their own healthcare.  One of the consequences of that system is an enormous burden on the state, but that has nothing to do with the question of what necessary healthcare is.  There are other solutions to criminality, solutions that experts on prison abolition and reform can speak to far better than me.  If we provided some means for criminals to work and pay to access rights such as healthcare, then the argument might fly.  But we don’t, and so it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for care.  The state is failing in other areas–we don’t provide adequate health care for the young, the old, the sick, non-citizens, or those with disabilities–but again, the answer to failure in one area is not to fail in another.

If this case pisses you off, if you’re outraged, then great.  Excellent!  Join the fight for rights to transition-related care through Medicaid, Medicare, the VA, private insurance, and other programs.  Fight for expansion of the Affordable Care Act.  But don’t spend your time arguing about this one trans woman who did a terrible thing and later won a petition for her human rights.  Frankly, it’s a waste.

Good News from the UN on LGBT Human Rights

It’s time to interrupt this mental-health induced radio silence for a very exciting update.  If you didn’t hear, on Friday the UNHRC finally passed a resolution on LGBT rights, with 23 of the 47 nations in the Council voting in favor.  This is the first time something like this has passed, and it follows on the heels of several attempts in recent years to get a declaration on sexual orientation through the General Assembly.  Though the UNHRC is a smaller body, the plan to study the problem of LGBT rights violations is promising due to the effect it could potentially have on nations in the General Assembly that have voted against the declaration, but are not strongly opposed.

Although the rights of LGBT people are clearly protected by existing international law, those rights are not protected in practice or defended before international bodies.  Change occurs slowly, as evidenced by the slow march of sodomy law cases in some countries and same-sex marriage cases in others.  It is often courts, not legislatures, that decide these issues.  And in the UN, even the ability to lobby for queer rights has long been restricted.  It was only a few years ago that ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council) began granting LGBT organizations consultative status before the UN.  Hopefully, this resolution is a sign that the pendulum is starting to swing, but action will be required both in the UN and at the grassroots level if we’re going to see concrete action for LGBT rights at the UN.

International Women’s Day: Equal Access to Meaningful Education

Yes, yet another post from me on International Women’s Day!

Gender Across Borders, the phenomenal blog where I write a monthly column on gender, sexuality, and law, is asking readers to blog today about the UN’s official IWD theme and answer the question: “What does it mean to have equal access to education, training and science and technology for women, and how do we get there?”

I’d like to take on the question of equal education, because it’s something that’s directly relevant to my life, and I’d like to look at a somewhat less-blogged-about facet of the problem.  There are tons of great blog posts about how to solve the problems of women having no access to schooling, or less access to schooling than men, or less access to particular disciplines.  These are the basic problems and we can’t go anywhere until we solve them.  But I’d like to look at the next step, based on some of my own experiences.

If we look at education in terms of the simple question, do men and women both have a chance to go to school and perform well, I honestly don’t have much to talk about.  I was lucky enough to live in an area where going to school was a given, and I never really noticed gender-based discrimination in school.  I graduated from college and law school with honors and awards.  But equal access is not that simple.  Equal access also means:

  • Access to a broad range of concentrations and skills. When you think about education, you have to think about who writes the curricula and who decides what classes are taught.  I had no access to women’s studies, queer studies, sociology, anthropology, development studies, cultural studies, Black studies, native studies, or Latino/a studies courses before college.  Many women don’t have access to much more basic classes in math, science, or computer skills.  Certain skills also may be easier to learn for men after formal studies–networking, business skills, and public speaking might be more commonly transferred in “boys’ clubs,” whereas women area at a disadvantage when these skills aren’t taught in school.
  • Access to different ways of thinking within an area of study. Within the courses I did take in high school and college, I rarely had a chance to explore differing perspectives.  Feminist perspectives were never brought up in school, nor were POC perspectives.  I read few authors from the Global South.  Disability was rarely mentioned.  Queer perspectives, including non-binary ideas of gender, were never discussed.  History, literature, civics, etc. were taught from the perspective of dead white guys.  Alternative methods of teaching, study, and expression were also discouraged.  Poetry is a valid form of communication.  So is song.  So is activism.  So is art.  So is digital media.
  • Being treated as a subject, not an object. The education I received tended to subtly place students as objects, not subjects of their learning.  Sometimes, this was general–learning was received, not participatory in many cases.  But other times it was felt more strongly by certain groups in the classroom.  White, straight, male views were presented as “mainstream.”  Unique ideas were not discussed and debated in the classroom.  If not objectified, minorities were marginalized and made invisible–queer people, for example, did not appear in the books I read.  Relationships were assumed to be heterosexual.  Everyone was assumed to have a gender.  And yes, the male pronoun was often used to refer to doctors, lawyers, and politicians.
  • Presenting a diverse picture of womanhood. I was thinking about my American literature course in 11th grade, and though we had a really phenomenal teacher, I can only recall three female authors that we read in that class.  Two of those were white, one was Black.  We didn’t read any Native American, Asian American, queer, or Latino/a authors in that class.  Just as “man” is understood to mean “white man” in mainstream academics, so too is “woman” understood to mean “middle class white woman.”  Nor were alternative pictures of womanhood really presented.  The concept of “femininity” was never challenged.
  • Basic resources and support outside the classroom. This is something I was lucky enough to have in my own experience, but I want to mention it because I think that many women do have access to education, but are hampered in their academic performance by poverty, by lack of mentorship or support after school, by difficulties in getting healthy meals or enough sleep, by the need to work while going to school.  Female poverty, young motherhood, and many governments’ absolute failure to support their citizens must be addressed if education is to be effective.
  • Focus on barriers that affect women disproportionately. Equal access is impossible when boys are socialized to harass, coerce, and rape women.  Equal access is impossible when youth who transgress gender norms are threatened, terrorized, and beaten in their schools and communities.  Equal access is impossible when pregnant teenagers are ignored and written off, and when young women are denied access to comprehensive sex education, contraception, reproductive health services, and abortion.  Sex education is an issue regardless of gender, but the lack disproportionately harms those who are able to bear children because of the stigma against pregnant teens and the practical challenge that these teenagers face.  It also disproportionately harms women and queer people in general because no sex education means no education in consent, no education against harassment, and no education in respecting gender and sexual minorities.  Members of these groups live in fear and find it difficult to learn as a direct result of this lack.
  • Creating safe spaces and providing mentors. I have heard of some really amazing projects in a number of cities that provide safe spaces for young women and for particular groups such as girls of color, immigrant girls, and queer kids and adolescents.  We need more of these, and we need them in every locality, in every country.  Most young women I know have never experienced a safe space.  I have been in one once, and I ended up crying from both joy and relief.  Such spaces and groups act as a refuge for kids and teens who feel ostracized.  While boys are encouraged to group around their talents as athletes, girls’ groups tend to focus on frivolity.  This grossly underestimates the ability of girls as thinkers, entrepreneurs, and creative forces.  Similarly, adults need to step in as mentors to young women, providing positive role models where there have typically been none.
  • Not using gender as a factor in how students are taught and socialized. My final point speaks to my own experience as a person outside of the gender binary, and to a long and ongoing struggle to find myself in a binary world.  The question posed to us was about women, but I think that equal access goes beyond that.  It gets at the heart of a huge problem–the way we are socialized into two genders, as men and women, according to cultural norms, early in our education, and then taught as men and women for the rest of our lives.  Not only are women harmed by being taught in a different way from men, but we are all harmed by the way we are labeled as men or women and then shoved into an educational box.  We can talk about how education privileges male forms of communication, but it also teaches us those forms from an early age, and teaches them as male-appropriate.  This is a disservice to the immense creativity, ingenuity, and diversity of the human race.

September 11th: Defining the Terrorized and the Terrorist

Here we are, nine years out from September 11, 2001.  Obviously, the acts that took place on that day were terrible acts of violence committed by desperate men carrying out a perverted form of religious belief.  But the terrible acts that get carried out in the name of patriotism are also deserving of some questioning.

Apparently, the burning of Qu’arans isn’t going to happen after all, but that doesn’t mean that things like that don’t happen everyday, in America and elsewhere.  The thing we have to realize is that we’re dealing with structural issues.  Imperialism, colonialism, war, corporate greed, capitalism… it’s a very thick net that many have woven, and it’s strangling us.

My mom is a very talented musician, and she put out an album years before September 11  was more than just a random date on the calendar, with a song called “Terrorist.”  There’s a line in that song that I think sums this point up very well: “Powerless gain power, and the power stays the same.”  And the song, as a whole, makes another important point: it’s not about good and evil people, and when we think of the world in good and evil sides, well, we miss that choking net entirely.

You can listen to “Terrorist,” by Mean Mad Momma, here.  The lyrics are below the cut.

Read the rest of this entry

Appropriation vs. Creative Activism

I’ve been thinking lately about cultural appropriation and how to avoid it.  My principle concern comes from the fact that I am fascinated by indigenous cultures and indigenous activism.  I’ve read some really interesting accounts in my study of human rights on indigenous movements and creative solutions to common activist problems. But I’ve wondered if identifying with and being interested in these movements is a bad thing, especially when I’m thinking about how to apply indigenous ideas to activist movements in the United States as a white, middle class individual.

There was a post on cultural appropriation at Bitch Magazine that presented a really helpful guiding line for this problem.  Basically, it’s about attribution.  White people tend to appropriate the ideas of nonwhite people and of marginalized groups in general, whether queer, disabled, indigenous, or something else, and then claim them as their own–directly or through silence.  What this says to me (and correct me if I’m wrong), is that it’s good to recognize the creativity of solutions presented by marginalized people, and to incorporate them into, or use them as the basis for, an activist movement.  But it is essential to attribute those ideas to that group, and to the individuals that have expressed them.  It is not okay to take the ideas out of context, to strip away their origins, and to exclude those who presented the ideas in the first place.


Competency Kinks, Violence, and Imperialism

A couple of months ago, I had a thought.  I was brainstorming an idea for an urban fantasy novel, one that would feature a strong androgynous superhero whose jurisdiction was over things like stopping rapists, confronting misogynists, and making vulnerable populations feel safe.  But as I was brainstorming this hero, who not only saves your life but has a penchant for cuddling and physical affection, I realized that one of the traits I was using was still “could kill you with hir little finger.”

That got me thinking about competency kinks and how they align with violence.

“Competency kink” basically just means that someone being really good at whatever zie does is a turn-on.  Movies certainly capitalize on this.  Sometimes it’s intellectual competence, or psychic ability, or something else unrelated to violence, but very often the protagonist is competent at killing, injuring, and/or self defense.  Whether it’s competence with weaponry, martial arts, magic, or some other violence-related skill, filmmakers are very good at combining destructive prowess with sexiness.  Think Christian Bale in Equilibrium.  Think Keanu Reeves in the Matrix.  Think of all the bad-ass chicks in films that are unexpectedly very skilled at physical combat.  Kill Bill, anyone?

Read the rest of this entry

We interrupt this long radio silence for some breaking news…

Eeeee!  The IGLHRC has UN lobbying accreditation!  This is huge, y’all!  Despite my total lack of confidence in LGBT rights in my own country, it seems like the world is really starting to move.  I love the creative activism going on in Latin America, especially, but really all over the world.

More from me soon, I promise.  A new job and some personal exploration have put me out of commission for a bit, but I’m not dead yet 😀

Blogging “Yes” Day 19: Is Fighting for Sex the Best Option?

For day nineteen of the Blogging “Yes” project, I read Anastasia Higginbotham’s essay, “Sex Worth Fighting For.”  So far, this is the essay I disagree with most in the book, because it focuses on a self-defense program that focuses on actively fighting off men. Though I recognize that some women do feel empowered by physically fighting, I would argue that both men and women need to work towards non-violence, and that fighting violence with violence is not the right solution for everyone.

Read the rest of this entry

Blogging “Yes” Day 17: Violence in Queer Communities

It’s day seventeen of the Blogging “Yes” project, and today I read the short but gorgeously powerful essay entitled “Shame is the First Betrayer,” by Toni Amato.  It’s hard to know what to say about this essay, because it says so much in such a concise format.  It does really resonate, though, and is an important reminder of how violence creeps up in queer communities, with queer people not only as victims but as perpetrators.

Read the rest of this entry