Features International Law

Trans people and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

As a transgender woman I’ve often seen my human rights questioned and debated by others, and by extension, the rights of all transgender people have come into question and debate. The same can be said for many marginalized groups and individuals in the present and throughout history.

by Finley Adams

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is in my opinion the most important piece of international law. It enshrines the basic, fundamental principles of morality, peace, justice and humanity and gives us universal, inalienable rights, to be protected and enforced at all times. The declaration is meant to protect us all from discrimination, hatred and violence and to ensure that we can continue to live good lives, with dignity, liberty and justice. It is meant to keep humanity in check and to ensure we uphold our principles and continue to progress as a species. However, it is not without its flaws and indeed there are a number of ways that we can improve it.

As a transgender woman I’ve often seen my human rights questioned and debated by others, and by extension, the rights of all transgender people have come into question and debate. The same can be said for many marginalized groups and individuals in the present and throughout history. This is sometimes due to a lack of clarity and/or consideration within the declaration and its use of language but more often it’s simply ignorance over the rights that people already have. I find it appalling and deeply disturbing that there are still debates over whether or not some people should have access to their fundamental human rights, however that appears to be the world that we are in.

When I first came out as transgender it was a pretty happy moment, but it was also terrifying. I got to share a part of myself with my family, and later with the world, that for the longest time I had just kept hidden away. The way I saw it was that the world looked at people like me scornfully. I had read about transgender people being raped, murdered, assaulted, harassed, committing suicide and more. Now I was opening myself up to that world. I wasn’t sure how to feel, but I felt free at last and that was amazing. Now I can finally be myself. The person that I have always truly been.

Since coming out and socially transitioning, I’ve been the victim of sexual assault, harassment, sexual harassment, discrimination, misogny, homophobia and transphobia. In my attempts to begin my medical transition I’ve been met with hesitation, ignorance and a lack of experience from the public health sector, alongside delays in receiving care. The delays are unacceptable and in some cases have led to depression and even suicide among transgender people.

I have seen organizations and politicians politicize trans inclusive education and attempt to have it removed from schools. I have seen lawyers in the US creating legal defences for the murder of transgender people such as the “gay/trans panic defence”. We hear countless stories of transgender people being raped and murdered simply for being transgender. The medical community, even in my own country of residence, still practice conversion therapy in an attempt to change the immutable and intrinsic characteristics of gender and sexuality among LGBTQ+ people. The privacy of transgender people is arbitrarily invaded with often deeply personal and irrelevant questions about our sexuality, genitals and more when we seek help transitioning. People try to deny our existence, our humanity, our lived experience, our culture and our history on a regular basis.

These are all experiences that I have tried to use to strengthen myself and my resolve to be a better person. They have made me realize the need for constant vigilance, against tyranny, against injustice, and against hatred, discrimination, prejudice, ignorance and indifference. Every time I see another story about an injustice against the LGBTQ+ community, about transgender people, it strengthens my resolve. These are violations of our human rights and they need to be stopped. They cannot be allowed to continue.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is broken down in to thirty different articles, all of which explain our human rights. They apply to everyone, cisgender or transgender. These articles talk about the right to education, one that will promote the full development of our personality and our humanity. We have the right to life, liberty and justice. We have the right to be protected from torture, cruel and inhuman punishment and degrading treatment. We have the right to access public services. We have the right to marriage, to employment, to equal pay for equal work. We have the right to privacy and dignity. We have the right to explore and interact with our culture, to hold our own opinions and express ourselves freely. These are more than just words. These are our rights, not just as transgender people but as humans. When they are violated, we are all violated.

Article two states that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind” and that is one of the most important lines to remember. No matter what we are told, no matter how it is framed, we are all entitled to these rights as human beings.

As with anything, there’s always room for improvement within the declaration. No more so when it comes to inclusive language that ensures people of all genders can see themselves included. There are around twenty-nine instances where unnecessarily gendered language is used. Terms like “his” and “mankind” could easily be replaced with terms like “their” and “humanity”, “men and women” could be replaced with “people”. Article sixteen, which speaks of the human right to marriage could simply stating that there are “no limitations” to this right between consenting adults. As it stands the declaration makes no mention of sexual orientation or gender, but this omission offers states the flexibility to ban LGBTQ+ people from marriage.

Using gender-neutral language and adding revisions like the ones mentioned would ensure that the language used cannot be misinterpreted or misconstrued to disadvantage anyone. These changes could benefit everyone and would disadvantage no-one. Progress takes time, but I am hopeful that some day we will see the world acknowledge the need for more clarity surrounding the rights of marginalized people. This will ensure that we are all truly able to access the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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