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Gender citizenship and sexual rights in Europe: transgender lives from a transnational perspective

Final Report Summary - TRANSRIGHTS (Gender citizenship and sexual rights in Europe: transgender lives from a transnational perspective)

Focussing on trans and gender diverse people in five European countries (Portugal, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Sweden), the TRANSRIGHTS project aimed to reflect upon one of the most challenging transformations of the institutional order of gender that still reproduces a dualist norm, opposing male and female. Rather than proposing a descriptive monograph, our angle of analysis has enabled further understanding of the workings of gender through the ‘voices’ of trans-people (within and beyond Europe), and their complex forms of self-identification vis-à-vis the institutional apparatus (whether legal, medical, political or even social-scientific). Drawing on an extensive empirical research that combined document analysis of legal and medical developments, multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork (ranging from political and activist venues to street trans sex work) and in-depth interviews with 170 trans-individuals – of which 53 are migrants and 40 are sex workers − , 22 activists and 28 healthcare professionals, we interpreted our data as a privileged locus from which to investigate the doings of gender and gender politics.

Hence, the analysis of individual discourses and personal histories revealed the multiplicity of identifications and trajectories of trans-individuals, ranging from medicalized journeys of gender transition to stories of transgression. In the vast majority of cases, the embodiment and performance of trans identities reflect the irrefutable importance of individuality and self-determination. Framed by the human rights discourse, a new lexicon of social, political and legal recognition is mobilized by individuals, signalling a particular history of struggle and transformation. Alongside, the battles for recognition and the efforts for deconstructing binary gender categories (like man or woman), our research revealed that gender still matters. Not only as a norm, which could be erased, but, most importantly, as a material structure of power and inequality. Our cross-national data showed that transgender and transsexual women suffer much higher levels of discrimination and violence. If homophobia and transphobia are a reality in contemporary societies, femmephobia, as a particular form of violence against the feminine and the expression of femininity, targets the most discriminated groups, namely trans sex workers, trans women of colour and migrant trans women. The fragmented character of recognition and the continued violence against trans and gender diverse people led us to critically examine the limits of discourse. Even if laws and subversive words are powerful, social dynamics cannot be understood without considering material-based inequalities, as well revealed by our work. As such, further attention must be given to gender in a multidimensional perspective that emphasizes agency, norms and institutions (the family, labour, sexuality, health, etc.) and tackles power and domination. Gender and transgender are, after all, part of a global order of inequality.

On the other hand, the power of institutions was also revealed. The critical analysis of legal measures and medical struggles was paramount. Currently, international and national political and legal resolutions support reforms aimed at the recognition of transgender individuals and the inclusion of third-gender options in official documents or even the abolition of all unnecessary gender markers. Within our sample, more than forty per cent of participants (69) self-defined beyond the gender binary, whether as non-binary, genderqueer, bigender, agender, genderfluid or as crossdresser, travesti, two-spirit, kathoey, third-gender, amongst other identifications. Alongside anti-discrimination policies, the struggles against pathologization and for self-determination, including the right to choose one’s own gender without a medical diagnosis, became central claims for trans activists. However, although gender identity laws are today in place in more than forty countries, the right to self-determination was approved in a much smaller number of cases. Indeed, the possibility for adults, and sometimes minors, to alter official gender without the need for any external approval or validation is now legal in countries ranging from Europe to Latin America, North America, and Asia. Including Argentina (2012), Denmark (2014), Mexico City (2014), Malta (2015), Ireland (2015), Colombia (2015), Bolivia (2016), Ecuador (2016), Norway (2016), Belgium (2017), California (2017), Canada (2017), Luxembourg (2018), Pakistan (2018), Portugal (2018), or Chile (2018). ‘Third gender’ or ‘no gender’ markers are also available in a number of countries, whether covering only intersex people (as in Germany) or all people who identify with a non-binary gender (as in Malta). Including, among others, Nepal (2007), India (2009), Pakistan, (2009), Australia (2003), New Zealand (2012), Denmark (2014), Malta (2015), Canada (2017), Oregon, California, Washington (2017), or Germany (2014).

One main response to the continued exclusion of transgender people has led to numerous legal developments, so far so that a politics of transgender recognition is frequently equated with legal rights and regulations stemming from state’s intervention. However, regulation comes with a price. A model of the official trans person, most often ignoring all forms of intersectional disadvantage trans people undergo, materializes rapidly to the detriment of plural claims and identities. Notwithstanding, the struggle for the right to self-affirmed gender difference transformed the meaning of gender very profoundly. Gender gained autonomy as a field of struggles for the legitimate formulation of gender, where the power to name a given gender identity became, as a sort of symbolic capital, under dispute. In the battlefield between conservative biologicist ideologies and the moral entitlement to self-determination and gender difference, old and new conceptions of selfhood, human and gender rights are at stake.