Every Colour Illuminates

Eoin McSweeney examines the contrast between LGBT* rights at home and abroad as he writes from his work placement in a legal aid clinic that specialises in LGBT* issues in Philadelphia.

Mia is picked up by police in Philadelphia for assaulting a man outside a club after he calls her a “tranny.” While she is taken to be stripped and searched, Mia is only referred to as “she-male” or “the thing.”

When stripping her, the male officers stay to watch, even though nurses are the only people allowed to be present. The nurses do not ask the increasing crowd to leave until Mia requests some privacy. Some go, but most of the officers stay and others come back, because they want to see “the freak show.”

Standing naked in front of 15 men, while being taunted for her appearance, is something that she will never forget.

Mazzoni Centre
Mazzoni Centre

Mia is then placed in the male half of the prison, despite her protestations. She explains that she is a female and would rather have her own cell, away from the other prisoners, which is a right in Pennsylvania. However, she is ignored. She is a victim of severe rape and sexual violence for the three weeks that she is behind bars. Mia will never be the same again.

Mia’s assigned name was Michael, and she is a transgender female. She only began her transition a few months before by using estrogen pads and testosterone blockers a few times a month and though while dressed, her outward appearance looks like that of a female, she still resembles a male physically in many aspects.

I have been working in the legal department of the Mazzoni Center, Philadelphia for the past few months and this is an example of just one of the many cases I have been dealing with. It is the only health care provider in the Philadelphia region specifically targeting the unique health care needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender* communities (LGBT*, the asterisk is an umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum).

The legal services department, which was added in 2010, is the only program in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that specifically provides direct no-cost or low-cost legal assistance to low-income and lower-income, underserved LGBT* populations.

21st Century Discrimination

The LGBT* population in the US suffer discrimination on a regular basis in many different aspects of life. Many of the cases that the Mazzoni Center deal with involve employment discrimination, where employers will blatantly treat LGBT* workers differently, or more severely, than others. This can make their working lives miserable, especially if they’re a Trans* person who is already struggling with the transition from male to female or vice versa.

Other areas of work that Mazzoni deal with are name and gender changes. For cases involving divorce, the process is quick and simple, but otherwise, due to a fear of fraud, it is complicated, and sometimes distressing. There is a requirement in Pennsylvania that the name change is published in two accepted publications, which can put those in the LGBT* community at risk of discrimination at the hands of an employer or even put them in danger. They may have to also testify to their past medical history in front of a courtroom, which can be an uncomfortable or embarrassing experience.

A recent report conducted by Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) highlighted some of the problems faced by low income LGBT* people living in New York City. 50% of those surveyed had experienced violence at one time or another, problems which were compounded by racism and were often much worse for transgender* people. 15% were victims of homophobia or transphobia during encounters with healthcare workers, which is startling considering how important health facilities are to transgender* people. 46% had problems applying for benefits through employer funded healthcare plans and welfare.

The list of problems went on, and it became difficult to read the litany of abuses that the LGBT* community suffer from in New York.

These are just some of the problems that those in the LGBT* community face in the US. The Supreme Court judgment in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage across all 50 states, is certainly a turning point for civil rights in the US, but there is still a long way to go.

The recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who was notoriously conservative, leaves an empty space on the Supreme Court bench, which many hope will be filled by a liberal minded judge.

This would swing the court in a 5-4 favour, and possibly pave the way for a generation of progress with regards LGBT* rights. There is hope for the future, and free legal aid clinics like the Mazzoni  Center go a long way to help those in need, but many are still suffering across the “land of the free.”

The Rainbow Isle

Back home, Ireland has taken huge strides with regards to LGBT* rights in the last 20 years and it is now considered one of the most liberal minded countries in the world in this area. Motley spoke to James Upton, Deputy President of UCC’s Student Union and former Chairperson/Auditor of the UCC LGBT* Society about the improvements Ireland has made.

“I do think we have a very liberal country. Our new policies like the Gender Recognition Act and Marriage Equality Act have highlighted the openness of the Irish people in accepting our LGBT* community. We have come a long way from 1993 when homosexuality was decriminalized and we have steadily made a remarkable journey with the introduction of the Employment Equality Act and the Civil Partnership Act.  Most recently, the Employment Equality Act was amended to remove section 37(a), which actively discriminated against people working in religious institutions. So this country has had a history of wealth when it comes to LGBT rights.”

The 34th Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann was approved by referendum on May 22nd 2015 and it permits marriage to be contracted by two persons without distinction as to their sex. It was a great leap forward for LGBT* rights in Ireland and the country became the first to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. The New York Times hailed the victory as placing Ireland at the “vanguard of social change.”

Coupled with this was the Gender Recognition Act 2015, which finally gave legal recognition for the Trans* community in Ireland. This ended a 20 year battle for Dr. Lydia Foy, a transgender woman, who had been trying to have her birth certificate reflect her gender identity after she had sex reassignment surgery in 1992. In 2007, the High Court found that the failure to allow her to obtain a new birth certificate was in breach of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. 1432464092-marriage-equality-referendum-passes-in-ireland_7687423

However, there are problems with the new legislation. For example, it only applies to those over the age of 18 and does not give recognition to intersex individuals (these are people who are born with bodies that don’t easily fit into traditional categories of male or female; often, intersex people undergo surgical procedures on their genitals as newborns, and might be raised with hormone therapy or other surgeries, something which the community is now vehemently trying to fight against).

As Mr. Upton explains, there is still changes that need to be made to the legislation to ensure that Ireland becomes more inclusive of minority groups.

“Of course, with any legislation surrounding minority rights, amendments are always required in order to further inclusivity of that minority in order to dissipate any form of prejudice or hate that may be prevalent in society towards the group. I do believe that people eighteen and under should have legal autonomy over the self-declaration of their genders. Perhaps one of the major negatives of the current bill is that it does not afford attention to non-binary or intersex individuals. Gender is a spectrum and is not confined to male or female and due to this there is an urgent need to amend the legislation to be inclusive of all peoples.”

Where ignorance is our master

The legislation in Ireland, while imperfect, is pioneering, and points to a bright future for the LGBT* community in this country. However, because we do not educate students on the needs that Trans* people have, or the problems that they face, it is still a taboo subject today. As Upton says:

“I don’t believe we have adequate training for students, staff or university service users across Ireland. This is something that perhaps will be addressed in new policy that the Students’ Union has developed titled the Gender Expression and Identity Policy. This will oversee the implementation of a diverse and well encompassing education to protect all students, staff, alumni and service users. It covers records, training, details and policy around social transition.”

For example, there are a number of terms which may need to be explained to someone without experience of Trans* rights. A transgender woman, is a Trans* person who identifies themselves to be a woman. The opposite is true for a transgender man. Gender identity is internal, and one’s gender may not necessarily be visible to others. Transgender is an adjective, not a noun.

Assigned sex refers to the sex that one was identified as at birth, which is mostly made on the basis of genitalia. The words ‘birth sex’ can be offensive because it can imply that a person’s gender identity changed since birth, which is not always true. Transsexual can be an offensive term because it implies that someone needs surgery to be transgender person, which is also not true. There are many more terms that students should know to help make their campuses a more welcoming and friendly place to the transgender* community. Education is key to this process.

“I do believe that UCC is a safe environment for students who identify as Trans*, but with all environments there is some negativity towards people and this comes from a lack of understanding. Again, it goes right back to the fact that training is required and this is something that has now been mandated by myself at class council, ensuring that all new class reps will be educated on the issues which are pertinent to Trans* people.”

Recently, Upton and UCC took the progressive step to have gender neutral restrooms placed around campus. Upton explained that he was approached by six students who identified as non-binary (those who do not identify themselves as either male or female), and that these students were walking home in order to relieve themselves.

To grow, we must first learn

I won’t lie. Before working at Mazzoni, I was certainly someone who would have balked at the idea of a gender neutral toilet and I feel that many around UCC’s campus would have felt the same way. But I can readily admit that the only reason I felt this way was due to my own ignorance on the subject matter.

I had to learn about the real life experiences that the transgender* community face on a daily basis before I could empathise with their situation. I had to learn about the food server who was asked by a customer was she in the right bathroom because she was not allowed to use the female one. I had to learn about the transgender woman who felt anxious about the nasty or bewildered looks the women in the bathroom gave her even though that is where she should have felt most comfortable. And I learned about the intersex person who could go in neither, because they felt unsafe or unwelcome. Then I empathised, and then I understood.

Education is needed to stop the stares, the giggles and the harsh words. We can introduce all the legislation that we like, but until we educate the student body about the needs and rights of the transgender* community, it will forever remain a taboo subject.

tumblr_nufvp9SIXc1t40a14o1_400At a primary and secondary school level, new rules have been implemented by the Department of Education which are aimed to help Trans* students in the areas of school uniform and changing rooms. This is a step in the right direction, because while there are no official figures for the percentage of the Irish population that is Trans*, internationally it is put at about 1%, which in an average 600-pupil second-level school, would amount to six students.

Beginning to educate those in primary and secondary education is a long term goal, and one that must be met to ensure that those in the transgender* community in Ireland can grow and learn without being tormented by bullying or isolation.

Education on transgender* rights at a university level can certainly be achieved more quickly and should be made a priority by students’ unions around the country. The first ever policy document in Irish third level education to promote and safeguard the rights of the transgender* community was launched by Trinity College in May last year. It aims to establish an open and inclusive atmosphere within the university, whereby the rights of Trans* staff and students are encouraged and made a top priority. As Mr. Upton mentioned, the UCCSU is planning to implement a similar policy.

There are a number of other ways that universities can ensure third level students get the education that is required to protect Trans* rights. At any orientation it should certainly be a priority to teach incoming students how their words or actions can affect the lives of a Trans* person. Secondly, staff should also be trained on how to help students who are transgender or gender non-conforming.

Students’ access to information concerning Trans* affirming mental health care resources and health care providers should be increased. Data collection and reporting should be a made a priority within universities so that depending on how much progress is being made, university officials can assess the situation and plan where to go next.

Finally, a provision should be added to every university related code of conduct that aims to ensure all student and employees are treating transgender and gender nonconforming students equally.

These are just some of the changes that can be made to help Irish students understand transgender* rights. In the last twenty years we have made huge strides and have developed into one of the pioneers of LGBT* rights in the 21st century.

However, progress can still be made, and there is no reason to slow our development now. As R. Buckminster Fuller once said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”