By Chloe Schwenke
As the many important conversations begin at this year’s meetings at the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York, I cannot help but reflect that there is no comfort in being on the bottom of society’s ranking. How can we even begin the conversation about human flourishing and economic empowerment when some persons are excluded entirely? How can we speak of universal dignity as the foundation of our values when the dignity of a small minority — lesbians, bisexual and transgender (LBT) women — is conveniently forgotten, or dismissed as statistically insignificant? And we have so little data about “those people”; as far as public policy is concerned those who have not been described within the parameters of research generally have no real presence at all.
Yet here I am.
Accurately capturing the lives of any marginalized minority begins with a reality check, by acknowledging that to a considerable extent every society structures its social order, power distribution and even each individual’s sense of their own worth on the basis of economic factors. Economic status matters, made manifest through wealth and its distribution, participation in governance and influence, access to technology and a very wide range of opportunities, achieving – through savings, land ownership and investments – some degree of security from life’s unexpected shocks, and having the prospect of a secure retirement when one is elderly and frail.
It all must be fair to work.
Fairness is obligatory if we are all to succeed and have meaningful lives, but fairness is a thin and aspirational concept at best. Everywhere, systems of discrimination are deeply engrained, many people are structurally excluded from a reasonable and equitable chance, and attempts to create inclusive, fair, just, collaborative and caring societies remain elusive. Many people are penalized by society’s prevailing values and cultural norms, which monetize certain activities yet ignore other activities that are every bit as essential (and often more essential) to human flourishing. Just ask any mother how fair the world is, when her untold hours of unpaid work caring for her children, family, and community are simply expected while all around her she sees others – mostly men – earning a monetized income, status, influence and power.
It’s far from fair, yet it can be worse for transgender women.
The world of patriarchy relegates women and girls to certain roles, which – if not fairly compensated monetarily – at least are roles that are held in considerable esteem. Societies generally honor mothers and grandmothers, and (with more qualifications) wives and daughters. Feminists everywhere now struggle to revise and expand those roles within the intersecting realities of their respective cultures, while still retaining the dignity and meaning attached to the roles and the women and girls who fill them.
As this important struggle continues, it is worth recognizing that certain people remain absent entirely, or intentionally excluded. Among the world of women and girls, those who are lesbian or bisexual are frequently stigmatized, shunned or even criminalized, and anecdotal evidence indicates high rates of violence directed at them. Anecdotal evidence is often all we have; there has been very little research done about the lived experiences of lesbians and bisexual women. Even anecdotal evidence is scarce, as in most countries the voices of lesbian and bisexual women are faint – women who happen to be lesbian or bisexual are shamed and set apart in their imposed silence. How do we begin to have the conversation about women’s empowerment when we are considering the realities faced by lesbians or bisexual women? Often we simply choose not to begin that conversation; the vast majority of literature on women’s empowerment simply ignores homosexuality or bisexuality entirely.
But where lesbians or bisexual women’s voices are faint, transgender people are effectively silent. Transgender people’s priorities are not about their sexual orientation (which often is not “gay”), but about their fundamental identity. Globally that identity is not recognized by most jurisdictions, and by being deemed not to legally exist, the very idea of a policy discussion about the empowerment of such transgender women falls apart before it begins. Around the world only a very few such women – and I am one of those fortunate few – are able to have our names and authentic gender legally recognized in our identity documents. Without such documents, there are no prospects of participation in the formal economy, in any democratic processes or in accessing basic services that everyone else takes for granted. The empowerment prospects for people whom society formally misgenders are vanishingly few.
What is the way forward? First, we all must restate our commitment to the foundational concept of universal human dignity, upon which any notion of social inclusion must rest. Only with that commitment does the search for those who have fallen through the cracks make sense. Yet the search requires action, and action requires an acknowledgement that a problem exists. That may be easier said than done: transgender women, lesbians and bisexual women, have found their way onto the “lists” of only a few of the institutions whose recognition opens the door to research funding. The World Bank is making some early steps in this direction, with the appointment of a new Senior Coordinator for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, but the budget that he needs to fulfill his role remains notional for the present. The UNDP has spent some money and carried out some excellent baseline work with sexual minorities (particularly in Asia), and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been outspoken in all the right ways.
Sadly however UN Women is institutionally reticent to truly engage on the plight of LBT persons. For example, UN Women now lags behind international treaties like CEDAW and other UN agencies in its commitment to work on sexual orientation, gender identity/expression and sex characteristics. USAID and the U.S. State Department began to make some progress in this direction under President Obama, but the prospects for that to continue under the current administration are negligible. The pattern of support from other bilaterals is mixed, and outside of funding related to HIV/AIDS there is very little funding available. Only the philanthropic foundations are engaged, yet their focus is more on advocacy than on gathering essential baseline data on the lived realities of sexual minorities.
If universal dignity is to mean what it must, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. No one must be allowed to fall through the cracks. While we lack the resources to attend to the empowerment needs of all women and girls, we must start by becoming knowledgeable about those women and girls who appear to be most vulnerable and most in need. Through research, we need to learn about the realities experienced by LBT women and girls, and we must open the policy dialogue to their direct participation.