Human dignity, at home and abroad [Commentary]

After Maryland passed a bill banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity last month, my job became a little easier.

As a human rights activist, I work to secure progress in protecting human dignity, measured by civil and political rights. Among the people often specifically targeted for abuse are lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons. And of all those under the LGBTI banner, the "T" — or transgender population — is frequently the most vulnerable to vicious attacks, stigmatization, humiliation and abuse.


With them in mind, Maryland's new law — which joins laws in 17 other states and the District of Columbia protecting the rights of transgender individuals from being discriminated against in terms of access to housing and jobs along with other forms of exclusion — is especially important to me for two reasons:

First, I'm openly transgender myself.

And second, before Maryland passed its bill March 27, who was I to work for the human rights of transgender persons in countries like Russia, Uganda, Jamaica, or El Salvador when my own state had not recognized our human rights?

The plight of transgender persons in developing or repressive countries is as poorly understood by the general public as the meaning of "transgender" itself. Put simply, nearly all transgender persons know from an early age with unwavering clarity that the gender that they were labeled with at birth was wrong, despite the sexual characteristics of the body that they occupy. Some of us born in a boy's body are female; others born in a girl's body are male. For some of us, even the categories of male of female represent an unworkable set of choices. This is all very awkward for those in authority.

It's awkward for us too. Having a brain in the wrong body is a tough concept to explain, especially since such claims for recognition of "authentic" gender identity almost always get conflated with the sexual orientation issues of lesbians, bisexuals and gay persons. We all get called "gay," and in more than 78 countries that label can lead to detention, arrest or worse. Transgender persons around the world are demanding to be understood and respected on their own terms, to have their own unique needs and priorities addressed, and to be respected with the basic dignity that should be the birthright of everyone.

The available choices for transgender people in most countries are tragically few. If a transgender person feels the usual compulsion to transition from the birth-assigned gender to his or her authentic gender, nearly everyone will balk. Religious leaders will denounce such notions as sinful, families will disown the person, development experts will dismiss gender transitions as wasteful and "cosmetic." Governments will also refuse to recognize demands for name and gender-marker changes, leaving transgender people with no official identity documents that fit who they are. No legal documents often means no jobs, leases or passports.

Health needs are particularly troubling. Unsupervised hormone replacement therapy will frequently lead to dire outcomes. Gender confirming surgeries remain out of reach for nearly all such persons, leaving them scant hope of ever being wholly themselves. Ignoring perhaps the most basic human rights claim of all — to be oneself — can be a death sentence, as no other demographic anywhere has a higher attempted suicide rate than transgender persons.

In a world replete with human rights abuses affecting vast numbers of people, the curious and awkward misfortunes of those with mismatched bodies — transgender folk — may seem insignificant. But people have a fundamental right to be themselves, even if that means transgressing a barrier between the sexes that some think should be impassable. When we recognize that, we make a powerful statement that human dignity matters.

Chloe Schwenke is vice president for global programs at Freedom House. She previously served the Obama administration as the first transgender political appointee in the foreign affairs agencies of government, as a senior advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Her email is

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