Kyrgyzstan: These Everyday Humiliations

October 6, 2008

Via Lisa comes this link to a distressing Reuters news item about a Human Rights Watch report, These Everyday Humiliations: Violence Against Lesbians, Bisexual Women, and Transgender Men in Kyrgyzstan.

(The report itself, a 48-page document, was previously archived at the UNHCR website, but the original link I posted appears now to be defunct. So here’s a link to a copy stored locally)

It’s hard not to notice that trans women aren’t even mentioned in the title. And, as far as I can tell, the content of the report contains only occasional references to ‘transgender people’ – whereas ‘transgender men’ are referred to frequently. But not once do I see the term ‘transgender women’.

This – at best – hesitancy towards noting (and, at worst, erasure of) the existence of trans women by an organisation concerned with human rights is deeply, deeply troubling. Even the report’s conclusions continue with the same air of uncertainty and confusion, time after time:

VI. Recommendations

The most common refrain from the lesbians, bisexual women, women who have sex with women, and transgender men that Human Rights Watch spoke with for this report was the simplest: acknowledge that we exist. Such an acknowledgement means they are bearers of rights, and that their sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be used to deny those rights or subject them to violence or discrimination. […]

To the Government of Kyrgyzstan

Educate law enforcement and the judiciary about lesbians and transgender men

[…]

Improve direct services for lesbians and transgender men:

  • Establish new and financially support existing short-term crisis response centers and long-term shelters that can provide targeted assistance to lesbians and transgender men, and their minor children, either with other victims of violence or in independent facilities.[…]

To International Financial Institutions

  • The World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development should include gender-based violence and discrimination against lesbians and transgender men among the issues raised in their country strategies for Kyrgyzstan, and encourage the Kyrgyz authorities to take adequate measures to address them.

[…]

To the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

  • Include human rights and, specifically, discrimination and violence against lesbians and transgender men—including domestic violence—among the components of the OSCE Police Assistance Program for Kyrgyzstan. […]

[…]

To the European Union

  • […] Raise the issue of violence and discrimination against lesbians and transgender men in meetings with senior Kyrgyz government officials. […]

To the United States Government

  • […] Raise the issue of gender-based violence, including violence and discrimination against lesbians and transgender men, in meetings with senior Kyrgyz government officials. […]

The human rights breaches against lesbians, bisexual women and transgender men as described in this document are horrific enough, but I really don’t understand why the existence of trans women is so completely unreported.

It’s hard to believe that HRW are unaware of the existence of trans women; it’s equally hard to believe that HRW doesn’t understand the terminology.

But whatever the reasoning behind this omission, the result is the same: if trans women are excluded from this process, then they cannot benefit from any future legislative reforms and protections in the same way that lesbians, bisexual women and trans men will.

————

ETA, 10 October: You know how, sometimes, a thing just bugs you and all you want is a straight answer, so you can put your mind at rest? That’s how I felt about the apparent erasure of trans women from this report.

So, on 6 October, immediately after I posted this piece, I dug around and tracked down the contact details for Boris Dittrich, the Advocacy Director of HRW’s LGBT Rights Program. And I emailed him.

Dear Boris Dittrich

Having been looking through the newly published HRW report, “These Everyday Humiliations: Violence Against Lesbians, Bisexual Women, and Transgender Men in Kyrgyzstan” (http://hrw.org/reports/2008/kyrgyzstan1008/), I am confused by the terminology used.

I write to ask if you would please clarify how HRW defines the term transgender men.

I am a trans (transsexual) woman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans_woman) and my understanding of the terms this report uses would seem to exclude trans women in Kyrgyzstan. If HRW and I are working to similar definitions, then I have to say that I find the omission of trans women from the report to be a very distressing oversight. I cannot imagine any circumstance where I would wish to be identified as a transgender man.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Helen G

And today I received his reply.

Dear Helen,

For our report on Kyrgyzstan we relied on information and contacts, provided by our colleagues from the Kyrgyz LGBT organization Labrys. They could not find trans women who were willing to give testimony. That’s why the report is like it is.

Thanks for reading our report.

Boris O. Dittrich

So now I have my answer, and I can draw only one conclusion: HRW couldn’t find any trans women willing to say they were victims of violence, therefore they can’t be victims of violence (because they don’t exist), and are then – obviously – not worth mentioning as being victims of violence.

It seems to me that this report and Boris Dittrich’s response not only denies the existence of trans women but, if adopted by the Government of Kyrgyzstan, will also effectively legitimise future incidences of violence (up to and including murder) against any and all Kyrgyz trans women, simply for being trans women – for existing.

And saying that Labrys (the Kyrgyz LGBT organization) “could not find trans women who were willing to give testimony” is a risible attempt by HRW to absolve itself of the terrible responsibility that will be its legacy in Kyrgyzstan. HRW’s stony indifference to the suffering of Kyrgyz trans women is breathtakingly hard-faced and, in my opinion, a huge breach of the human rights it professes to care about. Words fail me at this point.

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