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Transgender stars like Caitlyn Jenner have helped foster acceptance, but the path to civil rights for transgender people will be long and arduous.

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Marchers at the Trans March in Albuquerque, N.M., 29 May 2014. (AP Photo/Craig Fritz, File)

Caitlyn Jenner has grabbed headlines worldwide with her bold transition from male Olympic medalist and reality TV personality to Vanity Fair cover girl and transgender role model.

Laverne Cox, transgender star of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” and several other celebrities have also helped foster acceptance of transgender people in the United States.

Still, it would be naive to imagine that these pioneering examples have influenced the whole world.

Despite the joy many transgender Americans express at this latest wave of publicity, even in the United States discrimination and violence continue to mar the lives of transgender people.

The Gap Report 2014, issued by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, defines a transgender person as one who “does not identify with the gender assigned at birth.”

The report estimates that transgender people constitute up to 1.1 percent of reproductive-age adults worldwide, and notes that “many transgender people experience social exclusion and marginalization because of the way in which they express gender identity.”

They face harrowing problems: “Globally, an estimated 19 percent of transgender women are living with HIV. Transgender women are 49 times more likely to acquire HIV than all adults of reproductive age.”

Employment looms large for transgender people.

During the early years of the AIDS crisis, I worked as a reporter in San Francisco. I now write for Amida Care, a nonprofit organization providing health care to those living with HIV/AIDS, among others. Transgender people work on staff and make up at least 7 percent of our membership.

Jenner’s announcement was cause for celebration among staff: soon after, a transgender colleague elatedly offered to share her life story with me.

As the Gap Report acknowledges, employment issues loom large among the forms of discrimination suffered by transgender people in the United States and overseas. The report cites a U.S. survey in which 97 percent of respondents experienced “mistreatment, harassment and discrimination while working.”

The same survey was cited in a July 9th New York Times editorial that pointed out that unemployment rates for transgender people are twice the national average, even though their educational levels are higher than the general population.

Some 15 percent earn less than 10,000 annually — “a rate of extreme poverty four times higher than the [U.S.] national average.” Consequently, a disproportionately high number of transgender people turn to sex work, heightening their vulnerability to HIV infection and violence.

Many communities remain silent about violence.

Reliable data is hard to come by, since violent assaults and homicides go under-reported across large areas of the world — often due to cultural and religious factors.

In a 2012 National Public Radio interview, psychologist Dr. Graciela Balestra said that transgender people in her native Argentina have an average life expectancy of 30-32 years. According to the website www.blacklivesmatter.com, the average life span of African-American transgender women is 35 years.

Referenced in the UN’S Gap Report, the Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMMP) — an international initiative to track violent deaths of transgender people worldwide – mapped 1,731 homicides globally between January 2008 and December 31, 2014.

Roughly 80 percent occurred in Latin America, where communities are vocal about reporting these killings. Yet TMMP could source information from Russia and China on only two such homicides each.

Just three African nations, Algeria, Uganda, and South Africa, reported any such homicides.

There have, however, been bright spots in the struggle for transgender equality in recent years. According to a recent World Health Organization policy brief entitled “Transgender Rights and HIV”:

  • Last year in Nepal, the Supreme Court granted basic citizenship rights to “third-gender” people (who identify as neither male or female) — including the lifting of penalties against cross-dressing;
  • In Uruguay, a 2009 law gave those over age 18 the right to change their gender and legal name;
  • Argentina’s Senate passed a Gender Identity Law in 2012 by which transgender people got the right to alter birth certificates, national ID cards and passports without obtaining medical diagnoses. This law also granted access to gender-affirming medical procedures under public and private healthcare plans.

Despite a warm reception for Jenner and several other media darlings, the United States lags behind at least seven other nations — including culturally conservative Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – in granting legal status to citizens who identify as a third gender.

Here and in many other places around the world, the path to civil rights for transgender people may be long and arduous.


Susan Ruel has worked as an editor on the international desks of the Associated Press and United Press International, and reported for UPI from Shanghai, San Francisco and Washington. A former journalism professor, she co-authored two French books on U.S. media history. A Fulbright scholar in West Africa, she has served as an editorial consultant for the United Nations in New York and Nigeria, and has reported from Latin America, North Africa and other points for newspapers and magazines.

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