UN report recognizes transgender people, freaks out binary gender defenders

The UN recently released a report on “Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” by Special Rapporteur Martin Scheinin that focuses on gender. The report (which can be accessed in pdf form here) is mostly about human rights abuses experienced by “women,” by which it seems the author means cis women. However, it takes a broad approach to gender, looking at intersections of race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity:

Gender is not synonymous with women but rather encompasses the social constructions that underlie how women’s and men’s roles, functions and responsibilities, including in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, are defined and understood. This report will therefore identify the gendered impact of counter-terrorism measures both on women and men, as well as the rights of persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. As a social construct, gender is also informed by, and intersects with, various other means by which roles, functions and responsibilities are perceived and practiced, such as race, ethnicity, culture, religion and class. Consequently, gender is not static; it is changeable over time and across contexts.Understanding gender as a social and shifting construct rather
than as a biological and fixed category is important because it helps to identify the complex and inter-related gender-based human rights violations caused by counterterrorism measures; to understand the underlying causes of these violations; and to design strategies for countering terrorism that are truly non-discriminatory and inclusive of all actors.

The report includes some discussion of how security measures negatively impact transgender folks:

Counter-terrorism measures disproportionately affect women and transgender asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants in specific ways. For example, enhanced immigration controls that focus attention on male bombers who may be dressing as females to avoid scrutiny make transgender persons susceptible to increased harassment and suspicion. Similarly, counter-terrorism measures that involve increased travel document security, such as stricter procedures for issuing, changing and verifying identity documents, risk unduly penalizing transgender persons whose personal appearance and data are subject to change.

I have written previously about the dangers of travel document security measures for trans folks. I am very happy to see the UN acknowledging this reality.


Unsurprisingly, conservative attacks on this report have focused on the inclusion of trans issues despite the fact that they make up a small fraction of the content. The primary conservative arguments are that the UN is trying to redefine gender (as opposed to acknowledging how it functions) and over-valuing the human rights of people who don’t matter (women, gay, trans, and intersex folks, but it’s more sensationalist to focus on trans folks than cis women). Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy, told the conservative CNS News:

“It strikes me as a parody of U.N. political correctness and sexual universality, and it’s just hard for me to believe that anybody thinks that these notions actually should trump security concerns – as I think it’s only too clear that … the people who are trying to blow us up have absolutely no use for any of these sexual proclivities.”

Huh? Yes, how inappropriate that counter-terrorism measures, which are pitched to “us” as being about defending rights and freedoms, should be conducted in a way that avoids human rights violations. I guess human rights don’t apply for people whose identities Gaffney considers “sexual proclivities.”
Steven Groves, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNS News:

“Instead of the Human Rights Council focusing how the human rights of people who are blown apart by terrorists impact people’s human rights they created a new office for someone to go and make sure that the terrorists’ human rights, and the human rights of almost everyone else – except for the victims of terrorism – are being protected, and so that is (Scheinin’s) mission.”

So you’re saying folks with less relative power and privilege along gender lines can’t be killed in terrorist attacks, can’t be the victims of terrorism, and are probably terrorists? Are only the most privileged cis men the victims of terrorism?
Fox News, classy as ever, even managed to include snark at the notion that victims and survivors of sex trafficking might be stigmatized with their snark about transgender and intersex folks.
Populations that are already the most vulnerable are easily caught in the crossfire when there is an escalation of violence and policing. Despite conservative attempts to stir up controversy I am glad to see the UN focus on this issue through a gender lens.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • daoist

    Obviously it’s important to examine how any decision impacts all sorts of people. But the question remains: What do we do?
    In the case of male terrorists dressing as females to avoid scrutiny at checkpoints, how can we search for them while maintaining the personal dignity of trans (not sure if I have the terms right, please just try to follow along) individuals?
    If we simply refuse to search anyone who presents as a woman, we’ve just created an ironclad way for men to smuggle weapons and bombs. That can’t be the answer.

  • Vassae

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately on why conservatives can be so protective of individualism in the face of what’s best for a majority, and yet completely reverse their numerical logic when it deals with people who are the victims of the “majority.” I would love to come to a different conclusion, but the only way I can make sense of it is selfishness. Somehow, the government taking any amount of money from them is less okay than the government taking all of my dignity and sense of safety, simply because the conservative media refuses to relate. It’s not “selfish” for them to oppose healthcare reform that benefits 99% of the population and harms that last 1%, but somehow measures that don’t affect 98% of the population, while making my 1%’s life a bit more liveable, are “ridiculous” because the remaining 1%’s life must be in danger from people like me. You know, because somehow, the people who would beat me up in a dark alley because of my gender identity, find it worrisome to spend 3 hours on a plane with “a man in a dress.”

  • CBrachy

    Of course there is a middle ground between refusing to search anyone who presents as a woman, and subjecting anyone whose gender presentation is inconsistent with identity documents to more invasive scrutiny. With the simple reality that there are far more transgendered people in the world than deceptive cross-dressing terrorists, it shouldn’t be a big deal to handle this with a bit more sensitivity.

  • cattrack2

    I think this is mostly a matter of common decency & respect. The airlines & TSA could benefit from some education, and information such as this.
    I think anytime there’s a mismatch between identification & presentation there’s likely to be added scrutiny. From personal experience, I know the TSA actually has a process for people without any identification at all, however. While its inconvenient if you’re late for your flight, its not terribly invasive. A bit more waving with the handheld metal detector is all.