Read our Interview with Miles Rutendo Tanhira from TGEU (Transgender Europe), one of the four laureates from the Civic Pride Awards 2023.
Could you please explain the situation for trans rights in Europe?
It is a broad question so I’m going to divide it into three spheres. The first one that we’re looking at is at the legal level, the second one is at the political level and the third one is at the social level. So, I will expand on those three levels and then I will discuss achievements and empowerment.
At a legal level, we have seen a lot of progress in terms of trans rights in Europe focusing mostly on the legal gender recognition. Now, we have 41 countries in Europe that provide legal gender recognition to trans people and of this, 11 having legal gender recognition based on human rights and the human rights approach of self-determination, which also gives dignity and respect to trans people. We have also seen a gamut of legislative policies that are inclusive of trans people in terms of anti-discrimination, hate speech, anti-hate speech, and also related to sports, labour market and trans parenthood. Over the past years, we’ve also seen the first EU LGBTQI strategy 2022-2025 which commits the entire EU Commission to support trans rights and sets out a number of measures to ensure that LGBTQ, and particularly trans people and non-binary people, have their rights respected and enjoy their rights fully. In recent years, we’ve also seen quite a number of EU strategies that have been adopted, for instance, the gender equality strategy, disability, anti-racism strategies. They also include additional measures to, for example, alleviate poverty in the trans communities and to promote diversity inclusion, particularly of further marginalised communities such as people of colour, people with disabilities, youth and etcetera. Also, the major thing that happened in terms of trans healthcare is the introduction of the ICD 11, the International Classification of Diseases 11th revision (ICD). Moved from 10 to ICD 11 now, which removed the pathologization of trans identities, meaning that trans people are no longer seen as having a mental illness or needing a mental health assessment in order to access healthcare. So, countries like Malta, Spain, Belgium have made strides in providing comprehensive and accessible trans and gender feminine health care. Also, we’re seeing that most countries are beginning to ban practices based on gender identity through law, although we still have some countries that have this problematic law.
Socially, we’ve also seen an increase in visibility and representation. For instance, there are many trans people represented in the media, politics and cultural events, and there’s also an increase in trans stories and experiences being shared in the broader public spaces, both offline and online. This also speaks to the education and awareness campaigns that are happening, and efforts to raise public awareness on trans issues are also gaining momentum.
Politically, we are seeing political groups with a very focused diversityand inclusion approach, and they are willing to have trans people take leadership in their parties and governments. For example, in Germany, we are seeing trans people in positions of power in politics. In Belgium, the Netherlands and France too. So those are the key developments that we’ve seen in terms of the legislative realm.
Then, in terms of empowerment, we’re seeing collective organising spaces where grassroots organisations are coming up and supportive communities are emerging in different contexts despite the challenges or the volatility. Also, trans people are at the forefront of leading trans movements, which is something really inspiring, and there’s a collective consciousness to work intentionally and intersectionally in building movements. So not being single issue focused movements, working to centre the voices of the further marginalised within the movement, but also working to forge alliances with other strategic, intersectional movements. We’re also seeing trans leadership and visibility in activism that is really empowered and rising as trans people are slowly gaining the agency to reclaim their narratives and to reframe the trans discourses. We also see a lot of young people that are coming out early as trans and non-binary and are empowered to define and clarify their own politics, which is something really inspiring even for other generations.
Trans organisations are leading advocacy, and playing a role in strengthening the resilience, empowerment, and the well-being of trans people in Europe and globally. This is also supported in policy changes and awareness. TGEU has played a significant role in most of these achievements as a network of 200 members in Europe and Central Asia. We continue to advocate for the rights and well-being of trans people and also support our members with capacities and the resilience to sustainably organise their activism.
It is great to start the interview with a lot of positive achievements and it’s great to hear that we have done a lot of advancements on this front. However, what are some of the challenges that trans organisations and activists face in the context of backlash?
Despite the highlighted wins that I spoke about earlier, our communities continue to face a lot of escalating levels of transphobia, violence, discrimination, poor health outcomes, as well as economic hardships such as unemployment, housing and security.
There are also structural obstacles. In terms of healthcare, there is a lack of affordable and accessible quality trans-specific medical care, including medical support. For example, we’ve seen in the UK recently puberty blockers for young people have been banned. And in other countries, like Ireland, there are excruciating long queues for people waiting to have the first appointment with the specialist. So, you can wait as long as seven or more years just for the first appointment. Recently, Russia became the first country to completely ban medical transition for trans people, this happened a few weeks ago. This is a setting a bad precedent because we fear that other countries will also try to follow the same approach.
In terms of legal gender recognition (LGR), I spoke of successes and yet we still have challenges. Many countries still pathologize trans people and treat trans people as people with mental illness, and they enforce some inhumane harmful and discriminatory processes that people have to go through. Most of the challenges that trans people experience for a daily. In some countries, certain groups, such as asylum seekers, refugees, people with chronic illnesses, non-binary people, youth, do not have access to LGR. We’re also seeing right now we are also actually very worried about the trends that we are seeing in the countries against Hungary, Bulgaria, and Russia, where they are banning legal gender recognition in total.
There still remains a lot of labour market discrimination, resentment, and violence, whether you are working or looking for employment. This also contributes to trans people working in in formalised or criminalised economies such as sex work, which is also criminalised. This increases their precarity, especially for people who are refugees, irregular, and undocumented, and this creates a lack of economic agency and a situation of insecurity.
Politically, we are seeing a high increase of state instigated transphobia in countries, such as Russia and Hungary, that are notorious for taking a radical stance against trans people and in countries where their elections they are using the trans issues to either get election votes or to divert people’s attention from the real issues. They use trans as something to divide the community by creating an Us and Them. This has serious consequences on the lives of trans people living in those countries and the shrinking democratic spaces in general for civil society. So, imagine for other groups, which are the minority within the minority. There are a lot of injustices that are going on. Civil society in general, trans groups, and activists become really isolated because they are also sometimes even isolated from other movements or even others. For example, if there are some society groups that do not want to work with trans people, that perpetuates the cycle of violence within these countries.
Another key issue is the rising of far-right groups. They include an increasing anti-trans rhetoric, anti- migrant rhetoric, and anti-sex work rhetoric, which leads to policies that are really inhumane all over Europe, even at the EU level. What is most worrying is that some of these so-called democratic or progressive forces, they’re not speaking out, they are not supporting or showing up for trans people or other marginalised communities. Then, there is no one else to support trans people, and some actually see trans rights as a luxury, not as a fundamental right. That is very problematic.
Additionally, we see many trans people that face a lot of mental health challenges because they are considered outcasts, they are rejected by their families, they’re homeless, bullied in schools. They have no support, and they obviously don’t have employment, so it increases their insecurity. This is also the same for the marginalised groups and people of colour who are racialised and face intersectional discrimination. Also, sex workers transfeminine undocumented migrants, refugees, and other marginalised groups face heightened levels of racism, ableism, and misogyny. If you look at how this discrimination, violence, and poverty, mutually reinforce each other, they create this cycle, which means that those living in poverty are more likely to suffer human rights violations and those disproportionately affected by discrimination and violence are more likely to be living in poverty. Those experiencing intersectional discrimination are the ones who are most impacted. For example, the TGEU Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) statistics from 2021 revealed that 327 transgender people were murdered globally, and most of them were racialized transgender people. Of those, we recorded cases in Estonia and Switzerland for the first time, and both victims were migrant black trans women, so you see the intersectionalities there. 36% of the trans people that were reported murdered in Europe were migrants. You can see how this cycle is replicated, and economically we are also seeing the effects of COVID-19 were most felt by those who are further marginalised. It also revealed the existence of inequalities. It just made it clear that this has always existed, but it also heightened the precarity of those groups that are further marginalised, especially transgender people, refugees, migrations, sex workers, and people of colour.
At an individual level, in the economic marginalisation for trans people continues. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency FRA in 2019 revealed that 46% of trans people reported having troubles or challenges accessing ends meet. And as I said, COVID-19 only exacerbated this situation.
Organisationally, trans groups are overworked and underfunded, and they have to just try and survive without resources because it is a cause that is dear and it’s very difficult, especially in terms of unprecedented crisis, to continuously organise without being resourced.
From your experience in movement building, what makes a movement resilient?
That is a very good question. In my view, resilience is not simply about bouncing back or bouncing forward in the face of adversity. There’s always a temptation to think that resilience is linear. It is not linear. It is directional. And it can also be messy, right?
While resilience looks differently in different contexts and for different people, I think the core characteristics of resilient movement is the realisation that we need each other and that when there is no enemy within, the enemy outside cannot do us any harm and some of this will nurture and nourish our movements. This is rooted in three key things that I have seen.
The first one is collective organising, which is rooted in collective care. By that I mean movements that are led by compassion, compassionate leaders, who are willing to serve passionately and accept people the way that they are, and leadership that allows vulnerability into space. Within these spaces, tough conversations are welcome, and people are able to break down, to heal, to replenish, and to celebrate each other. So, these are spaces that accept people as they are and where it’s not so much about perfectionism or self-sacrifice mattered, or who did what more. It’s creating spaces that politicise rest so that they share that it’s OK to rest. This is so this for me is what makes a movement stick together in different stages.
The second thing is that resilience movements are really intentional about centering intersectionality and being inclusive in the way that they organise and make sure that there is equity. By that, I mean that they are reflective, they are willing to learn and relearn if they have to, and they forge strategic alliances with people that also share the same values as they do. They strive to create inclusive spaces where everyone’s voice is valued, especially those that are further marginalised within the movement and are not usually reinforced. This is very important. They don’t reinforce the same systems that they are fighting to dismantle. Resources are shared equitably and they stick together because they really are rooted in the same core values.
The third thing is that they have shared values, visions, and purpose so that even in times of adversity, there’s something to always go back to. People will experience turbulence, they will experience challenges, breakdowns, fights, conflicts, but because they have a shared purpose and collective vision, it keeps them together. They don’t sink into tunnel vision in the face of challenges. They take advantage of opportunities. So, where others are seeing chaos, they see connections. And for me, those are the three key important steps through resilient movements.
Given that this is also one of your areas of interest, do you have any strategies, tips, ideas, or actions that you’ve seen implemented that you find inspiring when it comes to collective care?
That is a good question. There are many strategies that I have seen and there’s always a strategy for everything, you have to pick what works for you. What works for one movement might not work for another, it’s trial and error and you have to see with your community what works and what doesn’t.
Firstly, just to note, care for me means general genuine inclusion and concern for the well-being and security of the people that are in the movement so that everyone can flourish, and it’s also about bedding rest within our wake and practise. That means that this cannot be done alone, you need your community. If you work in a community or an institute, it’s important to be organised. If I take two months rest, all the work is going to go to someone else, so how do we make sure that me taking rest does not overburden someone else, so this speaks to the strategies that I want to share with you.
The first one is institutionalising the well-being and collective rest. So, what do I mean by that? That rest needs to be included in our budgets. When we are creating budgets, we need to have already covered this. When we are creating work plans, we need to make sure it’s included. When we’re creating roles and responsibilities, we need to make sure that if someone needs two months off if, for example, they’re experiencing burnout, we need to plan that someone else is going to come to do the work. It is important to have a clear plan like this so that it doesn’t create a burden when someone has been out or someone has to leave because of an illness, you know?
Then the second thing is organising collective activities. So, it doesn’t have to be about money or going somewhere fancy. It can be as simple as sharing a meal, cooking together, doing gardening. I was reading about some community somewhere which had some sort of forest supermarket. It’s like a supermarket, but not really a supermarket because it’s in a forest. They started planting trees and plants and now the whole community can just to walk in that space and gather whatever foods they want without paying such things. Maybe if you have space together you can do collective gardening. It’s also something that is relaxing and something you can do together and with other communities. It’s a space where you can be with your emotions, your vulnerability, you can breakdown, cry, grave, heal, or celebrate together in that space because it’s allowed. Actually, there was one example from Zimbabwe. It was an organisation for survivors of domestic violence that had a crying room. So, if you go and are facing challenges, someone is always ready to join you. They don’t have to know why you’re crying. They’re also always happy to join you if you want support or if you want a crying partner, they will be there with you. So, this was a really radical idea, but it also I think it’s because of the work that they do with dealing with the trauma and some sometimes they listen to stories. Sometimes it’s people who have gone through stories who need that space.
There are also some rituals that people do to each other to celebrate each other and to really acknowledge each other’s journeys, no matter where you are, so they also allow for safe spaces for intergenerational dialogues without judgement. Between different group age groups there’s a tendency to judge each other like “ohh” during our days we were doing this, we were radical, now we are too radical or whatever. But there should be a space to really accept people as they are and their type of activism. This is a space for no judgement but for collective care, to also celebrate the big and small wins and each other of course.
How can civil society organisations that work on other issues support trans rights? and how can we build more public support to support them?
That is always a good question for us, especially because most of the times we work with our own growth, but we also really acknowledge the fact that we cannot work alone. We need movements, partners, and allies. This is what also makes a resilient movement. Some of the key things that we know is that to build allies, we need to have mutual respect in the space. So, it’s not always about coming to a space for existence, whether it’s trans people or any further marginalised group with an approach of. We want to to know or teach us or extractive, you know, always, like, come give a lecture about your rights, and then we don’t have a budget for it. We just want to know about trans. Issues in the next hour. So, it’s we don’t want to overburden already burdened people. So, I think having this in mind, before approaching groups, make sure that you have this mutual respect space. Also, to acknowledge that yes indeed trans people are the experts or any other further marginalised group that you want to bring into space. They are the experts. And yes, they need to be paid for that. Otherwise, it’s emotional labour to come and tell you about my life or share about my life in a magazine or whatever. You need to acknowledge that it is a job, it needs to be taken seriously, just like any investor coming to share about investing in the stock market. So, this is an important thing, to respect trans people or any further marginalised groups and their narratives.
The most important thing is to listen trans people and give them a space. Listen, listen, listen. Accept that you don’t know everything and that you need to be willing to learn and relearn if you have to and be reflective without being defensive. Because yes, people are sharing their stories, maybe they will be emotional, maybe there will be some tension, but it’s always good to have an open approach when you’re working with people from marginalised groups.
The second thing is also to make sure that you don’t tokenize people or patronise them. Let’s not just sit in the room and be like, oh, there’s no trans person. Oh my God, we need to find a trans person. That shows that they just want to tick a box. Inclusion in a space should be really genuine which should be based on mutual respect, mutual collaboration, and trust that terms people also expect, as I said, not just bring them on your board so that you can show that we had a transgender person during the meeting to count numbers, but really value them for what they bring to the space. Because a lot of the time, trans people will face testimonial injustice where no one really believes their story because it’s them. Unless a researcher comes and does research is about my life and then goes and talks about it. Then they will be listened to. So, I think we also need to really take the time to respect and don’t put people in situations where they will be exposed to more harm than they were already. Just because you really need this story to go live or this publication to be read worldwide, you have to think about what can happen in the event that there is a security threat for this person. This should be thought carefully because you might have an interesting story and an interesting angle so you choose to share the story and put their pictures on Instagram, Twitter, whatever. The next thing that happens is that they can have some groups hunting them down. How are you going to support them? This needs to be thought of before if you know that you’re going to expose them to harm. Maybe it’s better not to show their face. Maybe it’s better not to use their names. These are some of the strategies.
Also, it’s important to consider that when working with trans people that they are diverse, one trans person does not represent the story of every trans person. Trans people are diverse. You have to take different angles, especially those who face intersectional discrimination. You really have to include their narratives because we are seeing a trend. There this is one very rich, privileged trans influencer that is suddenly speaking for the whole community. But what they experience is totally different and they are far removed from the experiences of trans people that struggle everyday. So, whether it’s trans people or whether it’s whatever group, make sure that those marginalised within that group are also included in your communication, and the most important thing is to really create the group, involve them, collaborate, and let them lead.
We know that TGEU has done some research on how to effectively communicate on trans rights and how to build support around this. Can you share some tips that can help allies be better allies?
Yes, you are right, we have done this especially around the anti-gender movement. We have done our work to ensure that our allies are equipped to deal with creating narratives that they are encountering, especially the negative rhetoric of the anti-gender movement. The key tips revolve around the same ideas mentioned earlier. Really include trans people in your communication and this is the key strategy, you have to work with the target group, and not from the point of “we know everything already”. If the campaign that you want to do involves trans people, when you’re about to create the video or designing the campaign itself, involve the trans people here already and think about what is more feasible. Because maybe you’ve already said in your campaign that you’re producing a video about trans people in Russia. But how do you think how it’s going to impact people? So, if you work with them from the get-go, they will inform you what the best strategy is. Maybe a video is better or a publication. So, this is one strategy that is in our countering anti-gender movement because the anti-gender movement is well-resourced, is big, well-connected, and works on different levels. Indeed, there will be backlash for trans people. So, the most important thing, the key strategy in any case, is to involve trans people.
The second strategy, as I said before, is to be willing to learn, be reflective, and be a learning organisation. Because yes, people will come who have probably done a PhD in sexuality and gender, but you know, they are not trans, they have never lived that life so they should be willing to learn. As a researcher, when you go into a field, you know your positionality and what the issue is here. You have to be respectful of the people. This is the same language that we use in our because we work from a human rights-based approach and whether it’s trans people, marginalised women, the Roma, or people with mental challenges, or whatever group, it’s going to be the same approach. Involve them and make sure that they lead.
Sharing resources for collaboration and partnering is also one of the strategies, and we encourage this. If you are in a room and have to speak about trans issues, probably get in touch with TGEU, we can share resources since we have a lot of resources. We’re always happy and willing to share resources with you. Also, if you have the budget in your organisation, reach out to trans people and organisations, and think about doing the campaign together or do you have a campaign that we can put our signature on or endorse, then we can also sign a statement together. If you do data gathering and monitoring, include trans people in those monitoring work or if it’s from an intersectional approach, not only trans because if you’re working for human rights, really look for further marginalised groups because those are the groups that no one ever amplifies their stories or their narratives, so it’s important again to work from an intersectional approach and to empower communities holistically by providing them with a platform, tools, skills, and financial resources if you have them. Include people and empower them in your organisations. Don’t just go there to say now I have a research question, trans people come. Really focus on intersectionality and accessibility.
Another thing is that if we have a meeting, put your pronouns because it empowers everyone in the room to feel empowered to put theirs. Because if I come in in a zoom room where people are just he or she and I’m non-binary, it’s going to be difficult for me to contribute because people will be calling me with a pronoun that I probably don’t like, so it’s just empowering simple things. Put your pronoun not because you have to, but because you want to support those who cannot do it directly. By doing this simple thing, you create these safer spaces.
What are your hopes and visions for a better world and future?
Oh yes, that is very good question and a really important one. I have to think, I want to say so many things because I want so many things in the world to make it a better world, but then of course I have to narrow it down.
I also had to really create this vision based on my positionality as a nonviolent activist, as a black person, as a person with a refugee background, and as a trans man. I have to think of all these things when I want to think of a world that I want, think of all the intersectionalities that I have, my activism and so many other things. So, I have to really think, do I just want what is good for trans people because what about black people? What about refugees? What about people from Africa? I want to think for all of them. I have to think broadly and narrow it down at the same time.
For me, I hope for a world where we all of us as humans and nature coexist in peace, with mutual respect and love. And that is a world where we can freely dream, love, and thrive, regardless of our identities or circumstances that we are born into.
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