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Trans Rights 101: Definition, Examples, Significance

Trans rights refer to human rights and protections for transgender individuals and the trans community at large. As part of the LGBTQ+ community, trans people have fought for their rights for years, but in recent times, there have been more direct threats against trans and gender nonconforming people. In this article, we’ll define important terms, provide examples of trans rights, and explain the significance of trans rights in our world today.

The transgender rights movement calls for full legal protections for trans people and an end to discrimination and violence. Examples of trans rights include identification documents, access to public bathrooms, inclusion in education, healthcare access, and the right to life and safety.

What does “transgender” mean?

To understand trans rights, we must first understand what it means to be trans. Here are the most important terms to know:

  • Sex: Sex refers to a person’s physical and biological characteristics. The most common are male and female, but there are variations. People born with a combination of male and female biological traits are intersex.
  • Gender identity: Gender identity is a person’s internal knowledge of their gender. Everyone has a gender identity.
  • Cisgender: Cisgender people are people whose gender identity aligns with the gender/sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Transgender: Transgender people identify with a gender identity that’s different from what they were assigned at birth.
  • Gender expression: Gender expression is how a person chooses to present their gender. This includes behavior, clothes, voice, hairstyle, and more.

The term “transgender” was coined in the 1970s, but trans people have always existed. Concepts of gender haven’t always been so binary, either. In Ancient Greece, there were three genders, while around 150 pre-colonial Native American tribes recognized third genders, too. Science also recognizes the diversity of both sex and gender. Why does this matter? When discussing trans rights, it’s important to understand that gender diversity and being trans are not new concepts.

What are five examples of trans rights?

Trans rights are human rights. Here are five rights that are vital to the trans rights movement:

Identification documents

When trans people want to change the gender on their identification documents (like their passports and driver’s licenses), the process can be very complicated. According to the Transgender Law Center, the different agencies that issue documents and keep records are separate. No single government agency coordinates everything, and depending on where you live, the process can be very different. It can also be very expensive, which excludes anyone without enough funds from obtaining basic documents that confirm their gender identity.

The biggest barrier, however, is requiring proof of surgery. For decades, most agencies required people to prove they had gender-affirming surgery. Activists and experts have criticized this policy for years, saying it creates an unfair burden for most trans people. They’ve also criticized requirements that demand a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Many places are removing medical barriers and making it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. In 2022, Scotland’s parliament approved reforms that removed the need for a medical diagnosis.

Public bathroom access

Public bathrooms have been a battleground for trans rights for years, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2016, North Carolina approved a bill requiring trans people to use the bathroom of their birth sex (the law was soon repealed), but in the last few years, the battle has escalated. Multiple states in the US have now enacted versions of bathroom bills, claiming that if trans people are allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity, it puts others at risk for assault. In 2018, a UCLA study found no evidence of this. In fact, trans and gender nonconforming people are the ones who face threats and violence.

Why are public bathrooms such a big deal in the fight for trans rights? Having a safe place to use the restroom is a basic right, but it also symbolizes a larger fight for access to all public spaces. If trans people are not safe in bathrooms, it sends a clear message that they do not belong and are not welcome as they are. Bathroom bills are based on fear-mongering, not facts, and fighting for the right to public spaces and safety is always important.

Inclusion in education

Schools should be a safe, welcoming place for everyone, including teachers and students. As a statement on OHCHR reads, the bullying, harassment, and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people in educational institutions is a worldwide problem. Things like discriminatory education policies, regulations, and curricula are forms of violence, as well. Trans students face specific discrimination through things like gendered uniforms, bathroom policies, and misgendering.

In places like the United States, inclusion in education is under attack. In the 2021-2022 legislative session, at least 30 bills targeted LGBTQ+ students by limiting gender pronouns, restricting curriculum, and banning books. The situation is especially dire in Florida. In one district, trans employees can no longer use bathrooms that align with their gender identity or even share their preferred pronouns. This type of discrimination creates a hostile environment for students and staff, increases safety risks, and does all students a huge disservice.

Healthcare access

Healthcare is a human right, but trans people face increased barriers and risks when trying to obtain both gender-affirming care and the medical care everyone needs. According to Yale Medicine, many healthcare providers don’t even know what being trans means. Despite being medical professionals in charge of a patient’s well-being, doctors, nurses, and other providers often misgender trans patients, dismiss valid concerns, spread misinformation, or outright refuse to treat trans people. The healthcare environment can also be especially awkward or frightening for trans patients as they try to get care associated with their sex, and not their gender identity. As an example, trans men may still need to get gynecological care.

Because healthcare can be so difficult to get, trans people face higher risks for issues like high blood pressure, stroke, and so on. According to the Mayo Clinic, discrimination and stress also increase a person’s risk for mental health problems, physical and sexual violence, and emotional and psychological abuse. Trans rights activists advocate for a more informed medical community, easier access to gender-affirming care, and better research into health issues affecting trans people.

The right to life and safety

The right to life and safety is one of the most basic human rights, but it’s often threatened if you’re a trans person. Every year, the media reports on murders, assaults, and other forms of violence against trans people, often simply because they are trans. There are no doubt many other stories that are never reported on. These threats to life and safety can keep people from coming out as trans and expressing themselves, which leads to increased risks for depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles.

According to an Everytown for Gun Safety report, the number of murders of trans people (in the US) almost doubled between 2017 and 2021. Most were killed by firearms, while Black transgender women were killed at a disproportionate rate. The numbers aren’t much better globally. According to Human Rights Watch, at least nine countries have laws that criminalize forms of gender expression and target trans and gender nonconforming people. In places like this, trans people are fighting just for the right to exist.

Why are trans rights significant?

Trans rights matter because human rights matter. Trans people are owed every right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the right to life, the right to free expression, the right to healthcare, the right to education, and beyond. Trans rights are also essential because trans people represent such a small percentage of the global population. As a minoritized group, they’ve always faced increased threats to all their rights, but attacks have been escalating in recent years. The reasons why are complex, but sky-high levels of misinformation and bigotry are muddying the waters and painting the trans rights movements as a threat to safety and society. In the face of such ferocious attacks, support of trans people and trans rights is more important now than ever. One way to support trans people is to educate yourself about LGBTQ+ rights.

Because trans people represent such a small percentage of the population, some wonder whether it’s more important to focus on the rights of other groups first. While abandoning a minoritized group is never moral, it also doesn’t make sense. Whenever the rights of one group are threatened, the rights of all groups are threatened. As an example, fear-mongering about trans people in bathrooms has led to reports of discrimination against anyone who doesn’t “look” cisgender. Another reason is the intersectional nature of trans rights. The trans rights movement is also a movement for racial equality, gender equality, labor rights, children’s rights, and more, so supporting trans rights supports a host of other rights. Lastly, the small size of a group is actually a good reason to stand up for their rights. Small groups tend to be targeted more because their oppressors believe no one will care. People who care about justice and human rights can prove the oppressors wrong.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.

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