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Taking trans activism to newer heights

OutrageMag.com chats with trans activist Maria Sundin who noted how these are “exciting times” when transgender people in Asia and the Pacific are starting to congregate to push for their rights.

Localizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer ad intersex (LGBTQI) discourses is needed. This is because “if the belief that the discourses are Western-dominated and/or dictated, you nourish the concept that being LGBT is a Western export. And this is BS.”

So said trans activist Maria Sundin – Member of the Board of RFSL – The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights – as she noted these are “exciting times” when transgender people in Asia and the Pacific are starting to congregate to push for their rights. “There is the emergence of a movement.”

And for Maria, this is important because of the issues that continue to face trans people.

There is, for one, the (persisting) notion of transgenderism as a disorder – something that was highlighted (again) in December 2012, when the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) ratified the Diagnostic Standards Manual (DSM) 5, considered as the “psychiatrists’ bible,” that de-classified trans persons among the mentally ill.

Trans depathologization remains important because:

as long as the public thinks of transsexuality as mental illness, it provides seeming justification for creating roadblocks, denying employment, denying housing, blocking access to services, blocking access to health care funding, and more.”

For Maria, self-determination is what is needed to be pushed.

The difference between these two ways of thinking – that is, pathology versus identity – is said to be “simple but critical”.

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In the pathology model, being trans (having an internal sense of gendered self that is fully or partially at odds with our sex assigned at birth) is seen as a birth defect, a mental illness, or another kind of medical condition. By contrast, the identity model suggests that being trans is a part of who some people are. It isn’t something that needs a medical diagnosis, because there’s nothing wrong with being trans. There are many parts of our identity that we don’t talk about medically, like our personalities, our interests, and our sexual orientations.”

In 2011, Maria wrote:

Let all trans and gender variant people have the right to self determination and right to change legal gender is they so wish. Let all trans and gender variant human beings have access to health care, both general and trans specific health care without bias and restrictions. Let all trans and gender variant kids grow up in peace and harmony and put an end to bullying, heteronormativity, harassment and violence.  Let’s stop the pathologization of trans lives and identities and finally remove gender identity from the psychiatric manuals. Let’s stop gender conforming treatment and reparative therapies of trans and gender variant children once and for all.

For Maria, there is also a need to start segregating trans people’s issues – including in the overarching LGBT acronym, and from the MSM (or men who have sex with men) umbrella term. For the former, there are issues very specific to trans people that are not as emphasized; while, for the latter, a common practice is to consider trans people – particularly male-to-female trans people – as MSM, and this fails (yet again) to consider the self determination of trans people.

In fact, “even within the trans movement, having segregate groups for transmen and transwomen is important,” Maria said. Simply, this has to do with proper representation.

Particularly when touching on HIV, the segregation is important. Because transwomen are still considered under MSM in many territories, there remain few segregated data that highlight how destructive HIV has been on this population. As it is, though, “available studies show that the rates are higher particularly among transwomen. The global burden of HIV among transwomen remains higher,” Maria said. “Unfortunately, even if this is the case, not as much attention is being given.”

The lack of emphasis is not helpful to trans people, with many choosing to ignore the problem. So much so that “sometimes you have to shove this issue down the throats of our trans sisters because it is happening,” Maria said.

As it is, there are already HIV-related issues that are trans-specific that are surfacing. In southern Philippines, for instance, transwomen who are HIV-positive remain confused if their ARVs can be taken with their HRT (hormone replacement therapy). There are also “many transwomen who are sex workers, yet we are less prone to get tested,” Maria noted. As an example, MSM in New York City have over 90% HIV testing rates, “but not as many in the trans community get tested. This also touches on transphobia in the healthcare (setting).” And then there’s the lack of funding, considering that for services to be made available, “core funding is essential because there are costs.”

For Maria, “It’s only recently that focus on these issues was done. And we need a community outlook here for us to find solutions.”

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As such, even with the need to have segregate representations, Maria stressed that having a “big group for everyone is also important.” After all, “while the trans movement is separate from, it is also connected with LGB issues,” she said. “We need each other; we’re brothers and sisters.”

This is why, for Maria, the local push for political representation in the Philippines in the past (via Ladlad) – even if it was unsuccessful – was important.

Maria stressed: “LGBT rights are human rights. “We become successful in our advocacy when we highlight our issues as human rights issues. Because you should not be discriminated, period.”

For now, there’s the admiration “as more in more countries are taking ownership of the movement,” Maria said, adding that there are even “organizations in Asia that can be good role models for European organizations.”

For Maria, if, in the past, Western discourse dictated trans dealings, “this is broadening now. And this really is liberating.” (INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WITH JOHN RYAN N. MENDOZA; WITH SPECIAL THANKS TO Ms SANTY LAYNO)

PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIA SUNDINPHOTO COURTESY OF MARIA SUNDIN

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