Saturday, July 12, 2014

Bea*lin I(i): The Who, the What, and the Why

Why am I going to Berlin?

The short answer is that my university had enough faith in me to throw a few thousand dollars my way to go do research there for a couple months this summer.

The long answer starts in Argentina.

As many of you know, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires last fall, arriving July twenty-second and returning December twenty-fourth. I had never been out of the country before that experience (and at the age of twenty!) and so once I discovered a particular academic/human rights topic that interested me as a result of my work there, I knew I had to go abroad again to continue my studies.

In 2012, Argentina joined the growing league of countries to pass more progressive legislation for transgender individuals in relation to their documented sex. With perhaps the best law on the books globally, La Ley de Identidad de Género allows Argentine citizens to legally change their name and gender on all their documents, for free, in a streamlined process that got everyone all their updated documents as quickly as possible, with an appointment with the proper office as the sole requirement.

Other countries have passed similar laws and amendments, but none quite as good.

South Africa came first, in 2003, removing the requirement for genital reassignment surgery as a prerequisite to legally changing one’s sex. Many other countries followed suit in the following years: the UK, in 2005; Spain, in 2007; New Zealand, in 2008 (and creating a third gender option on all legal documents); Germany, in 2011; Argentina, in 2012; South Korea, the US, and Australia, in 2013 (Australia following New Zealand’s example); and most recently, India, in this year, also adding a third gender option.

What I noticed in Argentina from my work with the local grassroots LGBT organization Capicüa was that the lives of many trans people had not actually improved that much after such a critical moment in the history of transgender rights. Most transwomen (travestis) still worked in prostitution, unable to attain safer jobs. Many trans people still avoided the doctor’s office and hospitals, where they would encounter discrimination (being called by their birth name instead of their actual name, being placed with their birth gender instead of their actual gender), choosing instead to enact physical changes on their bodies (silicone and hormone injections, for the most part) on their own, purchasing and using the materials on the street where they were cheaper. Unfortunately, the incredible prevalence of HIV in the trans community (specifically transwomen) is further perpetuated by such methods: needles used to inject silicone and/hormones are often shared and infections are spread. Whereas the average life expectancy in Argentina is over 70, many Argentine transwomen are lucky to see 30.

Does the same hold true in other countries? Does Germany, who only last September passed a law allowing intersex babies to be documented as such, instead of—as is commonly practiced elsewhere—forcing them into one of those tricky and ever-limiting letters (M, F) into which some people just can’t seem to fit themselves, retain a higher potential for improvement in the daily lives of trans people? Now that the German government itself acknowledges (affirms, even?) a greater variety of gender identities, have trans people experienced an increase in their sense of body image? in the respect they encounter in the medical community?

To acclimate myself to the Berlin transgender community, I will be volunteering with the transgender and intersex rights organization TransInterQueer (TrIQ). I aim to interview fifteen to twenty transgender people with a diverse range of gender identities in order to conduct a qualitative (as opposed to a definitive) study on these issues. My investigation will culminate in a twenty to twenty-five page analysis for my Gender Studies senior thesis, after which it will hopefully find a home in an academic journal.

I am also currently in the process of applying for a Fulbright Fellowship to do a larger, generational expansion of this project in Spain the year after I graduate. Please put in your respective good words with the Big Lady Upstairs; I would very much like to win it.

It is six in the morning Berlin time (and eleven at night back in Chicago). I am currently somewhere over Amsterdam, with just one hour to go until we reach our destination. This is my first time crossing an ocean, and let me tell you: traveling eastward, it is a peculiar and beautiful sight to see a sunrise so soon after a sunset.

As Tony Kushner famously wrote in Angels in America, and as I quote often and with which I would eventually like to tattoo myself:

The Great Work Begins.

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