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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Provocative Human Right to Be


The U.S. government, under the leadership of President Barack Obama, has actively begun to address the plight of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals living in developing, transitional, and conflict-prone countries around the globe. Transgender persons seek to be accepted as full moral agents in the gender identity that they sense at a very profound personal level, and they claim a human right of freedom in the expression of this authentic gender identity. This article illuminates moral justifications that argue for a foreign assistance response from the U.S. government on behalf of transgender persons in less developed countries.


“Even the definition of who is a man and who is a woman can be contested.”
— Raewyn Connell in Gender (Connell 2009)

At breakfast on a gloriously sunny Nairobi morning, Barbra and I barely noticed the food on our plates. Our table guest Audrey was holding forth with considerable agitation about the marginalization and misunderstanding of transgender persons within the larger East African gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBT) movement. While she vented, I marveled that such a conversation was even taking place, seated as I was in the relative security of a small suburban training college campus, together with civil society leaders of the LGBT movement of the five countries of East Africa.

All of the Africans who gathered that early May of 2011 for this conference savored their transitory freedom to be together and express their convictions, knowing just beyond the campus walls the populace was strongly inclined to utterly reject them, or worse. As the conference proceeded, neighboring Uganda’s parliament was considering legislation that would impose the death penalty on gay men in certain situations, gravely penalize lesbian and gay individuals generally, and criminalize anyone advocating for human rights protections for LGBT populations on the basis of “promoting homosexuality.” In the months ahead, similar draconian legislative measures would follow in Nigeria, extreme homophobia would briefly dominate the media in Ghana and Malawi, and gay persons would be arrested in Cameroon.
At that time I was serving as a political appointee of the Obama administration, assigned as the Senior Advisor on LGBT Policy for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). No such position had existed before at USAID, and the fact that I was one of just three openly transgender appointees in this administration made this service particularly significant. For these reasons, my official presence at the Nairobi conference was itself noteworthy, signifying a new policy position within the U.S. government.
President Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had elevated LGBT rights in foreign policy, and the Obama administration’s vision regarding LGBT concerns in America and abroad was by then well established. The State Department and USAID (a separate federal agency yet accountable to the Secretary of State) both regarded LGBT concerns as legitimate a human rights category as women’s rights, and in her cable nearly a year earlier, Secretary of State Clinton asked those within the U.S. government to identify opportunities for action that would help make LGBT human rights a reality, consistent with this administration’s comprehensive and inclusive human rights policy. Among these opportunities for action, my participation in that conference was tangible if modest evidence of USAID’s determination to foster, strengthen, and empower a constituency with its own strong leadership in developing countries, supportive of the dignity and human rights claims of LGBT persons. And while any thoughtful person might be mobilized by the compelling human rights arguments that underpin the U.S. government’s position, my personal commitment to these principles was irretrievably bound up with what I shared with my two breakfast colleagues: we are all transsexual women.
LGBT issues are often framed in the context of human rights, yet advocating for human rights and the recognition of human dignity immediately raises definitional concerns. What human rights, conceived and defined in what way and by whom, with performance measured in what manner? What does “human dignity” mean, and how should it be articulated, recognized, or measured? And while it can be strenuously asserted that these and similar moral questions are inseparable from most arguments used to support foreign assistance and international development (and that they’re of particular relevance when considering marginalized and at risk populations such as LGBT persons), USAID has never made any formal declaration of a moral or ethical justification for its approach to LGBT concerns. Granted, the State Department does reaffirm the importance of human rights in our foreign policy, the role that human rights played in the founding of the United States, and the central foreign policy goal of promoting respect for human rights as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (U.S. Department of State n.d.), yet human rights considerations often fall prey to more “strategic” diplomatic priorities.
The U.S. government’s formal reliance on human rights as the preferred framework by which to articulate its moral, ethical, and legal role is arguably more a product of international convention than any deliberate comparison of alternative moral approaches. Globally, there has been a growing convergence between human rights and development thinking along several dimensions, with a renewed focus on economic and social rights. Human rights thinking, as represented by several highly respected moral theories and doctrines, speaks to us eloquently and in detail about human development. As a leading global development agency, USAID has a fundamental interest in articulating what “development” consists of, and explaining to the public why and how best we Americans and USAID’s development partners ought to pursue and sustain development. Human rights theories and the legal architecture of international human rights charters and treaties give us a language to discuss foundational elements of development—human dignity, fairness, freedoms, choice, to name but a few. Human rights concepts and language also raise important issues of moral entitlements and claims that all human beings—by virtue of being human beings—are entitled to; and they say a great deal about how those claims ought to be met, over what time and to what degree, and by whom. Finally, human rights also provide us with a means to justify certain moral minimums and to articulate a conceptual threshold of what it is impermissible to do to human beings: human rights violations.
Translating lofty human rights concepts to tackle the gritty human rights realities of three transsexual women gathered over breakfast at a Nairobi conference isn’t simple. Our table guest Audrey’s complaint was that the realities and interests of transgender people are frequently misunderstood, inconsistently represented, or sometimes simply ignored by lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons and organizations, and even by many feminists and human rights activists. While the acronym “LGBT” is now growing more common, the actual focus of discourse under that acronym often falls prey to what transgender persons refer to as “dropping the T”: when transgender concerns are mistakenly assumed, by those who are not transgender, to be largely aligned with or identical to the concerns of the lesbian, gay, or bisexual community.
Within a pragmatic human rights discourse, there is no denying that many compelling demands compete for scarce foreign assistance resources in a developing world afflicted by extreme poverty, virulent diseases, repressive governments, and violent conflicts. Faced with these urgent human rights challenges, some ask how development agencies justify appropriating time and resources to address concerns affecting the human rights of LGBT people throughout the developing world, or specifically to consider the priorities of a small community of East African LGBT advocates and leaders. Focusing in further still on but one component of that population—the transgender “T”—raises even more questions. This article will attend to that challenge shortly, but first some definitional hurdles demand attention.