Jan 182006
Authors: Meg Burd

The film "TransAmerica" gains the accolades of critics and popularity with audiences (as well as a Golden Globe award for its star) for its portrayal of the life of a transgendered woman. Around the globe, however, transgendered individuals are not necessarily getting the warm welcome that audiences, critics and the press have extended to the film.

Sadly, in the last few weeks, human rights groups have reported that violence against transgendered individuals has been taking place in Nepal.

"Police in Kathmandu are violently attacking and even sexually abusing transgender people to clear the streets of people they deem immoral," said Scott Long of the international non-profit group Human Rights Watch in a letter to Nepali authorities. "Nepali human rights groups are calling this crackdown 'sexual cleansing.'"

The Blue Diamond Society, the first local Nepalese program to promote HIV-awareness prevention programs and work for securing rights for sexual minorities in Nepal, recently reported a rash of violence enacted on many meti (men who dress and often identify as women), as well as the detention of many meti and rights advocates. In October of last year, 39 members of the Blue Diamond Society were arrested and held on charges of "public offense." While detained based on a discriminatory law that vaguely forbids "any kind of unnatural sex" with up to a year in prison, Blue Diamond Society members reported mistreatment in custody, according to Sushil Sharma of the BBC news agency.

"The police are using brutal harassment and detention without charge to clear transgender people off the streets," Long of Human Rights Watch said of the recent attacks. "These attacks reflect a law enforcement system that is unchecked and operating outside the law."

Nepal is not the only place to see violence against transgendered individuals. In Guatemala, numerous incidents of violence have been reported. In a December incident, two transgendered sex workers were shot in the head as they stood on the street, according to the human rights group Amnesty International in a recent press release. Witnesses indicated that the shooters were members of the police force.

"This is, sadly, only the latest in a string of murders of transgender people in Guatemala," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA noted in an Amnesty press release. "Once again, not only have police and government authorities failed to protect transgender people, but they also may be directly complicit in their deaths."

America is not free from seeing violence against such individuals either. In 2002, a transgendered teen named Gwen Araujo was beaten and strangled by four men.

In the trial, the men sited a "panic defense" in which they said they claimed that they were shocked after learning that Araujo was biologically male after two of the men engaged in sexual activity with the teen. The murders of Matthew Shepard attempted the same defense (although it was blocked by the judge) claiming that they were only doing "what any reasonable person would do under the circumstance," notes Yomi S. Wronge in the Mercury News.

“The claim is that when they discovered a person was gay or transgender they panicked, and that somehow justifies their violence,'' said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, as sited by the Mercury News.

Currently, California legislators are attempting to enact a bill that will disallow the so-called "panic defense" in such situations. Indeed, as California legislator Sally Lieber noted in the Mercury News story, “Having the panic defense be accepted by juries is an affront to the strong stances we have taken against intolerance. There shouldn't be another young person like Gwen that loses their life and has their life then devalued in a courtroom.''

Violence perpetuated against transgendered individuals must be stopped around the globe, and attention must be given to the legal and cultural justifications that seem to not only legally justify such acts of violence but also might serve to create an atmosphere conducive to such violence. No longer should "panic defenses" stand as justification for violence and harassment of transgendered individuals. Transgendered individuals the world over should have attention paid to their basic human rights, just as any other group.

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.

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