Global LGBT Forum

Addressing Trans Issues
Addressing Trans Issues
Klaus Mueller 
in diverse cultures

“Legal recognition of gender change in most countries requires that transgender people undergo surgeries that leave them sterile – a major violation of their basic reproductive rights.”

—    Fernanda Milán, a trans asylum seeker from Guatemala, now in Denmark

At our inaugural session in 2013 we learned through two presentations how severely trans individuals and communities are affected by a global culture of violence. The Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project, a systematic collection and documentation of reported killings of gender-variant/trans people worldwide, confronted us with realities that largely went unnoticed in public discourse.

In its 2017 update, TMM documented 2343 reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people in 69 countries worldwide between January 2008 and December 2016. The 2013 EU Fundamental Rights Agency survey on the rights situation of LGBT people in Europe confirmed safety as an immediate threat for trans people – 43 percent of whom reported having been attacked more than three times in one year. 

In response, our 2013 call to action – the Statement of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum: Advancing human rights for LGBT people and communities – identified transgender safety as a distinct, urgent issue: “Transgender people across the world face threats to their lives and safety. Governments, legal institutions, faith leaders and the media must fulfill their responsibilities to safeguard human lives and challenge transphobia.”

Through sharing their life experiences in diverse cultures, trans women and men fostered an increased understanding in Forum members of their legal, health and cultural challenges, including for trans refugees. This also led to change in Salzburg Global Seminar’s overall session registration process, which until then had only offered binary gender options. In continuation of exploring trans issues through discussions and exhibitions in 2013 and 2015, the 2016 session of the Forum focused on the high visibility of transgender communities in Asia, forms of their cultural acceptance and the legal challenges communities face.


Specifics and Urgencies

Profile: Manisha Dhakal

Profile: Tamara Adrián

Profile: Joe Wong

Advisory Committee On Gender Identity On Salzburg Global Registration Forms

Trans Experiences

The Specifics and Urgencies of Trans Issues
Although there is no state recognition for trans individuals and little awareness of LGBT issues in general in Bhutan, in Ugyen Tshering’s experience, as she shared in 2015, LGBT people are not subjected to police harassment. In the capital Thimphu, people are finally starting to become aware and informed of this community but very few people are openly LGBT.
The Specifics and Urgencies of Trans Issues
Louise Hallman 

The challenges faced by trans men and women range from their access to and decision if and how to transition, forced sterilization, and widespread discrimination, to violence and even murder. Still, many of these issues are often not well understood and are marginalized within global LGBT discourses.

Learning from trans leaders since its very beginnings, and highlighted in its global statement, the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum has sought to emphasize the distinct challenges faced by transgender people.

Lack of understanding, marginalization, discrimination, persecution and violence frequently beset the LGBT community. This is especially true for transgender people — even within the LGBT community. Speaking at the inaugural session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, Fernanda Milán, Guatemalan refugee and co-founder of the Trans-project in Denmark, opened a panel on trans issues by explaining why transgender people are the most vulnerable and exposed segment of LGBT populations.

Milán was the first transgender person to be granted asylum in Denmark after the Guatemalan police attacked and threatened her because of her activism and gender identity.

Urgent concerns

As Milán shared with Fellows, trans people face many urgent issues. Legal recognition of gender change in many countries still is impossible, but even where legislation is in place, it often requires that transgender people undergo surgeries that leave them sterile, which is a major violation of their basic reproductive rights. Access to gender reassignment procedures is greatly unequal around the world, and even in countries with facilitated access, the internationally recognized protocol for regulating access considers transgender persons to be mentally ill.

Due to discrimination in families and the education system, transgender people often are economically disadvantaged and lack support networks in their struggle. This leads many into sex work, putting them at heightened risks of HIV. Trans women are especially vulnerable to sex trafficking.

At the fifth session in 2017, human rights lawyer, Mónica Leonardo echoed Milán’s concerns: “We see throughout the Latin American region, and Guatemala is no exclusion, there is a prevalence of HIV in one percent of the population. For transgender women it’s 35 percent.” The prevalence among gay men is 18 percent. Furthermore, she added: “There are reports of extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture and extortion, often committed by armed forces, namely the police or the army.”  

Statistics unfortunately prove Milán and Leonardo right. “There has been a constant increase in reported murders of transgender people around the world,” stated Carla LaGata, lead researcher from Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide (TvT), which conducts the Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project. At the session in 2013, LaGata presented documentation gathered between 2008 and 2012: at least 958 trans people were murdered in Central and South America, 109 in Asia, 77 in North America, 77 in Europe, eight in Africa, and two in Oceania. Transgender migrants and sex workers, especially people of color, were disproportionately victims of this violence.

It is chilling realities like these that prompted the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum to explore and address trans safety as a separate, distinct and urgent issue within the Forum. The collectively written Statement of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum: Advancing human rights for LGBT people and communities thus declares: “Transgender people across the world face threats to their lives and safety. Governments, legal institutions, faith leaders and the media must fulfill their responsibilities to safeguard human lives and challenge transphobia.”

Each year, the Forum has had held dedicated panels, breakout groups and exhibitions addressing the lived realities of trans people across the world. Asian trans experiences were especially explored in Chiang Rai, Thailand at the 2016 session of the Forum. Some Asian countries are renowned for their sex-reassignment surgeries and social tolerance of trans communities, but, as one trans Asian Fellow remarked: “There is high degree of ignorance in thinking that Asia is a paradise for trans people.”

The Power of Data

Countering that ignorance means researching and sharing the truth of the experiences of trans people. “When we talk about LGBT issues,” LaGata explained, “we are often missing the ‘T’ from our data.”

LaGata stressed that the existing research about transgender persons has been dominated by medicine and by the Global North. These biases produce data that are pathologizing and often misconstruing local contexts. A narrow focus on laws that criminalize homosexuality or gender non-conformity, for example, misses the importance of other (e.g. anti-prostitution) laws that are specifically used against transgender persons on a global level, or too quickly targets contexts where these laws may exist, but where transgender people are relatively well respected by the broader society.

To address this lack of data and counter these biases, the TMM project was developed with 19 partner organizations and within an advisory board of 27 members from every region of the world. The project has a strong empowerment focus – including research trainings for local activists – and produces ongoing reports monitoring the reported cases of murdered trans people and a map of the legal situation of trans people worldwide, all available online.

There has been progress in addressing some of the legal issues faced by trans people. As of 2017, 51 of the 126 countries mapped by TvT allow the legal change of gender on official documents without challenge, although only four countries (three of which are in South Asia) offer a third gender option.

But despite areas of progress, the number of trans people murdered continues to rise, with Latin America markedly the most dangerous region – despite the fact that trans people in many Latin American countries have been granted legal recognition and protections. In particular, Argentina’s gender recognition law is seen by many as the best existing policy from which many countries, including from the Global North, could benefit.

Passed in 2012, this law allows people to alter their gender on official documents without first having to receive a psychiatric diagnosis or surgery, and also requires public and private medical practitioners to provide free hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery for those who want it, including those under the age of 18.

The high number of recorded murders in Latin America may be because of the number of organizations already monitoring in the region, raising the question about the situation of trans communities in other regions of the world. It also demonstrates that even where laws exist, legislation does not always offer ultimate protection from discrimination, persecution and violence.

The Power of Stories

Data is important. Data is often what helps drive policy. But even with the attention of policymakers, it is hard to gain the attention or change the hearts and minds of the public with data alone. Stories, especially personal ones, can be far more powerful in this regard. The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum strongly believes in the power of sharing personal experiences and ethical listening.

Trans Fellows have opened up and candidly told their stories of their realization of feeling that they were in the wrong body as a child. Stories of their struggles to communicate with parents, siblings, partners and children when choosing to transition. Stories of suffering harassment and attacks from neighbors, strangers and the police. Stories of fleeing their homes and countries in search of safety. And stories of triumph as they establish alternative families, eventually reconcile with family members who had once rejected them, or help the passing of new protective and inclusive legislation.

Sharing these stories far and wide is vitally important to challenge the prejudices that fuel transphobia and hinder legal and societal progress. The media has a large role to play here as Josephine Shaw, who helped to found campaigning group Trans Media Watch (TMW), explained in 2013. TMW has worked to promote the presentation of informed and empowering images of transgender people in the media by engaging in dialogue with television stations and other media and by organizing training workshops.

Historically, trans issues had been marginalized also within the LGBT movement, stated Joe Wong, Program Manager, Asia Pacific Transgender Network, Singapore. However, a new base of trans leadership has given more space for direct advocacy of trans issues.

Direct trans engagement with the World Health Organization and the United Nations, for example, especially in regional contexts has allowed for the recognition of data and policy indicators that are sensitive of trans communities. It is better, Wong insists, that instead of people speaking on behalf of the trans community, the community should speak for itself.

The Salzburg Global LGBT Forum continues to learn from trans men and women and strives, through their leadership, to amplify their voices and vision not only to the public but also within the global LGBT community.


Manisha Dhakal - Making Significant Progress for Trans Rights in Nepal
Manisha Dhakal is a two-time Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in sessions in 2015 and 2016 in Salzburg and Chiang Rai.
Manisha Dhakal - Making Significant Progress for Trans Rights in Nepal
Louise Hallman and Nicole Bogart 

Over the last decade, transgender activist Manisha Dhakal has witnessed significant change in her country. Unlike other South Asian countries that still adhere to long-ago imposed colonial laws on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, Nepal – which was never colonized – has been at the forefront of LGBT rights progress, enjoying relatively greater freedoms than its regional neighbors.

As the executive director of Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s first and largest LGBT rights organization, Dhakal was involved in the court pleadings on behalf of the LGBT community on a case that concluded with the Supreme Court of Nepal issuing a verdict to enact a law enabling equal rights for all LGBT citizens. She has since worked tirelessly to lobby parliamentarians to include further protections for Nepal’s LGBT communities – an effort met with great victory when the country ratified its latest constitution.

In 2015, shortly after Dhakal’s participation in the third session of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, her country took historic steps to pass a new constitution that provided explicit protections for LGBT people from discrimination and violence. These new constitutional protections, along with the legal recognition of a third gender category passed in 2007, were celebrated by human rights organizations as a pathway to a more inclusive Nepal.

The Blue Diamond Society was founded in 2001; it was the only organization working for Nepal’s LGBT community at the time. Starting with HIV/Aids awareness and condom distribution, the organization has come a long way in advancing its advocacy.

“HIV is the entry point of our movement. Within [the past 15 years] we changed a lot. We entered in the HIV/Aids awareness program and slowly strategized into activities in rights issues,” Dhakal explains. “We worked with the government, we worked with the Human Rights Commission, police, judicial people, political parties and parliamentarians,” which has helped the organization’s influence reach those at levels possible to implement wide-scale change.

Dhakal and other Nepalese trans individuals have also seen greater inclusion from the government in the past decade. In 2011, Nepal became the world’s first country to include a third gender on its federal census, and, in 2015, the same year as the new constitution, the government began issuing passports recognizing three genders. However, despite these advances, challenges persist.

As Dhakal shared on a panel discussing trans issues in Asia at the 2016 session of the LGBT Forum in Thailand, health care providers are being trained in sexuality, gender and HIV care, but in some hospitals, health personnel would bring curious colleagues into the room to "observe our check-ups,”  violating the patients’ dignity.

Often, trans women in Nepal take hormones without prescription and estimate dosage following their peers’ rather than doctors’ advice, prompting organizations to translate and improve information on hormone and transition process safety. (This situation is better than in neighboring Bhutan, where trans women have difficulties accessing hormones at all.) These persistent problems were particularly stark in the aftermath of the two devastating and deadly earthquakes in 2015.

Speaking to Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) one year after the tragedy, Dhakal said although the LGBT community has been recognized by the government, much of that recognition remains “in theory,” noting that many government relief efforts following the earthquake separated those in need by gender, leaving transgender people with nowhere to go.

“Some transgender people were not able to claim relief material and many were laughed at or made fun of when they tried. This deterred many from seeking help. We as civil society need to monitor the implementation of the relief efforts by the government,” she explained to UNAIDS.

While the Blue Diamond Society continues in its human rights advocacy and HIV education and care, the earthquakes have given the organization another focus: disaster preparedness. In the immediate aftermath, the Blue Diamond Society provided funds to LGBT applicants in need and provided temporary shelter in their HIV centers. But as Dhakal admits, more needs to be done, and they need to ensure that the LGBT community is better supported during unforeseen events where governmental support may falter.

“At the Blue Diamond Society we prided ourselves on our focus on HIV programs and our Human Rights advocacy. One thing we failed to do was prepare for a natural disaster,” admits Dhakal. “Because of that, our community suffered a lot. We realized that apart from HIV prevention and Human Rights advocacy, there is a need for us to focus on better prevention of any unforeseeable natural disasters whether it’s an earthquake or a flood.”

The Blue Diamond Society started in 2001 with just six volunteers in the Kathmandu Valley. Today they have dozens of staff and programs conducted across the country; through their outreach efforts, the Blue Diamond Society has directly helped over 350,000 LGBT Nepalese. Increasingly its expertise is called upon from neighboring countries. Just as the Blue Diamond Society’s journey has progressed positively in the face of struggles, so too has Dhakal’s.

As part of the LGBT Forum’s “Family is…?” project, Dhakal shared her experience of gaining her family’s support during her transition: “When I started to work with the Blue Diamond Society, at that time I was a cis-guy, and did not have the long hair and didn’t wear the female dress. I hid myself within my family; I didn’t tell them I worked for the Blue Diamond Society. I said to them I am working in the HIV prevention project.

“One time, they knew that I belonged to the Blue Diamond Society, [and] for three days they didn’t allow me to go to the office — and [those] three days changed me a lot. It gave the opportunity to me to convince my family. Over those days I told them, and convinced them of who I am, what is my sexuality… I told them all the things that I faced as who I am, and that changed me a lot. [It changed me to be] more to be involved in LGBTI movement, [and realize] how family is important and how important it is to convince the family, and how to get the support from the family. If we get the support from the family then we can progress a lot in our personality, in our activism. If there is no support from the family it’s very difficult to work and to involve in activism.”

With support from her family, and growing legal protections, she hopes to see further progress not only for herself, but for her country and the region at large.

Tamara Adrián - Breaking Boundaries and Tackling Trans Rights on a Global Scale
Tamara Adrián campaigns for LGBT rights on many fronts: she is a human rights lawyer, a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly and president of the organizing committee of IDAHOT.
Tamara Adrián - Breaking Boundaries and Tackling Trans Rights on a Global Scale
Nicole Bogart 

Few activists rival the number of barriers Tamara Adrián has personally broken. She is the first transgender woman to serve in the Venezuelan legislature, making her the second transgender person elected to a national legislature in Latin America, after Michelle Suárez Bértora of Uruguay.

Adrián married her partner of more than 20 years under her former name, making her and her wife the first legally recognized lesbian couple in the country. As a trans activist and politician, these feats are extraordinary; that they’ve happened in Venezuela, a country marred by political turmoil and a poor record for LGBT rights, is monumental.

A former law professor as well as international advocate and national legislator, Adrián is one of a select few of Salzburg Global LGBT Forum Fellows who has attended all sessions of the Forum, starting in 2013, bringing her legal and international insights to multiple Forum and public panels. 

Adrián has never shied away from monumental challenges in her advocacy. Serving as President of the Committee of International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and co-president of the International Lesbian Gay Transgender Law Association (ILGALaw), she has played a key role in the creation and approval of resolutions to human rights documents within the UN.

During her first visit to the UN in 2005 for the Commission on Human Rights, Adrián joked that she only had “two minutes” to speak before the commission, but instead used her time to meet with different delegations to argue a case for the inclusion of LGBT issues within human rights documents. As it took 20 years to instigate discussion about women’s rights in the UN, colleagues warned her she would need to wait just as long before LGBT issues were given the same consideration.

Her colleagues were wrong. The first declaration was signed just a few years later stating that it is against international human rights to provoke or support violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity around the world. “With these improvements,” Adrián warned, “have come increased efforts by fundamentalist groups promoting ‘traditional values,’” – allegedly in opposition to LGBT identities.

Continuing her international advocacy, Adrián credits the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum for its unique ability to connect allies around the world. The challenges confronting LGBT persons are not only national or regional, but also global, and thus developing an understanding of how the region’s successes and challenges relate to and influence issues at a global level is essential.

“Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador in Latin America have made remarkable strides on improving the legal recognition of transgender people and their access to official identity documents,” noted Adrián following her participation in a panel alongside other legislators and ambassadors at the 2016 session of the LGBT Forum in Thailand.

“Opportunities to exchange best practices between governments and civil society across regions are tremendously beneficial for those working on the protection of transgender health and citizenship rights, but also broader LGBT advocacy efforts.”

As she explained at the 2015 LGBT Forum session: “You have to think globally, and strategize globally. You think of a globally strategic plan, but at the same time you have to give everyone in the field the ability to change this strategic plan according to the specific needs of each country. You cannot impede equality. It is inevitable in humans to have equality. That is where global perspective is influencing local perspective. You have to strategize at both levels: global and local.”

Now somewhat of a veteran in the field of LGBT rights, Adrián hopes to encourage the next generation of activists to not be complacent and to carry on the fight. In the Forum’s film on “Family is…,” she shared her own life story to encourage a new generation:  

“Yes, the journey has been very long and it has come from being a heterosexual married man to a lesbian married woman. Wow! I was never a gay man but at the same time I knew that I was a woman and back when I was 20-something years old, I got married to a woman and we had two children: one boy and one girl. She divorced from me as soon as I disclosed to her my feelings and well — it was the end of the marriage and for many years I was separated [from] my children because she didn’t allow me to see them... Now, they are part of the family – finally. Once they passed the time of teenagers and started to be in their adulthood age, they started to understand and became closer and closer.
“I am a very happy woman, and I feel complete.”

Joe Wong - Truth and Transformation
Joe Wong is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum, having participated in the 2015 session – Strengthening Communities: LGBT Rights and Social Cohesion in Salzburg.
Joe Wong - Truth and Transformation
Ivan Capriles 

A key function of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum is to deepen our understanding of the diversity and complexity of LGBT lives. No global conversation is easy, and it relies on the art of listening and the willingness to enter new worlds.

At the 2015 session, Joe Wong, program manager of the Asia-Pacific Transgender Network in Thailand, opened up and shared his life story during one of our annual “Truth and Transformation” panels.

Joe Wong, a trans man from Singapore, now living in Thailand, was born to a conservative family and educated at a Catholic girls’ school. He felt uncomfortable in his body when touched, and eventually used duct tape as an attempt to conceal the female parts of his body that he felt shouldn’t have been there.

One day, while in an elevator with a close relative and a stranger, the relative noticed the duct tape, humiliating Joe on the spot and demanding an explanation. “In school I was taught not to show emotions. So I let my relative yell at me, and tear away the duct tape in the elevator,” he recalls. It was hard for Joe to tell his closest relatives about his body issues.

His father supported him despite the family’s tendency to not share many personal issues. Joe remembers: “He would put a relevant article or book on my desk. There was no discussion about it but he helped. He died when I was 21 and I wondered where his tolerance came from. I later discovered that he was gay.”

When Joe decided to transition, he asked his parents to choose his post-transition name “since they gave me my first name.” His father gave him his own English name – which he took to be a sign of his father’s love and acceptance. “It is interesting to discover myself through coming out. A lot of internalized hatred disappears,” he says through a broad reassuring smile.

Advisory Committee On Gender Identity On Salzburg Global Registration Forms
Advisory Committee On Gender Identity On Salzburg Global Registration Forms
Salzburg Global Seminar 

Concerns had been raised internally at Salzburg Global Seminar and by Fellows before and during the Forum around the declaration of sex and gender during the application process and the use of preferred names. Therefore, at the request of Salzburg Global, a small number of expert Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum coordinated in the weeks after the session to provide new options and language for applications for all Salzburg Global sessions – not only those concerning LGBT issues.

Declarations of sex (not gender) are required for visa application purposes, however due to technical reasons, Salzburg Global is unable to process two entries for a person’s legal sex (as stated on their passport) and self-identified gender.

Thus a compromise was found, based on the suggestions of the advisory group: Salzburg Global now includes additional title options in the dropdown menu – Mx., Mre., Other – as gender-neutral titles, which will determine how they will be addressed in official correspondence they will receive from Salzburg Global. The binary “Gender” option on the application form has now been renamed to “Sex” with the accompanying text:

“Salzburg Global Seminar is committed to promoting an open and affirming environment inclusive of the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity. Binary information about a person’s sex is only necessary for legal purposes to ensure your visa and travel statements are aligned with your passport’s entry.”

Salzburg Global has also added a new field to the registration page that enables Fellows to input their chosen name that is to be used on all informal communication. This is also the name that will be printed on all session material Salzburg Global Fellows receive upon arrival at Schloss Leopoldskron, including their name badge, allowing all Fellows to be immediately identified how they wish.

Although this advisory committee was only formed for this specific purpose, with its commitment to not only diversity but also online security, Salzburg Global will continue to draw on the dedicated Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum to provide guidance when needed, such as with the planned expansion of its Fellows-only login area and the launch of its bespoke online directory in late 2017.

Trans Experiences
Seaklay Pipi Say, Bao Chau Nguyen and Manisha Dhakal
Trans Experiences
Nicole Bogart 

Seaklay Pipi Say,
Rainbow Community Kampuchea, Cambodia

“The first reaction for my family was negative. The mental reaction, the physical reaction was negative. So, I stopped understanding the reason behind why they were not accepting the identity of mine.
“My perception of the transition of the body is like, you have to set back from society which says what male should do and what females should do. What male bodies should look like, what female bodies should look like. I start to know about myself, and I set up and look to myself for what I want to look like. Sometimes I still struggle with the medical information, the medical needs, because you can say in Thailand they have many services and information for you, but not all people have resources for transition. So I see myself, I just want to have big muscle like a man, but I want to keep all my body, just remove my breasts. This is what I want.”

Bao Chau Nguyen,
Founder, Hanoi Queer Film Week, Vietnam

“After my coming out [to my mom], she told me that I can be anyone I want, she just wants me to be happy. I was like, oh, she accepted me. But after that she and father tried to change me a lot; she bought me a lot of girly clothes; like some pink sweater that I never wear. But the last time she talked in public, at my graduation, she knows that she is the mom of a transgender and she is so proud of me because I am being a good person, being helpful for this life. She saw me doing charity work, [saw] me making my film and that it got nominated, and she felt so proud of me.

“Until now, I still don’t want to undergo any surgery or transition. It’s not because I like this body, I like every girl part of mine, but it’s like I appreciate what my parents give me. I have some sacredness too, so I don’t want to undergo any surgery, at least not yet. I still want to be a boy, but I’d like if someday I woke up and had a penis and my boobs gone (laughs). I still want to be a boy, have a man’s body, but until now I don’t want to have surgery yet. That’s why I want people to accept my behavior, with my voice like this, everything of mine, because I identify myself as transgender and I wish people to respect my name, my identity.”

Carla LaGata,
Lead researcher, Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, Germany

“When we talk about LGBT issues, we are often missing the ‘T’ from our data… There has been a constant increase of reported murders of transgender people around the world.”

Fernanda Milán,
Trans-project, Denmark / Guatemala

“Transgender people are the most vulnerable and exposed segment of LGBT populations... Legal recognition of gender change in most countries requires that transgender people undergo surgeries that leave them sterile — a major violation of their basic reproductive rights.”

Chinzorig Gochoo,
Manager, “Through Democracy” Project, Winds of Change, Mongolia

“I did my coming out on Mongolian TV and although my family was in shock, they gradually understood me and were very supportive.”

Bao Chau Nguyen and Seakley Pipi Say on being happy and transgender

Bao Chau Nguyen and Seakley Pipi Say on being themselves

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