Gender is not an illness: How pathologization violates human rights law
This paper was conceived and produced by GATE as a contribution to the ongoing process of depathologizing trans and gender diverse people through the reform of classification systems, legal frameworks and social attitudes.
Pathologization appears to be a new concept in the human rights field; however, it describes the lived experiences of many trans and gender diverse people around the world over the last several decades. It conveys and executes a naturalized distinction between acceptable and unacceptable ways of being in the world –namely, “healthy” and “pathological”. Historically, those of us who identify ourselves in a gender different to the sex assigned to us at birth have faced stigma, discrimination and violence because being ourselves was considered to be, in itself, a pathology. Sadly, this history remains our shared present.
Pathologization has also been consistently used to deny, restrict and condition trans and gender diverse people’s access to very basic rights, including legal gender recognition, gender-affirming healthcare, and its coverage. Institutionalization, “conversion” treatments, mandatory psychotherapy, coercive surgeries, invasive mental and physical examinations, sterilization, and forced divorce are intrinsic parts of the requirements imposed upon us every time and place our gender is considered to be an illness.
As a critical framework, depathologization was created and established by those communities and movements primarily affected by its negative effects. In spite of our visibly marginalized situation in mainstream human rights spaces and the spread of epistemic injustice associated with being defined as “pathological” subjects, trans and gender diverse activists have been able to create the language to address the norms defining, oppressing and excluding us. After years of intense trans and gender diverse organizing, that language has been adopted by official institutions.
The main goal of this paper is to highlight how pathologization sits within the international human rights framework as a specific root for human rights violations, and as set of practices and consequences that extend those violations from childhood to adulthood. Moreover, the introduction of pathologization as a key human rights concern is a necessary step to dismantle its pervasive influence and to finally make depathologization a reality for all.
The paper was authored by Sheherezade Kara, with the contribution of an international group of experts: Amets Suess-Shwend, Cianán B. Russell, Viviane Vergueiro, Eleonora Lamm, Eszter Kismodi and Mauro Cabral Grinspan.