The case for transgender persons’ right to self-choice on gender change

Transgender people suffer due to no fault of theirs and so deserve our support and respect.


October 5, 2022

ISLAMABAD – FOUR years after the epic and surprising (given our right-wing bent) multiparty approval of a Transgender Act, right-wing forces now say it is un-Islamic. Terming it anti-religion may be responsible in part for the recent attacks perpetrated on long-abused transgender people.

The law compares well globally to other laws but has gaps too, eg, on marriage, adoption, access to gendered spaces, etc. Given local sensitivities, many activists ignore the gaps. But its detractors now aim to erode it further by spreading confusion and lies about transgenderism.

Many confuse them with intersex people who have undefined reproductive organs. Some intersex people are transgender but many embrace the gender given at birth. But transgender people often have clearly defined organs yet feel like another gender or like none, as with non-binary people. Many people accept intersex but not transgenderism. Scientific studies have shown that, even if not physical traits, their brains may resemble that of the desired gender from very early on. So they feel uneasy every second.

Science says this isn’t a disease but is natural, and any treatment to impose the first sex can be bodily and mentally harmful. Many states ban such iffy cures and let them gain peace by changing their gender via self-identification sans physical checks or sex change surgery. Given the cost, privacy and risks, the surgery option is left to the individuals concerned.

To many, self-choice on changing one’s gender identity, that has been seen as fixed forever based on bodily traits, seems abnormal. But, again research shows that such identity criteria may have evolved over time. Experts focus now on brains too. So demands for organ checks ignore transgender brain variances. Also, persistent self-identity is a strong enough social test as their high abuse in most states, especially ours, makes it very risky to be one for fad or fraud. Many even hide the desire for long, out of fear.

Some critics have triggered wild panic that others may now ask to change their race, age, species, etc too. But no science backs such options nor have such cases existed forever, unlike those related to transgenderism. A similar strong social test will deter others, too, to pretend so. Some propagate absurd concerns that Pakistani women may pose wrongly as men for higher inheritance. But any woman doing so wrongly will be banished by her family and must get divorced if married. Even then, her family may refuse her and she must go for a long, uncertain court case. Pakistani women, who often don’t even pursue their genuine rights due to fear, can’t take such a high risk fraudulently. In the four years since the law was passed, one hasn’t seen such cases.

Some critics have triggered wild panic about the law.

Its 2020 rules of business enhanced the law’s gaps. The law grants full self-choice on gender change and rules of business must echo parent laws. In practice, transgender males and females get gender categories distinct from regular ones in the Nadra databases. They and intersex people get only a catch-all ‘X’ identity on state papers though the law doesn’t say all this. All this increases bias.

The iffy ‘X’ symbol is dehumanising not being based on a gender name, unlike ‘F’ and ‘M’. A few got their gender changed between the two main genders via long court and sex surgery steps, instead of self-choice as per the 2018 law. Given local norms and fear of loss of even current gains, many activists ignore such gaps. Yet those opposing the law now want even more bars, like physical checks for changing ide­ntity and an end to self-choice. But this only covers intersex people, who don’t always change their identity despite unclear reproductive organs. This move may kill the law fully for many transgender people who need it more as their self-identity changes, often due to brain patterns. But many may fail organ tests given their clear birth organs without gender-change surgery. Those against self-choice may even limit surgery to intersex cases.

Some say the law encourages same-sex ties. But it may not be the case if the law legally lets a man identify himself as a woman. It can allay fears by upping access to sex-change surgery too. Some base their opposition on their belief that religion bans states from changing gender via self-choice. But they don’t give clear religious evidence and only voice personal views. Transgender people suffer due to no fault of theirs and so deserve our support and respect. One hopes their partial rights to self-choice sans physical tests survive the anti-act drive and more rights accrue too.

The writer is a political economist with a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley.

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