Saturday, 16 January 2010

IWPR: Azeri transsexuals face social stigma

This is an example from Azerbaijan, but problems (social, legal, human rights...) faced by transsexuals are very similar in all South Caucasus countries.

IWPR: Caucasus Reporting Service

Azeri Transsexuals Face Social Stigma
Sex change just the first hurdle as society fails to accept gender reassignment.

By Leyla Leysan in Baku (CRS No. 527, 15-Jan-10)

Inga Ivanova seems like a normal 23-year-old woman as she sits in central Baku in light make-up, a jumper and jeans, but her story is one rarely heard in Azerbaijan. She was born a boy.

“I felt like a woman in a man’s body ... passers-by used to avoid me. I was never flamboyant, I did not shock people, I tried to hide who I was, that I was breaking away from normal modes of behaviour, but all the same I was different,” she said.

On leaving school, like any young Azeri male, she had to report for military service, and was sent for a hospital examination. Experts declared her unfit to serve in the army, clearing the way for her to do what only 100 or so Azeris had done before her – undergo gender reassignment surgery.

She turned to the internet for information on the procedure, since the Azeri health authorities offered no help. Without medical supervision or support she put herself through the necessary hormone therapy. A year later, the Funda medical centre completed the physical operation to remove her male sexual organs.

But that was not the end of her troubles. Azerbaijan has inherited the bureaucracy-heavy system of the Soviet Union, and she must gain a new passport in her new name to have access to any state services. There is no legal regulation of gender reassignment surgery or transsexuals, so this is proving difficult, not least because doctors refuse to conduct any tests on her.

“Now I am trying to get a psychiatrist to give me the correct diagnosis – transsexualism – and even this is proving very hard. It is a rare case, and legally there is nothing written down about the basis or conduct of sex reassignment surgery and the rights of a citizen afterwards. To get a passport, I will need – after getting a certificate – to appeal to a court,” she said.

Transsexualism was classified as a psychological illness early in the 20th century, and there has been no modernisation of the state’s position since.

“All attempts to ‘normalise’ transsexuals have always failed. The only successful way to ‘treat’ such people is for them to live as a person of the other sex, which is what they psychologically are,” said Jamal Azimzade, the senior specialist at the Funda medical centre. He said the first sex change operation in Azerbaijan was conducted in 2002.

“A 26-year-old man, who completely felt himself to be a woman, appealed to me. He thought of his sexual organs as revolting. The operation was conducted over three stages and ended well. However, the ‘new’ young woman was forced to leave the country for social reasons. People who change their sex in our country are forced to live with their old documents, to undergo military service and struggle with a load of other unpleasantness as a consequence of their lack of documents.”

He said transsexuals were also often the target of aggression and hatred, for example when they try to work or have to present their documents.

“Before undergoing the gender reassignment operation, the patient must go through several stages, including talking to a psychiatrist, since this is a serious step in a person’s life that cannot be undone,” Azimzade said, adding that he normally refused to talk to the media about his work.

“Representatives of the media normally are looking for sensation, and report this problem non-objectively, misinforming their readers and viewers, thus plunging the problem into even deeper misunderstanding.”

Azerbaijan has very few resources for transsexuals, although one man trying to help is Kamran Rzayev, chairman of the Union for Gender Development and Enlightenment, who said around 60 people had turned to his organisation for help.

“Of course, there are many more of them, but many do not know that there is somewhere they can go for help. In Azerbaijan, people with ‘gender denial syndrome’ are completely without rights. The level of discrimination against these people is very high, since transsexuals lose their right to work, to leisure and even to security. Going outside they risk not only being mocked, but also being beaten,” he said.

“It’s not just that these people suffer from childhood and made to feel outcasts, they do not even have the right to a normal life. Because of the ‘disagreement’ between their external appearance and what is written in their documents, they cannot get a decent job. Therefore they are often forced to earn money from prostitution, which turns society against them even more. Many turn to this to earn money for the operation and the hormone therapy, which does not come cheap.”

He said the government needed to change the law to allow transsexuals to gain new documents without the humiliation they currently face.

“Specifically, we need a new law on gender identity, which would regulate the process of getting new documents. Then a transsexual could gain a new passport without a court decision, just on the basis of a psychiatrist’s decision,” he said.

“Even in Islamic Iran, where homosexuality is prosecuted, they address gender dysphoria issues normally. According to Islamic law, transsexuals are considered acceptable on the basis of religious teaching.”

Leyla Leysan is a freelance journalist.


artmika said...

And here is "Behind the story" of this IWPR report:

Leyla Leysan

The idea to write about transsexuals came to me first in 2003, when a friend mentioned that a sex change operation was going to take place in Azerbaijan. The rumour turned out to be false, but it intrigued me and I began to research the subject.

It seemed to me that society’s lack of information was to blame for this intolerance, since people could not understand transsexuals’ problems if they were not fully informed.

By asking around, I managed to track down a plastic surgeon who had conducted these operations. Jamal Azimzade initially refused to give me an interview, but in the course of our discussion I managed to explain to him that I did not want to write a sensational article, but conduct a serious investigation.

I had by that time read many publications on transsexuals, and spent time on international internet forums where transsexuals discuss the problems they face. I understood that their biggest problem is a lack of understanding in society.

They were already missing a lot of what ordinary people take for granted, and they did not even get sympathy. Many transsexuals were close to suicide.

“I decided to write this article so as to explain to society who transsexuals are, what difficulties they have to face and how they need human sympathy,” I told Azimzade, and he agreed to give me an interview, which opened my eyes to many issues I had not considered before.

“Many of them hide their identity from the people around them, because they’re ashamed. Their whole lives are an unbroken sequence of suffering and bitter disappointment and the weaker of them sometimes kill themselves. In most cases, neither their friends nor their relatives accept them,” the doctor told me.

After speaking to Azimzade, I wrote an article about the problems Azerbaijan’s transsexuals face. However, although it had a very straightforward tone - almost like a medical article - the newspapers that I worked for at that time refused to publish it, saying that such a theme was against our national way of thinking.

The tabloid press would have grabbed it with both hands, adding a lot of extra “details”, but I was determined to avoid publishing there, and decided with regret to give up on the idea of writing about transsexuals in an Azeri publication.

Five years passed, and I did not pursue the story until, by chance, I read a post on an Azeri website by a blogger who said one of her co-workers had announced that he wanted to become a woman.

“Yesterday evening, Alexei, one of the salesmen, a bit embarrassed, told me that he is a girl called Inga … Alexei asked me to speak to him only as a woman. He will wear only women’s clothes to reflect his internal self,” wrote the blogger.

“Within a day, I had got used to the idea. But I still don’t know how to avoid saying things like ‘Alexei, take this step-ladder to the kitchen’ and how to get used to looking at Inga’s perfectly done, lightly made-up face.”

I felt any journalist would be delighted to meet this person, so set to work tracking her down. I got Inga’s email address from the blogger, and made her acquaintance. A year later, after her operation, she agreed to be the heroine of my article for IWPR.

(continued below)

artmika said...

(continued from above)

When the article was published, I was the target of several unpleasant comments.

“You are shaming our country, writing such filth,” one letter said.
“People who think transsexuals bring shame on the country are a disgrace to humanity themselves,” I replied to him.

Transsexuals’ problems are an urgent human rights issue for the whole world. Such people exist everywhere and almost everywhere they have to suffer just because they are different. All transsexuals suffer from people’s prejudice, and are victims of discrimination and suspicion. But despite this they go ahead with their operations, because only by changing their sex can they make their lives acceptable.

We need to create tolerance in society and journalists like me are responsible for doing this.