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The World Health Organization Drives Change in Transgender Rights

On May 25th, WHO removed what is known as “gender identity disorder” from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)

Photo/World Health Organization

According to Lale Say, Coordinator of WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, the reclassification will “reduce the stigma” while ensuring “access to necessary health interventions.” Indeed, discrimination is a major barrier to accessing prevention services, HIV testing, treatment and care for transgender people. According to a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the US “nearly a quarter [of transgender people] say they have avoided doctors or health care out of concern they would be discriminated against (22%), and 31% say they have no regular doctor or form of health care.” In many countries, the number of transgender people not seeking care or being denied care is higher.

On May 25th, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved a resolution that represented a major win for transgender rights: what is known as “gender identity disorder” has been removed from the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and re-classified as “gender incongruence.” What this resolution means is that it has been finally recognized that being transgender is not a mental health condition.

Gender incongruence can be described as a feeling of anguish when an individual’s identity conflicts with the sex they were assigned at birth.

According to Lale Say, Coordinator of WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research, the reclassification will “reduce the stigma” while ensuring “access to necessary health interventions.” Indeed, discrimination is a major barrier to accessing prevention services, HIV testing, treatment and care for transgender people. According to a poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in the US “nearly a quarter [of transgender people] say they have avoided doctors or health care out of concern they would be discriminated against (22%), and 31% say they have no regular doctor or form of health care.” In many countries, the number of transgender people not seeking care or being denied care is higher.

The UN experts welcomed the “major breakthrough” and called on States to follow the WHO’s lead, to review their medical classifications and take strong proactive measures to de-stigmatize gender non-conforming people. As they observed, denying the existence of diversity or lifestyle choices “leads to violence, including so-called ‘corrective rape’ and ‘conversion therapy’, and to forced, coercive and otherwise involuntary treatments and procedures to ‘normalise’ sexual attraction or human bodies”. Indeed, according to Human Rights Campaign, 26 transgender people were killed because of their gender identity in 2018. In other instances, people’s transgender status put them at risk in other ways, such as forcing them into unemployment, poverty, homelessness and/or slavery.

“It is time for the world to recognize and celebrate the rich diversity of human nature,” the UN experts concluded. We can hope that many country leaders will echo this statement and promote an all-gender inclusive society.

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