UN Transgender Advocates Meeting in Geneva

Published November 21, 2011 by transfeminists

Dear readers 

A heartfelt apology for missing last week’s blog. I was attending a meeting of global transgender advocates. I was pretty excited when He-Jin Kim informed me she has nominated me to attend this meeting. It was so difficult just getting the paperwork in order to apply for the visa and after discussions, negotiations and endless emails with the organisers; I finally had all the paperwork to apply for the visa with the Swiss consulate in Cape Town. So Sunday evening 13 November 2011, after a very turbulent flight between East London and Cape Town, I met with He-Jin at domestic arrivals at Cape Town International Airport. I am talking about turbulence that strikes fear into the heart of a well-seasoned traveller like me. 

After our check-in at International departures, we were whisked off to a fantastic treatment at the Bidvest Premier Lounge where we enjoyed light snacks and drinks.  After a very long flight to Amsterdam, we connected to Geneva, Switzerland, home of the UNAids secretariat, World Health Organisation and also the Global Fund. We checked in the Hotel Montana and after a long session on the internet, I wandered into the hotel lobby to find all the participants had gathered for a pre-meeting with the facilitator, Robin. I was so honoured to meet KhartiniSlamah, a well-known trans activist. Other activists included Sheenah from Fiji, Alex and Artur from Kyrgyzstan and the very handsome Sharn from Singapore. The following morning we were joined by Skipper from Botswana, Claudia, Valentina and the very beautiful Ms. Romero, all associated with REDLACTRANS from Latin America. 

We met Tuesday morning, 15 November 2011 at the UNAids building in Geneva. We kicked off the session with an overview of the meeting and the facilitator explained the organisers’ expectations and in turn, explored all the activists’ expectations of the meeting. She also explainedthat the meeting will take the form of a consultative meeting with the UNDP, UNAids, WHO and the Global Fund. The activists were then expected to draw a picture of them that would be a collection of all the characteristics that describe them personally. Some drew flowers while others drew trees and roads and circles and finally steps. Yes steps! Khartini depicted her journey as being steps of growth, both as a person and as an activist. 

I am proud to say I met very brave activists at this meeting and most of them work in diverse areas of activism. Some work with sex workers, while others have an HIV mandate and missions and objectives range from human rights to gender to health. Amongst other objectives, the organisers were aiming to consult with activists from the Global South about how to further the agenda for transgender organisations. 

I am very happy to report that there was a focus on transgender health beyond HIV. Don’t get me wrong. There are alarming statistics on HIV prevalence in the transgender community, but often the focus is only on HIV where the transgender community. This is one of the reasons we encounter difficulties with access to hormones and surgeries because discussions with donor agencies and other political bodies is too focussed on HIV. Another important issue raised was the conflation of transgender issues and MSM concerning HIV research and program. This issue enjoyed great attention and some documents stating treatment guidelines on HIV, developed by the WHO was widely criticised among the activists. 

Terminology and the use of “trans” and “transgender” enjoyed lengthy debate and discussion. The Asia-Pacific team was rather adamant about the use of the word “trans” since it might also include transvestites into this category, while Latin-America and Africa advocate for a broader inclusion of gender-questioning individuals. This is especially true for Latin-America, where thetravesti (transvestite) is considered as being family of the trans family. Various arguments were raised and debates ensued. Needless to say, we agreed to disagree. After all, you don’t expect to reach consensus when a room full of transgender advocates from various regions gather.  As usual, trans advocates exchanged business cards with each other as well as with the organisers. The Latin-American team distributed some reading materials, including reports and magazines on transgender life in this region. They also gave other participants a DVD called TransLatina. 

Socialising and personal discussions took place Tuesday evening when the organisers took the participants out to the Café du Soleil. The restaurant is well-known for its cheese fondue. Despite its high ratings and film glamour, I decided to steer clear of the fondue and opted for a light steak and even lighter red wine. Fantastic choice, I patted myself at the end of the evening. Light conversation and a discussions on the traditions from our local countries, especially in the love and romance context. Sheenah’s narration of on the mix of transgender women and alcohol in Fiji had people rolling on the floor with laughter (well, OK, not really, we didn’t roll on the ground) but it was really hilarious.


Thursday saw the UN, GF and other partners meeting with the participants. The were some recommendations made to the donor agencies and these included amongst others:

  • A focus on health issues beyond HIV;
  • A means of looking how the UN can influence and inspire better treatment of transgender people by police, legislatures and other security and law enforcement agencies especially in Latin America.
  • There has to be regional and sub-regional consultation over the next two years. The five year plan proposed by organisers was rejected and described as being over-ambitious. Khartini suggested a two year plan with monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in place.
  • There was a discussion on who should be on the steering committee for this forum and the proposal was that the eleven activists who was present at the meeting and that we should propose other individuals. 

This is just some of the burning issues discussed at the meeting. The meeting was concluded with putting together a work plan for the next two years. This planning includes regional and sub-regional consultation and planning. This conference was very educational and eye-opening. If not anything, it has given me perspective of how transgender people live and exist in other regions on the globe. Moreover, it gave me an idea of how activists organise transgender activities in other regions. As always, I was amazed at the courage and determination to do activism despite discrimination, rejection, police, governments and every other obstacle you can possibly think of. I have always had and probably always will have a great respect for transgender women from Latin America. Their resilience and determination have gained them the ultimate respect where I am concerned. 

Please keep following our activities on our blog at:

transfeminists.wordpress.com and you can make contact with us at:


Next week we will give a report back from the Women’s Global Reproductive Rights Network meeting that will take place from the 22nd until the 24th of November 2011 in Cape Town. Also, next weekend will be the first ever transgender advocacy and health conference where the coalition will also be presenting on medical access for transgender people in the Eastern Cape, as well as a paper on transgender feminism. 

Au revoire, until next week! 

Leigh Ann


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