Governments have failed to protect trans people from murder, and from COVID-19

By Nadia Rahman, Researcher and Policy Advisor in Amnesty’s global Gender, Sexuality and Identity Team

“COVID-19 may be a new killer – but hate has been killing us for decades.”

This is what Joey Mataele, a trans activist from Tonga, told Amnesty when we asked about the pandemic’s impact on trans people in the Pacific Islands.

Joey, who helped found Tonga’s only organization for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, is right. Between 2008 and 2020 there has been a yearly increase in murders of trans and gender-diverse people, according to the most recent findings of the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. In the year to 30 September 2020, 350 trans and gender-diverse people were killed globally.

The TMM project’s statistics for this period also highlight the intersecting forms of discrimination many trans people face; people of colour made up 79% of trans people murdered in the USA; and 62% of murdered trans people whose occupation was known were sex workers.

These figures are horrific enough, but they do not capture the full magnitude of the abuse perpetrated against many trans people on a daily basis.

Violence and abuse against trans people has increased during the pandemic. In some cases this is a direct result of lockdown measures which force trans people to isolate with hostile family members. Others have been forced to put themselves in dangerous situations to earn a living; this is particularly the case with trans sex workers, who have risked exposure to the virus, or met clients in unsafe locations in order to continue working amid lockdowns.

The pandemic has also exposed how years of discrimination have pushed many trans people to the margins, leaving them vulnerable to the economic ravages of COVID-19.

Ahead of Trans Day of Remembrance, Amnesty spoke to trans people around the world about their experiences of the pandemic. Their accounts make it clear that established economic, employment, and health care systems across the world often marginalize trans people in unique ways.

Restricted livelihoods

Trans people in many parts of the world are cut off from formal education or employment. This restricts trans people to a narrow range of job opportunities; much of the work that is available is informal or based in industries which were hard hit by the pandemic.

For example, in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, trans women, culturally known as khwaja siras or hijras, are cut off from many education and employment opportunities, and often earn a living by performing ceremonial functions at weddings and child births, engaging in sex-work, or begging on the streets

When lockdown measures were imposed across these countries, this kind of work came to a grinding halt. Trans activists in Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan told Amnesty they knew transwomen who could no longer afford to pay rent after lockdown was implemented, and who would have been on the verge of homelessness without the support of other trans women and activists.

Brenda, a Filipino trans activist who works across countries in South East Asia said the main forms of livelihood for trans women in the region are sex-work, participating in beauty pageants, and performing in various entertainment venues. Social distancing and lockdown measures affected all of these industries and cut trans women off from their income overnight.

Similarly, in the Pacific Islands, including Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, most transwomen – culturally referred to as Leiti, Faʻafafine, Vakasalewalewa, Fakafefine, and Palopa on the different islands – are employed in the hospitality industry. Joey said trans women lost their jobs in droves when visitors stopped coming to the islands because of the pandemic.

It’s clear that the barriers trans people have historically faced to employment have left many in precarious situations. The pandemic has been economically devastating for millions of people, but those who are shut out of the job market due to discrimination and hate have been especially badly hit. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to draw attention to this, but now governments must act to ensure trans people have equal access to employment and social security.

The perils of ID checks

There are other ways in which the pandemic has had a unique impact on trans people.

In some countries, lockdown measures have included the mandatory display of IDs when people leave their homes for essential purposes. Trans and non-binary people living in countries where they are not able to legally change their gender, told us that this resulted in a barrage of harassment and hostility.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some countries in South America, including Peru, Colombia, and Panama, designated specific days for men and women to leave their homes for essentials. This left trans people open to abuse, extortion, and harassment. One particularly shocking video circulated online showed police officers in Lima forcing three trans women to squat on the ground and say: “I want to be a man”.

In some countries trans people are also denied the documentation they need to access social security benefits.

Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, a medical student and trans-activist, told Amnesty India:

“Transgender people don’t have access to Aadhar cards, ration cards, PAN card or a lot of identity documents that might allow you to access basic facilities.”

Health care

Accessing health care has also been a major problem for many trans people during the pandemic.

Trans people across different regions told Amnesty that the stigma and discrimination they have historically faced in accessing health care has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

A major problem is a lack of trans-specific healthcare, which leaves people reliant on online forums or the experiences of other trans people to make big decisions about medication and treatment. This peer support system is valuable, but it carries risks. Rumi Dalle, a transwoman in Lebanon told us that people often feel they have no option but to take over-the-counter medicines and black-market hormone injections without medical oversight. I heard similar stories about lack of medical support and oversight from trans people in the Philippines, Tanzania, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Kosovo. 

In countries in Europe and in the United States, where some trans-specific healthcare is available, gender affirming treatment and surgeries were postponed when health-care services were reprioritised to respond to the pandemic, resulting in a raft of physical and mental health challenges.  Restrictions on travel have also impacted people who have to travel to other countries to get gender affirming treatment or healthcare. This is often the case where legal gender recognition is not possible in their own countries, and the medical support for it is unavailable.

Lack of support

When we asked trans people whether they had received any government support during the pandemic, many responded with incredulity.  One Filipino transwoman referred to the murder of Jennifer Laude, whose killer was pardoned after he had served only half his sentence:

“President Duterte pardoned the murderer of a transwomen. That’s the worst slap we can get as transwomen[…]If killing trans people has been made this easy, what can we expect from the government [at the time of the pandemic]? No support at all.”

In the absence of specific government relief or stimulus packages, many trans people have had to rely on assistance from others in the trans or wider LGBTI communities. There are some heartening examples of trans activists and communities coming together in localised efforts to support those most in need. In Latin America, the organization RedLacTans created a solidarity network linking 18 countries in the region, and provided limited funds to cover basic needs like food for those most in need. In Pakistan, trans activists came together to provide basic awareness around hygiene and sanitisation, distributed sanitisers, immunity boosters and masks.

But activists shouldn’t have to step into the gaps where states have failed. Governments need to look hard at the damage the pandemic has caused to trans people and take immediate action to protect their rights. 

This means challenging and breaking down the institutionalised, systemic barriers trans people face in accessing and retaining formal employment and the benefits that come with it; providing appropriate and timely healthcare, food security and shelter; and protecting trans people from violence and harassment.

Respecting and promoting the human rights of trans people is the national and international obligation of every government. As the pandemic rips across the world, governments must recognize their responsibilities to keep those who are already on the margins of society from falling over its edges.