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World Health Organisation drops transgender from list of mental disorders

Reiss Smith May 27, 2019
A close up of hands holding a non-binary passport.

Pakistan's first non-binary passport, issued to trans activist Farzana Riaz. (Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) will no longer categorise being transgender as a mental health condition, a move which has the potential to “liberate” trans and non-binary people worldwide.

The decision was approved on Friday (May 25) by the World Health Assembly, the WHO governing body that represents 194 member states, and should now trickle down into national policies.

Human rights groups say that the reclassification could give people an easier route to legal transition by removing any requirements for a medical diagnosis.

“The World Health Organisation’s removal of ‘gender identity disorder’ from its diagnostic manual will have a liberating effect on transgender people worldwide,” said Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“This will have a liberating effect on transgender people worldwide.”

—Graeme Reid, LGBT rights director at Human Rights Watch.

“Governments should swiftly reform national medical systems and laws that require this now officially outdated diagnosis.”

World Health Organisation decision could help end trans oppression

Reid argued that while mental health issues play no part in a person’s gender identity, the oppression of trans people can cause suffering.

“Transgender people are fighting stigma and discrimination that can be traced in part to medical systems that have historically diagnosed expressions of gender non-conformity as a mental pathology,” he said.

“But it’s the stigma, discrimination, and bullying—and not anything inherent in gender nonconformity—that can inflict mental health problems in transgender people.”

According to Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist whose work deals with sexuality and gender, “there is substantial evidence that the stigma associated with the intersection of transgender status and mental disorders contributes to precarious legal status, human rights violations and barriers to appropriate health care for this population.”

World Health Organisation condemned by intersex advocates

While the WHO’s new stance on gender has been applauded, intersex-led groups have taken offence to its treatment of intersex people.

The updated International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) introduces language which describes intersex variations as “disorders of sex development.”

“This will cause continuing harm to people born with variations of sex characteristics,” read a joint statement of 65 intersex groups released before the ICD-11 was approved on May 23.

The statement goes on to argue that “some current materials in the ICD-11 Foundation are associated with medical procedures that fail to meet human rights norms,” such as surgeries performed on intersex children.

UK to reform Gender Recognition Act

The United Kingdom is one of 33 European countries which require a mental health diagnosis in order to change a person’s gender marker, according to Transgender Europe.

The Government has pledged to reform the Gender Recognition Act, which could remove this requirement.

A consultation was carried out in 2018, with a response expected imminently.

LGBT+ groups have campaigned for the UK to follow the lead of countries including Norway, Ireland, France, Portugal and Greece, which permit individuals to self-identify their gender.

In the US, trans rights vary from state to state. In California, people can apply for a new ID card or driver’s licence through self-certification. At the other end of the spectrum, states including Ohio will not change a person’s gender on their birth certificate under any circumstance.

More: legal transition, Trans, Transgender

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