LONDON, Nov 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When a 12-year-old boy went on the Oprah Winfrey show to announce he was transgender, Mara Keisling realised how far the once ostracised community had come despite hundreds of hate crime murders in recent years.
The boy had decided to kill himself at the age of nine but saw another transgender child on television and identified his own turmoil.
“He’d felt lost, worthless, and suicidal... that revelation saved his life, and he wanted to go public in the hope of saving others,” said Keisling, 55, who was formerly called Mark and is founder of the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality.
People who are transgender are described as people who feel they have been born into the wrong gender body.
Many transgender people are prescribed hormones by their doctors to change their bodies, while some undergo surgery. But not all can or will take those steps, and transgender identity is not dependent upon medical procedures.
Yet while many societies have become more accepting of gay, lesbian and bisexual communities, transgender campaigners fear they still have a long way to end discrimination.
Hundreds of transgender people are killed every year and many live in constant fear of abuse, assault and alienation.
“The lack of understanding of our humanity is actually killing us,” said Keisling, who began the transition to Mara about 20 years ago, having told friends and family of feeling like a female since childhood.
She spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance on Nov. 20, which commemorates those killed in transgender hate crimes.
Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM), a project coordinated by non-profit association Transgender Europe, said 226 transgender people were murdered in 28 countries worldwide over the 12 months to September this year.
A year before the figure was 238 while there have been at least 1,612 reported murders in 62 countries since 2008.
Most of the murders of transgender people that TMM recorded this year occurred in Latin America: 113 in Brazil, 31 in Mexico, 10 in Venezuela and 9 in Honduras, as well as murders in 10 other Latin American countries.
In the United States 10 transgender people were killed, while TMM also recorded murders in Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Uganda, among others.
Despite the continued violence, Crystal Ann Gray, director of United States Transgender Advocacy, said recent legal reforms were providing greater protection for the transgender community.
New York City officials last month announced they would try to change the law to let transgender people alter the sex on birth certificates without having to prove they had had surgery.
In September the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the first time filed lawsuits against companies in Florida and Michigan for allegedly violating sex discrimination laws by firing transgender employees based on their gender identity.
“In many states, there is still an outdated mindset from times of slavery and civil war, but in time, there will be more court cases and rulings going in favour of transgender people,” Gray told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Similar landmark rulings have taken place in conservative countries where LGBT issues challenge the religious and social status quo.
This month a Malaysian court gave transgender Muslims the right to cross-dress, overturning an Islamic law ban.
In October, Kenyan activist Audrey Mbugua won a landmark case when the high court ordered the national examination council to change her name and remove “male” on her academic certificates, which had proved an obstacle to finding work.
While gender rights are improving in many countries, 21 nations in Europe - which saw seven transgender murders last year - require transgender people to undergo sterilisation before their gender identity is recognised.
Transgender Europe said only 35 European countries legally recognise a transgender person, while 14 provide no legal recognition at all.
While attitudes towards transgender people and the laws affecting their rights differ from country to country, Keisling believes the global transgender community is “educating their friends and families about it what means to be transgender”.
Citing the example of Laverne Cox, the American actress and LGBT advocate who plays a transgender person in the TV drama “Orange is the New Black”, Keisling said such high-profile figures had helped to highlight the issue of gender identity.
Yet Keisling said she did take issue with transgender advocates on panel discussions and interviews on television who described themselves as “ordinary people like everybody else”.
“Ordinary people don’t ever have to examine and figure out who they are, then go out knowing they could lose everything, including their life. Transgender people are not ordinary in any sense of the word, we’re much tougher than that,” she said.
Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Alisa Tang.