UN Agencies Say Self-Identification Sufficient for Sex Change in Prison

By | December 8, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. December 9 (C-Fam) Several UN agencies have issued a brief stating that a man who self-identifies as a woman must be treated as a woman, even in prison, regardless of legal identification or biological characteristics.

According to the “principle of self-identification,” a person’s declared sexual identity must be recognized legally. Access to sex-segregated spaces like restrooms should be allowed on the basis of self-identification alone.  This is a controversial position internationally.  Legal sex change without approval by a legal official or medical expert is permitted in 18 countries, most in Latin America and Western Europe.

In 2020, the UK scrapped an attempt to introduce “self-ID,” maintaining the standard that legal sex change requires a medical evaluation and a two-year period of having lived according to the person’s chosen sexual identity.

Issues like sexual orientation and gender identity remain highly controversial in the UN General Assembly. Even so, UN agencies have moved rapidly toward promoting “self-ID” as an international human rights standard without seeking consensus.  In a similar way, UN agencies have promoted abortion and comprehensive sexuality education as human rights issues even as they are repeatedly rejected in international negotiations.

Last year, former High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said ‘“every country in the world” should recognize the sex of trans people “based on self-identification” alone.  The UN’s independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity—whose entire mandate remains a matter of controversy—has similarly promoted self-identification as an “entitlement” under human rights law.

For people in confined places, such as prisons, the stakes of self-identification are much higher.  The new technical brief, sponsored by UNODC, UNFPA, UNAIDS, UNDP, and the World Health Organization, says the sex identity of prisoners should be “recorded as declared, “regardless of their legal recognition, documentation, genital organs, general appearance or sex assigned at birth.”

The brief discusses ensuring that individuals who identify as trans have access to housing, showers, bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity, and that accommodations should be made to protect them from violence and psychological stress.  In contrast, the potential threat to female prisoners from biologically male prisoners self-identifying as women are not addressed.

The guidance says that “gender-affirming” hormones or surgeries should be “treated as a basic health need and thus be provided free of charge.”

The document cites the 2015 “Nelson Mandela rules” for the treatment of prisoners, which calls for “respect for his or her self-perceived gender.”  It also draws from the Yogyakarta Principles, which is not an official UN document, but a list of assertions compiled by a group of experts and activists.  It attempts to frame sexual orientation and gender identity in terms of international human rights obligations, drawing on the work of treaty monitoring bodies.  These expert committees’ nonbinding recommendations have already been used to speciously claim that abortion is an international human right.

While transgender-identified prisoners may face risks, so may their fellow inmates, particularly women.  One self-identified woman imprisoned for murder in New Jersey impregnated two female inmates before being transferred to a male facility, and now claims to be “terrified” and afraid of sexual assault and abuse.  A New York transgender-identified prisoner was convicted of raping a woman while incarcerated.  The fact that gender “self-identification” in prisons might encourage opportunism is a dangerous blind spot in the UN agencies’ new guidance.