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What if someone says “I am Napoleon?” On trans people and self-determination

Written by Mauro Cabral Grinspan, Executive Director of GATE

“What if someone says I am Napoleon?” This and other similar questions were publicly asked by Argentinian legislators back in 2012 when they were discussing the proposed Gender Recognition Law. It wasn’t a new concern: psycho-medical and legal experts in the country had been asking the same questions for decades. Argentina has been historically and pervasively influenced by theories and practices imported from France. Sadly, that influence has included right-wing psychoanalysis and its obsession with people not only believing that they are Napoleon, but also forcing institutions and societies to share that belief.

It is possible to identify such questions as a direct consequence of defining trans people as ‘crazy’. This phenomenon is called pathologization, and it can be explained by the historical conjunction of three processes: the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable ways of being and living; the classification of those supposedly-acceptable ways as “healthy” and unacceptable ways as “pathological”; and the imposition of institutional and social rules that ensure structural fundamental inequality between these two opposing states of being.

Two years ago, the World Health Assembly formally adopted the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). It was completed after more than 10 years of work by the World Health Organization. The ICD-11 includes a radical change: it states that identifying as a gender that differs from the sex assigned at birth is NOT a pathology. In other words, that trans people are not, by definition, mentally disordered people. Of course, we can have other mental health disorders, including those caused by stigma, discrimination and violence, but being ourselves is not one of them.

Many laws and policies restricting trans people’s access to legal gender recognition have been based on previous restrictions in psycho-medical knowledge prior to the release of the ICD-11, for example, by justifying it as compliance with the World Health Organization’s previously pathologizing classification. However, after 2019, that reasoning is no longer an acceptable excuse. It is time for all countries around the world to behave coherently with their own tradition of compliance, and to depathologize trans people in accordance with the World Health Organization’s updated classification.

Both “conservative” and “radical” anti-gender movements oppose trans depathologization by demonizing trans people’s right to their identity. These movements, and the governments supporting them, repeatedly ask the question: “What if a ‘crazy’ person claims to be someone else (e.g., Napoleon, or Wellington, or Fernando VII) and everyone is forced to accept this as their legal identity? And what if that person claims to be somethingelse (e.g., a Louis XVI chair, to mention another Argentinian obsession with the splendors of France)?” These inaccurate representations of trans people’s right to self-determination as the right to legally ‘be’ anyone or anything, dead or alive, is a directconsequence of pathologization. The reality is that, when trans people gain access to legal gender recognition based on self-determination, they continue to be the same kind of being: just a person, the same person. Changing our gender markers, and even modifying our bodies, does not give us superpowers. We do not become institutionally or socially invisible, our legal and fiscal records do not evaporate, and our lives continue to be as traceable as everyone else’s lives. We just get to be ourselves, the same as everyone else.

And that is, in my opinion, bring us to the crux of the problem. The entire problem. Restricting or denying trans people’s right to identity through pathologization has never been about preventing us from becoming someone or something else and defending the rest of the world from that ‘becoming’. It has always been, and continues to be, about preventing us from achieving equality and from defining equality as radically trans-inclusive. Pathologization has historically been a system of domination designed to define trans lives, and the lives of many others, as intrinsically inferior, unworthy, without dignity, deprived of recognition, respect and care, and denied human rights. It has also defined, and continues to define, cis(gender) people as the rulers of such a system – those that get to decide, for example, how many ounces of flesh we must pay just to be legally recognized by our name.

Time-traveling, reincarnating historical figures, and bringing fictional characters to life, are some of our shared dreams and nightmares; as precious as they are to our human experience, laws and policies cannot continue to be based on such fantasies. Trans people must be legally depathologized now, without any more delays based on ridiculous fears and imaginings. Real people are being seriously harmed in real life, and it is time for everyone to face up to reality.