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Reflecting on Trans, Visibility, Engagement and Success

Written by Erika Castellanos, Executive Director of GATE

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Palais Wilson, Geneva, 15 June 2023.

From 12-16 June, the annual meeting of Special Procedures was held in Geneva. Within the framework of this annual meeting, human rights organizations, including the Center for Reproductive Rights, the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), the Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI), and ILGA World hosted a side event on “Fighting retrogression and affirming the interdependence of human rights: unpacking gender and gender identity.” Representing GATE, I joined as a facilitator of the session, which was planned as a workshop format to foster interaction between presenters and participants. The first part of the session focused on discussing an understanding of gender by feminists and under international human rights standards, looking at the difference between gender and gender identity, and debunking some arguments and misconceptions on the topic. The second part examined the intersectionality and universality of rights and how to operationalize these concepts in Special Procedures. The event was a huge success and a shared learning experience for all present.

“By the end of the event, I felt slightly overwhelmed and full of emotions – humility, pride, and a rewarding sense of organizational and personal success.” 

This event is another milestone in the growth of GATE. It happened just a few days after we received official communication that our application for ECOSOC status was approved. GATE first submitted an application for ECOSOC status in 2019 and updated it in 2020. In total, it took four years for our ECOSOC status to be approved. Much of GATE’s work happens globally, particularly in UN spaces related to international human rights law. Not having ECOSOC status hindered our ability to meaningfully engage in UN systems that make decisions impacting the lives of trans, gender diverse and intersex (TGDI) people. While observing the ongoing shrinking of civil society spaces, we celebrate receiving our ECOSOC status and look forward to increased engagement with UN health and human rights mechanisms. ECOSOC status facilitates us in serving TGDI communities globally and ensuring that our interests are brought forward in all UN spaces with policy-level impacts on our lives. 

GATE logo followed by the text: Receives the United Nations ECOSOC special consultative status

By the end of the event, I felt overwhelmed by the recognition from UN staff of GATE’s work and incredibly proud of our achievements thus far. I could hardly contain my tears as I took a photo with the panelists Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Dorothy Estrada Tanck, member of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls, and our very own Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

From left to right, panelists next is Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health; next is Dorothy Estrada Tanck, member of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls; followed by Erika Castellanos, GATE's Executive Director and  Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Our interaction as an organization in these spaces, sharing a stage with such prominent leaders, and working with civil society activists across the globe, is an instrumental element of our success and growth story. It is one that GATE, as a whole, celebrates; our board and staff, both current and previous, have all contributed to getting us to where we are today. I cannot separate my success from the success of GATE. GATE has allowed me to grow in new spaces and into new roles and to build my capacity and knowledge as a human rights defender. I often feel disbelief when I sit back and acknowledge where I am now and how I have grown with GATE. I remember where I came from, and I will never forget my humble origins. I was born into a lower-class family; my indigenous background weaved into my being. I grew up in a country and region where, statistically, I have outlived my life expectancy. I migrated to a country where I knew no one, and I survived by engaging in sex work. I have lived experience with incarceration and drug use, and have lived with HIV since 1995. 

In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I would come to occupy the spaces that I do now and interact on an equal footing with such prominent leaders. My journey gives me the conviction to continue my work with even more passion”.

It cements, for me, the reason for GATE’s existence. Organizations like ours want to ensure that my experience of growth and development is not an exception but rather that all TGDI people have the opportunity for self-realization. I look forward to seeing how my life continues to unfold, and I feel positive about the opportunities in working with and for you, our communities, to shape what GATE can achieve in the coming years.