Masen Davis is a world-renowned leader in LGBTQ and human rights. He has led countless initiatives for LGBTQ rights in North America, Europe, and Central Asia. Currently, he is the Executive Director of Transgender Europe, a network of Transgender organizations across Europe and Central Asia. Masen has spent much of his life involved in activism and advocating for LGBTQ people.
By Dorian Coleman
Masen began his path in activism college and by going to antiwar and pro-choice marches. He also found inspiration in his mother, a feminist. “I have always been drawn to activism,” said Masen reflectively. He also discussed how his personal experiences led him to activism.
“When I came out for the first time in the gay community as a lesbian, I saw the kinds of discrimination and oppression those around me were facing. I originally became active in the anti-violence movement because gay and lesbian people were experiencing extremely high rates of street violence, domestic violence, and police harassment.”
Masen’s life experiences set the stage for him to become involved in activism. Masen’s involvement in activism began in the early ’90s while in college. “I took the one class my university offered in Gay and Lesbian History. There was little recognition of trans or bisexual inclusion at that time. My first job out of college was working for the Gay and Lesbian Center in Chicago as a Civil Court Advocate helping people who had experienced workplace discrimination and harassment. I became really inspired.”
The inspiration that steered Masen into roles of activism developed from many sources. “Different things have inspired me at different times in life. Early on in life, people I saw as incredibly cool were doing street activism through Act Up and Queer Nation, and I wanted to be part of that movement in that community.” Masen’s involvement in LGBT activism has spanned over 25 years and later led him to become the CEO of Freedom for All Americans, as well as assume director roles at the Transgender Law Center and GATE.
Currently, in his role as executive director at Transgender Europe (TGEU) Masen connects multinational organizations to support, develop, and improve human rights initiatives for trans people. Headquartered in Berlin, Germany, the mission of the organization is to strengthen the rights and wellbeing of trans people in Europe and Central Asia by meeting the needs of local communities and developing intersectional programs to develop more resilient and connected trans movements. It has been in operation since 2005 and started with a meeting of trans activists in Vienna, Austria.
The purpose of this meeting was to share information about circumstances within trans communities around Europe during that time. It was decided at this meeting to create a membership-based organization that could support and represent trans groups in Europe and within institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the European Parliament. Within the past few years, the network has expanded and also does work in Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.
TGEU currently has members in 46 countries. Since Transgender Europe’s inception, there have been many advancements in the rights of trans people. Many institutions have policies for trans people and trans rights in gender identity protections. Although great strides have been made around Europe, trans people continue to face obstacles and often become political scapegoats.
Masen explains, “Every law impacts us because LGBTQ people are all citizens of the world. So, I think it’s worth remembering that anything around employment, safety, healthcare, education, and environmental justice, all have an LGBTQ angle to them. They all impact the way we live in this world.”
Masen emphasized the importance of intersectionality, and how taking action to improve human rights in general, is valuable. Being a trans person is one facet of a person’s identity – others can include socioeconomic status, race, religion, and age, and can all be influential to a person’s identity in totality.
Although laws for LGBT people across Europe can vary considerably, many of the obstacles throughout Europe and Central Asia are similar. Some governments have outlawed or reneged on legal gender recognition.
Masen states, “So, whether it is in the US, UK, or Uzbekistan, we’re seeing a rise of anti-trans people on both the right and the left that somehow find trans people to be a threat to the norms of gender. We are seeing resources going in from the right-wing to influence women’s groups to erroneously suggest that trans people or allies of trans people threaten the rights of women who are not trans. We are seeing these anti-gender movements arising in regions and are having a real impact on trans people. We’re also seeing increased violence against trans people, especially trans women of color.”
The violence against trans people is statistically significant. According to ILGA-Europe and Press for Change, 79% of trans people surveyed experienced some form of public harassment. The organizations made comparisons of transphobic hate crimes to homophobic hate crimes, and researchers discovered that trans people are three times more likely to experience hate incidents and crimes than their lesbian or gay counterparts. Masen states, “We document murders of trans people every year and last year was our second highest year ever. The highest year was the year before that, so the violence is going up.”
The results of interviews from the IGLA-Europe and Press for Change study indicated that attacks on trans women by men were regarded as male-on-male attacks, as opposed to male-on-female attacks. The study also indicated that the vulnerability of transwomen is often overlooked.
“One thing that keeps me interested in this work is trying to figure out how we can increase support and awareness of trans people. How do we increase empathy for people who do not understand what it’s like to be trans? There aren’t as many of us, as, for example, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. So, some of the strategies that help contribute to equality are harder to achieve.”
Many of TGEU’s initiatives focus on educating the public. “It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like to be trans if they don’t have somebody in their life that has been sharing some of that journey with them. And you know, I am very aware that those who are out as trans, and those who don’t visually adhere to narrow gender stereotypes, are much more likely to experience discrimination and violence. So, there is a real reason why people want to live their lives quietly if they can, right? Not everybody has the privilege of being visible. So, the burden of violence often comes against those that are seen as visually different in some way and those levels of harassment are sky-high.”
Due to the multidimensionality of the trans experience, it is important for trans people to have support. The connected transgender organizations across Europe and Central Asia assist many trans people to get the support, access, and education they need. Many of these organizations that provide services for transgender people are small and are fighting to stay alive. Also, due to the ever-changing restrictions of the pandemic, safety and defending basic rights are big priorities.
Masen states,” I think the priorities depend on where one is situated. One of the exciting things about my work is figuring out what is a priority for whom. For we are no longer a movement of one priority.” Masen’s work takes into consideration intersectionality and the context in which different trans people live around Europe and Central Asia. These considerations add to the robustness of the work of TGEU, and it promotes meeting the needs of many people across diverse communities.
Masen Davis and his team are working to improve the lives of trans people all over Europe and Central Asia. To help Masen and his team to continue this important work you can donate here.
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