Documents and Disasters: Can Proper ID Save the Lives of Transgender People in Emergencies?

Published: November 15, 2011

Last summer when Bhumika Shrestha travelled to New York City to represent Nepal at the United Nations, she encountered some special questions during her layover in Doha. Shrestha, who is transgender — or, in Nepal, third-gender — presents as an elegant young woman. Her passport and citizenship ID card, however, both list her as a man named Kailash.

In Qatar, airline officials pulled her aside and questioned her about her passport and her appearance but eventually let her go.

The experience was unpleasant for Shrestha but not unsafe. In the worst-case scenario, the documentation discrepancy would have sent her home on the next flight to Kathmandu.

"They asked me questions, and I was scared to fail on my first trip to the U.S.," she recalls, "but then they believed my story that I was transgender and let me get on the plane."

Like so many transgender people, Shrestha faces daily administrative struggles. As Paisley Currah, professor of Political Science at City University of New York, explains in a paper titled "Securitizing Gender: Identity, Biometrics, and Transgender Bodies at the Airport," "When an individual’s cultural legibility is not affirmed by their identity papers, even everyday quotidian transactions become moments of vulnerability."

However, while common transactions might be difficult, in situations where security is heightened — such as at the airport — discrepancies between gender presentation and documentation can make transgender people the targets of increased scrutiny, neglect, or abuse.

Such vulnerability can be aggravated by emergency conditions. Similar to situations at the airport, during emergencies that require intensified security, people who don’t conform to gendered expectations become anomalies, and anomalies get special — and sometimes unjust — attention. Several countries have seen this happen. International relief agencies admit there is a dearth of attention paid to this issue.

Nepal, with its protected legal status for third-gender citizens, and currently in a disaster preparedness phase awaiting an earthquake, provides a compelling case study for how gender-appropriate ID can protect citizens in emergency situations. The stories from other disasters support government issuance of third-gender ID documents, a move the central government in Nepal has yet to make. 

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