Tuesday, 14 December 2010

MaltaToday: ‘I’m not taking anything away from anyone’ - transgender bride


Joanne Cassar: “I only asked for my rights to be respected."

Transgender bride asks to be ‘left alone’ following successful end to four-year legal ordeal.

Joanne Cassar, the 29-year-old transgender woman who yesterday won a four-year legal battle for the right to marry her fiancé, is “sick and tired” of public comments regarding her sexuality and wants to be left in peace.

“I’m not taking anything away from anyone,” she said yesterday after winning a Constitutional case to be recognized as a woman in order to get married – a possibility denied to her in May 2006, when the Marriage Registrar refused to issue marriage banns, claiming that Cassar could not marry ‘another man’.

“I only asked for my rights to be respected,” she said yesterday, after the Constitutional court finally overturned the registrar’s decision. “The Court has given me this right, after all these years. Now I just want to be left in peace.”

Talking to MaltaToday, Cassar also vented her frustration at online comments discussing her sexuality, in particular her inability to have children: which some people argue constitutes a defining characteristic for women (despite the fact that several women are naturally infertile, and all woman cease to be fertile at a certain point in their lives).

“To these people, I say they don’t know what marriage is. People get married because they love each other, not just because they want to have children. For me, that’s what love is all about. Getting married just to have children, on the other hand, is not necessarily about love at all…”

Cassar was born male, but was legally reclassified as a woman after undergoing gender reassignment therapy. Her birth certificate was duly amended to reflect her ‘new’ gender, but in May 2006, the Marriage Registrar refused to issue marriage banns for Joanne Cassar to marry partner, arguing that ‘in his view’ she was ‘still a man’.

Cassar initiated legal proceedings, and initially won her case to get married legally. However, the registrar appealed the ruling, and in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, the Appeals Court upheld his request.

In his decision to overturn the ruling in May 2008, Mr Justice Joseph R. Micallef observed that while the Marriage Act defined marriage as a union “between a man and a woman”, Maltese law offered no legal definition of either gender. The court therefore took into account various definitions, including an affidavit signed by the former chairman of the parliamentary bio-ethics committee, Dr Michael Axiak, who wrote: “after gender reassignment therapy, a person will have remained of the same sex as before the operation.”

Mr Justice Micallef also noted that Cassar’s birth certificate, allowing a change of name and gender, was only intended to protect the right to privacy and to avoid embarrassment. He therefore upheld the marriage registrar’s request, and annulled the marriage banns. Afterwards, Ms Cassar expressed bitter disappointment at the ruling.

“One court allowed me to get married but another took it away from me,” she said on that occasion.

The case was then taken to the Constitutional Court, and in a brief judgement delivered yesterday, Mr Justice Raymond C. Pace cited a previous European Court of Human Rights ruling (Christine Goodwin vs. UK) which established that a ban on transgender marriage, of the kind imposed by the lower courts in previous rulings, violated Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to marry, to which Malta is signatory.

Effectively this frees Cassar to marry her long-standing partner, but the Registrar of Marriages still has 20 days in which to appeal the ruling.

According to Gabi Calleja, president of the Malta Gay Rights Movement, Cassar’s ordeal is typical of the discrimination faced by transgender persons in Malta and elsewhere.

Research shows that persons who underwent gender reassignment encounter more violence, including extreme violence, than gays. “They also have a harder time finding employment. There is unfortunately still a lot of ignorance on the subject.”

According to Calleja, society as a whole tends to use the traditional gender binary of male/female, and persons like Joanne challenge these concepts in a way that makes some people uncomfortable.

“People like to think of sexual orientation as simply a case of black or white, but the reality is more complex than that,” she said.

“There are over 6 billion people in the world, and yet we assume there are only two genders. But contrary to popular perception, gender is a social construct; it is not fixed at conception as many people believe. There could be other genders apart from simply male and female.”

This report appears in today's edition of MaltaToday Midweek

[Click on the hyperlink above to view the comments on Malta Today's website.]

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