'Changing gender should be as easy as changing car numberplate'
By Honor Mahony
Next week the Swedish parliament is expected to pass a law abolishing a requirement for people changing their legal gender to be sterilised.
The move follows a high level and at times bitter debate about a four-decade old law that pitted equality activists against conservative politicians.
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The activists argued that the 1972 law - making Sweden one of the first countries in the world to allow legal gender change - breached human rights.
Opponents objected to possible situations where a person born as a woman, changes her legal identity to become a man, then gets pregnant.
"They think that people who give birth are mothers - and so are women. It is a conservative outlook on gender," says Ulrika Westerlund, chair of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights.
"We used the human rights approach. The state cannot tell individuals that they have to have surgery that they don't want," she adds.
The conservative opponents last year eventually abandoned their opposition, though mainly, says Westerlund, out of political expediency rather than conviction.
Nevertheless, next week's vote will be a milestone of sorts. Because Sweden is not alone in forcing transgender people - people who do not feel happy with the gender they are born with - to be sterilised if they want to have their gender identity legally recognized.
Ten EU countries, according to the Vienna-based NGO, Transgender Europe, still have the sterilisation requirement. They include France, the Netherlands, Finland and Latvia.
"Trans people are the only group in Europe that is required by law to undergo sterilisation. It is beyond comprehension - why it is in the law and why it is upheld?" says Richard Koehler, a policy expert in Transgender Europe.
In addition to forced sterilisation, trans people normally have to undergo a medical diagnosis of suffering an illness as part of the gender change.
"I had to be declared with a mental health disorder, a gender identity disorder," says Koehler, outlining the distress this obligatory process caused.
"Just the fact that I had to provide those two assessments and accept them - being labelled as mentally disturbed - that made it very difficult for my family to accept me being trans. It stole me five years of my very young life," he adds.
In addition to the stigma of the medical diagnosis, trans people can also find themselves not recognised by law as there are no rules on legal gender recognition. This is the case in Ireland, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Lithuania and France.
"That means a lot of trouble in every day life - from ... picking up a parcel at the post, trying to travel and buying a plane ticket. Each time you have to present your personal document, you are likely to get into trouble," says Koehler.
All these factors help to marginalise this minority to such an extent that there are no reliable statistics on how many trans people there are in Europe.
One thing that is certain, says Koehler, is transgender people exist at all levels of society and in all countries.
But the lack of public-eye figures and changes to legislation means that trans people have yet to make the same sort of progress in social acceptance that gays and lesbians - also perceived as trangressing traditional gender norms - have seen.
"They are a small minority that nobody wants to represent. People think it's weird. And not many politicians want to deal with it," says Sophie In't Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP and gay rights activist.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of trans people suffer verbal, physical or sexual abuse - 79 percent, according to a 2009 report on Transphobic Hate Crime in the EU.
Looking to Argentina
For transgender people everywhere, Argentina currently sets the legal ideal.
It passed a law last year allowing people have their gender identity recognised on official documents without having to have a psychiatric diagnosis or surgery.
"They have a very simple procedure. The trans person goes to the registry office and says; under this law I want to change my name, my photo and please change my documents. It’s a simple procedure, like changing a license plate on your car," says Koehler.
Pointing to the EU, Koehler says EU legislators should make the link between national legislation and EU legislation guaranteeing freedom of movement of people and services. The obstacles trans people face in legal gender recognition mean these basic freedoms are being broken every day.
As for Sweden, once the law is passed next week as expected, the next battle will be begin.
The new law indicates that it is possible to have your gender legally recognised if you felt for a long time you belong to the other gender; if you have lived in the role of the other gender for some time and if you expect to continue to do so.
"We are not sure how this will be implemented. Who will be the judge of this?" says Westerlund.