Impunity for rape and sexual violence continue to impede transpersons basic human rights. An estimated 1.5 million people in all of Europe identify as transgender, according to Amnesty International. And the Norwegian government proposed a law in June that would make seven-year-olds eligible to legally change their gender with parental consent—among the lowest ages in the world for transgender rights.
“For some time Amnesty International and Norwegian trans human rights groups have been campaigning for a law which would respect human rights,” said Richard Köhler, Transgender Europe (TGEU) senior policy officer. “The aim is to have proper procedures that would enable quick, transparent and accessible gender recognition based on self-determination.”
Health Minister Bent Høie has said he is proud to implement the law. “This is an important area where Norway has lagged far behind many other countries for many years,” he said while announcing the proposed changes at an event at the Oslo Europride festival in late June. “Today’s rules in this area are unacceptable and have been unchanged for almost 60 years. The proposal is historic in that it will no longer be the health service but the individual who decides if he or she has changed sex.”
If passed, the law would position Norway as an early pioneer among the most progressive countries in the world in regard to transgender rights reflected legally. Documents from the Norwegian Health Ministry indicated that other European nations with transgender legislation generally set the lower age limit at 18. While only citizens 18 and older can undergo sex-reassignment surgery, transgender children will not be allowed to undergo any kind of procedures related to sex change before then, and no surgeries will be compulsory once they become legal adults.
“It would enable trans people in Norway to have their gender identity recognized without having to undergo degrading, cumbersome and lengthy procedures. It would be a much needed sign that trans people are recognized and respected parts of society,” said Köhler.
The new legislation has indeed received positive feedback in Norway, especially because anyone who applies for a legal gender switch has the option to reverse it back if they later come to regret it.
“The law is about legal or juridical gender—[it] makes sense. People know best what they are themselves, not the government,” said Tor Arne Henna, 46, of Telemark, Norway. “Parents just want their kids to be happy, I guess. They know and see the gender challenges their kid will have in school and can ease the gender transformation this way…It’s nice that there has become a more modern and up-to-date regulation of this, more comparable to other European states.”
Nonetheless, some critics of the proposal have argued that children as young as seven years old cannot possibly know what they want.
Ole Johan Meek of Kristiansund, More go Romsdal, Norway said, “This is abuse. Children as young as seven years of age are not mature enough to make such decisions. This is what the Norwegian liberal political parties will do. In my opinion, they have not too much [brain] to think with.”
But evidence suggests that many trans people are clear about their gender identity from a young age.
“Recognizing their gender identity actually supports them to develop into confident adolescents and young adults,” Köhler explained. “Furthermore not providing legal gender recognition for young people is potentially violating their right to privacy and dignity. Access to gender recognition should be based on the individual’s case and not hinge on mechanical age barriers. This helps families and guardians to take decisions in the best interest of their child. Official documents in line with a child’s gender identity can help families to fend off discrimination, suicidal tendencies and bullying—widely prevailing issues. Drawing up arbitrary age limits might actually amount to discrimination on grounds of age and causes a delay of what can be many years, causing hardship to the individual minor.”
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Niels Muižnieks has stated that trans and gender diverse children have a right to have their identity recognized and respected. And more recently, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) has argued that the view of children must be accounted for in matters concerning their legal gender recognition; this is in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“Currently Norway does not have a law regulating gender recognition, it is just a heavily medicalized practice which does not grant the right to appeal. The restrictive criteria leave out many trans people who cannot have their gender recognized, as trans persons seeking recognition are forced to undergo sterilization and other medical procedures,” Köhler explained.
One could only legally change his or her gender following a psychiatric assessment, a psychiatric diagnosis, compulsory hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery including irreversible sterilization—a practice that dates back to the 1970s. For more than three decades the policy that transgender people were forced to undergo a range of abusive and invasive processes, as well as onerous and discriminatory requirements, just to get their gender recognized legally, violated their basic rights.
“This practice was inhumane and extremely odd in the light of today’s world,” says Thor-Rune Hansen, 26, of Harstad, Troms, Norway. “This change of law is long awaited. It’s only entirely natural. Of course anyone is the gender they feel like, psychology and medicine don’t come into it. It’s not a big issue in Norway outside of the cheering in the LGBT community, because no one reacts to it. It just feels commonplace.”
The Directorate of Health put together a group back in December 2013, composed of healthcare professionals, legal experts and transgender organization representatives who were tasked to develop recommendations on legal gender recognition and access to healthcare for transgendered people by February 25, 2015. They presented their conclusions in a press conference in April. By September, the Office of the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud stated that the Ministry’s requirements breached the law against discrimination regarding one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
This followed the case of John Jeanette Solstad Remø, a 65-year-old transgender woman and submarine captain from Norway who could not obtain legal recognition of her gender after refusing to comply with the requirements. In March, she applied to the Ministry of Health and Care Services to change her legal gender, which denied her. Consequentially, her official documents refer to her as “male,” which remains at odds with her appearance and has a stigmatizing and thus “othering” effect on her daily life.
“Norway would not be the first European country to not have age restrictions. However, a progressive legal solution would be a positive step that will hopefully inspire other countries to do the same…It will help to bring Norway up to its international obligations and improve its human rights track records. By passing a progressive law built firmly on human rights, it will lead the way for more discussion on laws around Europe and hopefully help drive change elsewhere,” Köhler said. He noted, however, that the reform process should be as inclusive as possible and ensure that all trans people, independent of their medical status, age, background or other personal characteristic actually have access to the law.