It’s hard to imagine that in the socially progressive Netherlands, forced sterilization is sanctioned by the government. This is, however, the reality. A recent report by Human Rights Watch revealed that transgender people in the Netherlands are required to take hormones and undergo surgery to be permanently and irreversibly sterilized in order to have their gender legally recognized by the government.
Thanks to ongoing advocacy by transgender rights activists, the Justice Ministry this week announced that lawmakers will draft new legislation that removes the requirement for transgender people to undergo surgery and sterilization as a precondition for changing their gender. A welcome step, though we hope the government does not allow the legislative process to drag on for years while this discriminatory law remains on the books.
Medical procedures such as hormonal therapy and gender reassignment surgery should be driven only by the needs of the patient. Requiring medical interventions to change state documents is a gross violation of the rights of transgender individuals, and forces dire choices between having correct documents or submitting to medical procedures that may not be wanted or needed to live a healthy, productive life.
Transgender people in the Netherlands, like around the world, face enormous discrimination and social exclusion because the way they express their gender can challenge societal norms about what makes a woman a woman, or a man a man. As a general rule, transgender people have a gender identity or expression that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth on the basis of their bodily characteristics. “Sex” is the classification of bodies as male or female on the basis of biological factors. But a person’s gender identity does not always correlate with biological sex; it is a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female, or something other than or in between male and female regardless of physical characteristics.
Transgender people are often turned down for jobs when prospective employers see that the “M” or “F” on their state identity document does not match with the person standing before them. As a result, transgender people face extremely high unemployment and find it difficult to maintain adequate housing, health care, and other basic needs. Changing government documents to match their gender identity is key to ensuring access to a host of basic services and rights.
Medical interventions such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery should be accessible and available for those who want and need these services. However, even for people who wish to undergo surgery to alter their bodies, the current Dutch law is problematic because it takes years before people meet the conditions imposed by the law. “People are left dangling in between two worlds for far longer than is necessary,” Jochem Verdonk, the chairman of the Transman Foundation, a Dutch advocacy organization, told Human Rights Watch. “It is needlessly traumatizing for people who are already very vulnerable.”
Hopefully the Dutch government will make good on its promise to repeal this harmful requirement. If it does, we hope the Netherlands can serve as an example to other governments that have similar, unjust laws.