An Essential Legal Right for Trans People

What Does “Trans” Mean?

Trans refers to the range of people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans people can undergo gender-affirming medical interventions such as hormone therapy or genital surgeries. Trans people use many labels to identify their experience with gender, embracing the diverse nature of identity. Trans people can therefore be male, female, nonbinary (gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine‍), gender nonconforming (expressing and/or behaving outside of existing gender norms), or they may choose to reject any of these labels.

What Is Legal Gender Recognition, And Why Does It Matter?

Throughout the world, all official forms of identification—like birth certificates, passports, national ID cards, and driver’s licenses—reflect the gender we are assigned at birth unless they are amended.

Legal gender recognition is government acknowledgement of the gender a person lives, as well as their chosen name, reflected in identifying documents. These state-issued documents are often necessary to update other formal documents, including bank records and educational certificates.

When these documents don’t reflect the gender that a trans person lives—one’s affirmed gender—these documents are often rejected as proof of identity and prevents trans people from participating in fundamental activities like enrolling in school, accessing health care, getting a job, opening a bank account, traveling, or voting. Incorrect identification can also lead to being “outed” as trans—resulting in discrimination and abuse, or the distress of having one’s affirmed gender rejected.

What Prevents People from Changing These Documents?

The vast majority of trans people around the world cannot obtain official documents that match their gender identity or chosen name. Laws that ensure that the process for obtaining these documents is between an individual and the state—without any medical or outside intervention—reduce the barriers trans people face in getting documents like everyone else. This kind of legislation currently exists in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Malta, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal, and Luxembourg.

For those who are unable to benefit from laws based on self-determination, the process for officially changing their gender marker and name can often be full of unnecessary roadblocks. These requirements—which can include psychiatric diagnoses and confinement, hormone therapy, forced sterilization, castration, and genital surgery—are not only invasive and humiliating, they are often arbitrary as well as expensive.

What’s Wrong with Requiring Medical Diagnosis or Interventions?

Requiring a person to be medically diagnosed as “transgender,” “transsexual,” or as having “gender identity disorder” before they can change their official documents can create power imbalances between patient and provider. A provider can deny a patient the right to legal gender recognition or gender affirming care, making it more difficult for trans people to access appropriate health care.

How Does Open Society Promote Equal Legal Recognition for Trans People?

Trans activists and allies around the world are advocating for their rights by introducing or changing national laws or regulations. The Open Society Foundations provide financial support to trans-led or LGBT organizations that promote progressive, rights-based processes for legal gender recognition. Our partners include:

  • Transgender Europe, an umbrella network of European trans organizations, educates decision makers and the public on the impact that legal gender recognition has on the daily lives of trans people.
  • Transgender Education & Advocacy, a Kenyan organization that is pressing courts to allow name and gender change on passports, national ID cards, and academic certificates.
  • Insight, a Ukrainian organization that engages with ministerial bodies, the Office of the Ombudsman, and other civil society allies to reform the draconian process for changing name and gender, which includes 30–45 days of psychiatric confinement.
  • The Coalition “Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities” in Macedonia uses strategic litigation at the European Court of Human Rights to raise the obligations of European states to provide rights-based legal gender recognition processes.
  • Organizando Trans Diversidades, a Chilean community-led organization, worked with policy makers to establish a comprehensive and modern gender recognition law and works towards bettering trans people’s access to health.