Trans people in Europe rarely have much to celebrate. Across the region, 33 countries require sterilization, divorce, or a diagnosis of mental illness in order for the state to officially recognize a citizen’s gender identity.
But in the last few weeks, Europe has witnessed an uncharacteristic whirlwind of human rights victories for trans and intersex people in countries big and small.
Last week, Finland announced that it will stop forcing trans people to divorce or be sterilized in order to have their gender officially recognized. The announcement capped a banner month for trans rights in Scandinavia as Norway and Sweden made similar declarations in April. Meanwhile, Portugal amended its labor code to include protections from discrimination based on gender identity.
But one of Europe’s most impactful victories came from Malta, a small, majority Catholic country in the Mediterranean.
On April 1, Malta passed a sweeping gender recognition law that could serve as a precedent for equitable trans and intersex rights laws around the world. The law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sex characteristics, bans so-called “normalizing” surgeries on intersex infants and children (the first ban of its kind in the world), and does away with inhumane requirements in order to obtain legal recognition of one’s gender—including surgeries, hormone therapies, forced divorce, and psychiatric, psychological, or other medical treatments.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) also delivered a major victory when it passed a resolution calling for an end to the kinds of legal gender recognition restrictions mentioned above, as well as the inclusion of gender identity in antidiscrimination laws, and the addition of a third gender option on official documentation for those who seek it. It also calls on each of the council’s 47 member states to establish clear, transparent legal gender recognition laws and processes.
I was fortunate to be present at the council debate that led to this groundbreaking resolution. It felt like history in the making, as each member of the parliamentary assembly demanded in turn that longstanding wrongs against trans people be corrected.
A small group of opposing MPs proposed 14 amendments that would have changed many of the progressive aspects of the resoluton but each one was summarily voted down by the assembly. Even though you are not supposed to cheer during these sessions, there was often applause. After Petra De Sutter—the only trans woman in the PACE—spoke, this applause continued for a long time, and the assembly president spoke to thank her.
This resolution would not have passed if not for the tenacious work of advocates. Before the debate, Open Society Foundations grantee Transgender Europe and the Dutch LGBT organization CoC-Netherlands supported a side event that featured five trans activists from countries with discriminatory gender recognition laws and practices: France, Ireland, Lithuania, Turkey, and Ukraine. Each activist told stories of their struggles.
For example, Yuri Frank from the Ukrainian organization Insight spoke about the particular difficulties a trans man had fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Because the government refused to acknowledge his identity, his ability to travel was heavily restricted. To leave a life-risking situation, this man had to rely on a UN escort to get him through the checkpoints.
But the rapid progress we have witnessed this spring suggests that perhaps some intergovernmental organizations in Europe may be approaching a cultural tipping point when it comes to trans and intersex rights. Across the continent, there are signs of breakthroughs. If the momentum can be sustained we might find ourselves living in a newly open society—one that recognizes all people for who they are.