Historic Win for Transgender People in Norway

The lack of legal rights for transgender people in Norway was brought up in our parliament by the Socialist Party back in 2000. In May this year, after 16 years of lobbying and hard work by a lot of people, a new law finally passed that allows any people the right to define their own legal gender. The law came into effect on July 1st.

On the 30th of May Proposition 74L (2015–2016) passed with 79 votes against 13. The law grants any person over the age of 16 the right to determine their own legal gender, though still limited to female or male. Children between the age of 6 and 16 will also be able to change legal gender with parental consent.

Change of legal gender has so far only been granted to people who’ve had their gonads removed. The reason for this practice has never been based in any law. It is a practice that is common in many countries, and it isn’t really based on any sound legal or medical argument. An expert panel consisting of legal experts, medical experts, and representatives of four transgender and LGBT organisations, released a report in April 2015 (available here in Norwegian) where they looked into both legal and medical practices as well as making the recommendations that became the basis for the new law. The panel was unable to find a sound reasoning for the practice in the records; just unfounded assumptions from medical professionals which included arguments of the type “as a worst case, we may even see men becoming mothers” if sterilisation was not performed.

Human Rights Issue

There is no doubt that Amnesty’s involvement in this process has been important. In 2014 they released a report titled The State Decides Who I am: Lack of Legal Gender Recognition for Transgender People in Europe. The report strongly criticises the practice in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland and Norway.

For transgender people, official identity documents reflecting their gender identity are vitally important for the enjoyment of their human rights. They are not only crucial when travelling but also for everyday life. This report illustrates the human rights violations experienced by transgender people in Europe when seeking legal gender recognition. Some countries simply do not allow for a change in one’s legal gender. Many others have made the change in one’s legal gender contingent on the fulfillment of invasive requirements, which violate the human rights of transgender people.

At least Denmark has made changes after this, and Sweden has had an ongoing process on transgender rights for a few years now. Norway is finally catching up after having dropped from a fifth to an eleventh place over the last two years on ILGA-Europe’s index of the situation for LGBTI people in Europe. The drop in rating is caused by other countries climbing past us, which is in itself encouraging for LGBTI rights in Europe, but it also means we’ve been lagging behind.

The Importance of Transgender Awareness

There’s little doubt that the visibility of transgender people over the last years, both internationally and in Norway, has made a big difference too. I watched the live stream of the debate in parliament, and it was encouraging to watch the level of knowledge displayed by most of the party representatives that spoke in favour of the law. The support spanned from the political left to the political right. The right wing mainly arguing on the basis on the individual’s freedom to self-determination, and the left from a human rights and human dignity point of view.

Both the Socialist Party and the Green Party took the opportunity to also advocate for a third legal gender option. A clear next step. At the moment a third option is limited by the way personal identification numbers are generated in Norway as gender is encoded as an odd or even ninth digit signifying male or female respectively. This system is up for review in any case since the current model will run out of viable ID numbers by 2029.

Extensive Lobbying

But most of all, extensive lobbying has been the key to the success. Several LGBT organisations in Norway have been working actively on these issues for years, Part of it is the fact that the largest national LGBT organisation Fri (Free), and its youth organisation Queer Youth, has had a focus on this for a number of years now. In addition FTPN (Association for Transgender People in Norway) has of course worked extensively on the issue.

On the other side of the table we’ve also had many allies in politics and in the state departments. The fact that two restrictions proposed for this law that aimed to put limits on legal gender recognition, proposed by the Christian Conservatives and Center Party, were stricken down 87 against 9 and 01 against 6, respectively, clearly shows how broad support this law had. But also in the Department of Health and Directorate of Health we’ve been received and heard on numerous occasions.

Now that I’m out of LGBT activism for the time being to finish my PhD abroad, it is good to know that one of the two main issues we’ve been working on in my time as a board member of Fri has reached one of its main goals. I’m also glad the people who told me that you cannot change bureaucracy were proven wrong. What still remains is to revise the entire medical system related to transgender care. This is also covered by the expert panel report, and a proposal has been presented by the Minister of Health. I’m hopeful that this too will change soon as the current medical service available is deeply cisnormative and heteronormative and outright transphobic.

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  1. Sounds like good news all around (including hope for a third gender option relatively soon). One thing occurred to me though: If gender is signified on personal identification numbers, does a change of legal gender then entail a change in personal ID number? Either way this works, it could cause problems. If it changes, then it might cause problems for people and organizations who assume that the number would never change. If it doesn’t change, then it leaves one place where the legal signifier of gender doesn’t match, which can possibly out people.

    Hopefully when they come up with the new system for identification numbers, the new system won’t signify gender in any way, which will allow easily for a legal third gender and possibly more.

    1. Yes, it does involve getting a new ID number, which causes some of the problems you mention. All banks, insurance companies, medical records, taxation, etc, is tied to this number. It can take a few months to get everything in order for an adult. For a child it’s a bit simpler, but also schools use this ID.

      The ID number is assigned by the taxation authorities, and when they reevaluated the current system and proposed a new one (that will last till 2150!) we asked for a meeting and explained the case both for the complications involved in changing ID and the limitation to two genders. They received us, listened to us, and I handed them a four page document outlining all the points which were included in their decision prosess. The new proposed system has no gender marker in it.

      1. Thanks for the clarification. That’s probably the best way to handle it with the current system – at least once it’s all done, the whole transition can be put behind someone. Here’s hoping they adopt that new system without a gender marker, now.

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