Denmark’s New Trans Law Attracts Kudos and Criticism

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Sept. 2 2014 5:27 PM

Should Denmark’s Trans Law Be a Model for the Rest of the World?

89444693-lesbian-couple-walks-past-the-copenhagen-cathedral-on
In Copenhagen, even the cathedrals support LGBTQ folks.

Photo by Casper Christoffersen/AFP/Getty Images

Even in countries that are nominally supportive of transgender people, sterilization—whether by surgery or hormones—is often the price a trans individual must pay in order to receive legal recognition of his or her transition. It’s a paradigm that the World Health Organization has called "counter to respect for bodily integrity, self-determination and human dignity," and it’s one that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that for many trans people, transition is not necessarily tied to invasive physical changes.

Earlier this week, Denmark moved beyond this inhumane legal logic when its new gender recognition law came into effect. Under the new policy, trans people in the country are now only required to fill out some paperwork in order to receive a new social security number and accompanying personal documentation for their gender. Medical intervention, including surgery, psychological diagnosis, and official statements, are no longer necessary prerequisites—in Denmark, gender identification is now based solely on self-determination.

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The legislation is the first of its kind in Europe, and can certainly be considered progressive for the continent, given the functionally mandatory sterilization polices of many of Denmark’s neighbors. (Sweden, the first country to have a gender recognition law, dropped its forced sterilization provision last year. However, 20 European countries have not, and some do not have legal recognition for transgender people at all.)

Though Denmark’s new model is clearly a positive step forward, some members of the trans community have found fault with the law’s details. Specifically, the minimum age requirement is 18, and there is a six-month waiting period after which time applicants must confirm their request for new documents. Lawmakers have said that these requirements were included to prevent people from “making hasty decisions they would later regret”—a logic that advocacy organization Transgender Europe objected to on the grounds that the mandatory waiting period and age requirement might prove detrimental to those who need their documents changed quickly for reasons ranging from relocation to new employment. The group added a more symbolic concern: “TGEU is concerned that the waiting period may also perpetuate misconceptions of trans people as being ‘confused’ about their gender, instead of encouraging them to change their documents quickly so they can participate fully and freely in all aspects of society.”

To be sure, regret over gender reassignment is a possibility. But the pain endured as a result of societal prejudice and bureaucratic insensitivity isn’t a possibility—it’s a reality. In addressing the latter issue by removing unnecessary medical gatekeepers, Denmark’s law is a fine first step toward legislation that favors self-determination in trans policy, both in that country and the wider world. 

Emily Tamkin is an editorial intern at Slate and a M.Phil. candidate in Russian and East European studies at Oxford. Follow her on Twitter.  

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