Seminar “Legal Gender Recognition & Messy Trans Experiences…”

IGS Seminar: Legal Gender Recognition & Messy Trans Experiences in Norway

On October 24, 2019, the Institute of Gender Studies (IGS) hosted a seminar titled “Legal Gender Recognition & Messy Trans Experiences in Norway,” which featured a lecture by france rose hartline (a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway). In 2016, Norway legalized gender self-determination, enabling individuals to change their legal gender without sterilization. This amendment can be appreciated as progressive, but it does not resolve all the matters of gender identity for transgender people. In this seminar, issues of transgender rights beyond legal recognition were discussed. This helped the audience deepen their understanding of social gender issues.

At the beginning of the seminar, basic information about transgender issues was provided. In general, being transgender is understood as having inconsistency between bodily sex and gender identity. Changing their bodily sex to match their gender identity is regarded as the solution to that personal problem. This approach is based on the perception that there is a clear binary distinction between men and women. The reality of being transgender, however, is far more complicated.

The concept of a gender spectrum helps us understand transgender identity within the context of gender more broadly. A gender spectrum places “man” and “woman” on opposite ends and indicates the gradation between them. One’s sexuality can be comprehended by considering four kinds of spectrums: biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression. On those spectrums, the positions that one feels comfortable in may vary among individuals and the positions may not be stable. Change can occur over long periods of time or through short-term behavioural variation, depending on circumstances. Non-binary people do not place themselves as either men or women. Additionally, it is a misconception that all transgender individuals dislike their bodies and want to change them. There is a high level of diversity and complexity among transgender people. Hartline uses the word “messy” to describe the nature of that complexity.

The more our understanding about gender identity has developed, the more that knowledge has reflected in the legal system. Legislative initiatives to change one’s gender on government IDs are being implemented worldwide. Hartline presented three models of legal gender recognition systems to explain those developmental steps: the sterilization model, the diagnoses model, and the self-declaration determination model. The sterilization model requires an irreversible surgical procedure. It used to be the primary system and remains so in Japan. The surgical procedure tends to have a high risk factor and takes time to perform. The diagnoses model needs a diagnosis of gender identity disorder or transsexualism and is becoming increasingly common. The self-declaration determination model is the most recent and progressive. One can change their legal gender without any medical procedure, diagnosis, or official permission. Norway introduced this model in 2016, and the Norwegian transgender community celebrated this major step forward by the government.

Is this amendment, however, truly progressive for the entire transgender population? Hartline said this question led him to conduct research interviews targeting individuals who changed their gender identity after the implementation of the law. In this seminar, three transgender women’s cases were presented from that research.

The first woman was in her thirties and identifies herself as non-binary. She underwent hormone therapy and looked feminine. Her reason for changing her legal gender was merely to match her legal gender status with her feminine appearance, but she felt this option was not ideal. She did not see herself as a woman and should not be forced to choose one gender. The second woman was in her sixties and identified herself as transgender. She changed her legal gender but did not have any medical intervention because she did not meet the requirement. Access to transgender-specific medical care requires very strict examination, and its availability is limited. She saw herself as a woman but bodily differences made her consider herself transgender. Changing her legal gender provided her a certain degree of security, but it was not enough to balance the lack of medical intervention and social recognition. The third woman was in her forties. She once changed her legal gender to “female” and then reversed it to “male.” She did not have access to transgender medical care and felt that living as a woman with a male body was too difficult. She saw herself as a woman, and while changing her legal gender was now possible, she concluded that unless she was socially accepted as a woman, changing her legal gender seemed more dangerous for her.

Hartline summarized his research by stating that the reaction of the transgender population in Norway to the new law is varied. The interviews revealed that everyone felt a certain degree of empowerment and disappointment simultaneously. The most crucial matter is that this new legal gender recognition is not accompanied with rights of social recognition or medical care. Furthermore, the new law has not yet departed from the perspective of a male-female binary and demands that individuals choose any one. As a result, transgender individuals who cannot fit themselves into that framework may be excluded, and therefore, hartline stressed that it is dangerous to think that transgender rights have been secured enough by the implementation of this legal recognition. To conclude the presentation, hartline said that despite that problem, he evaluates the new law as a meaningful step forward and expects further discussion to promote people’s awareness and understanding of the differences between biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression.

The seminar covered crucial topics―from basic information about transgender identity to discourses surrounding the most recent legal gender recognition system―and hartline’s argument was highly thought provoking. Gender studies have been dealing with issues relevant to social gender norms and how we can change them, and learning about transgender individuals must contribute to further theoretical development and deepen the discussion. Hartline has started a new research project on transgender issues in Japan. We are looking forward to having another seminar at Ochanomizu University to learn about the research outcomes of his new project.

Kumi Yoshihara (Project Research Fellow, IGS)

【Event Information】