In 1948, German-American endocrinologist Harry Benjamin had a fateful meeting with famed sexologist Alfred Kinsey, wherein Benjamin was introduced to a child, assigned male at birth, who wanted to be a girl. Benjamin proposed estrogen treatment for the child and, encouraged by positive results, helped develop an evaluation process for assessing trans people, culminating in his landmark 1966 publication, ‘The Transsexual Phenomenon.’ The process outlined in this work laid the foundations for how the global medical community would assess and progress the treatment of trans people.
Until last June, the process in Iceland went something like this: if you thought you were or might be trans, you would sign up for six interviews, paid out of pocket and stretched out over a period of at least six months, with psychiatrists and social workers. During this time, and for up to a year afterwards, you would be expected to “live as your gender identity” in order to access hormone replacement therapy (HRT), surgery, and other medical procedures.
In light of new research, this process is being slowly replaced with a new one. The informed consent model moves the onus from (often cisgender) medical professionals’ opinions on any given person’s “transness” to the trans person themselves as the best authority on what their gender actually is. While this new model is not yet established in many countries around the world, Iceland has, more or less, legally adopted it.
Trans people are arguably the new frontier of queer rights. As we move into Reykjavík Pride season, it is important to understand the Icelandic trans experience, how the law moved from one process for trans people to a new one, why it took so long, and what challenges still lie ahead.
From “nice idea” to “bulletproof”
“The old law was considered one of the most progressive ones in Europe at the time,” says writer and activist Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, who is also the chair of the Trans Ísland organisation, and one of the minds behind the new law. “I guess that shows how quickly things can change and how fast we can move on.”
The old law, last codified in 2012, contained elements that were always considered dubious at best by trans people in Iceland. In particular, the stipulation that they must live according to their “gender role” for a specific period of time for approval for HRT and other services.
“It was really strange that the term ‘gender role’ is written into law, because what are gender roles? We have no legal terms of what’s a man, a woman, or a gender role,” Ugla points out.
The new law, says Ugla, began as a well-meaning parliamentary proposal from the Pirate Party, who sought to have “the third gender,” as they put it, officially recognised. Ugla says that while this was “a nice effort,” she and others believed there needed to be a comprehensive law instead.
Ugla and Intersex Iceland chairperson Kitty Anderson got to work in 2015, contacting numerous government bodies, institutions, and grassroots organisations to form a core workgroup that would help create a draft for a bill. The fact that it took four years for this legislation to go from draft to law was due, in part, to changes in Parliament (the draft was first ready for submission as a bill when Iceland’s previous government collapsed) but also because they wanted the legislation to be “absolutely bulletproof.” This would mean navigating the contentious process of trying to reach some kind of agreement between all the sectors involved—with mixed results.
Wins and losses
As with any piece of legislation, changes were made from initial draft to final form. In this case, some of the original proposals that did not make the final cut—often for purely political reasons—will have real life consequences for already marginalised people.
As an example, both Trans Ísland and the trans diagnostic team were in agreement that there should be no limits set on how often someone can change their gender marker. However, by the time the bill made it out of the Parliamentary General Committee, the law would end up allowing only a single change to an individual’s gender marker, barring “special circumstances”.
Ugla believes this was a mistake. “The whole purpose of the law is that people have the right to determine their legal gender and name,” she says. “Putting restrictions on that is against the whole idea of the law. I guess we’ll just have to see how this works in practice, because in the law, it doesn’t really say who makes the decision on what is ‘special circumstances.’ It’s a bit vague, and we’re not sure how it’s going to work in practice.”
Watering down the law
The final version of the law also slighted intersex people in particular. The original draft sought to protect intersex children from non-consensual cosmetic surgeries on their genitals—something that would seem to be a done deal for a Parliament that got very close to banning penile circumcision. Instead, the final law merely called for the establishment of a committee, to submit findings in 12 months’ time, to examine these surgeries. To Ugla, it was an “absolutely ridiculous” decision, given that four years have already been spent discussing the matter.
“There needs to be a ban on these surgeries,” says Ugla. “It’s something that absolutely has to happen. It’s not even a discussion for us.” Ugla speculates that this element may have been excluded because of Parliament’s worry that it could jeopardise the law’s passage. “In the meantime, these surgeries will continue. They don’t realise the urgency of this and that this needs to happen now.”
Kitty elaborated on this point during a conversation with Grapevine last February. “When there is no risk to health it is imperative that children be allowed to grow up and still have the possibility to make their own decisions about what they want to happen to their body,” Kitty said, in part. “When invasive and irreversible procedures are performed on children, it not only violates their fundamental rights, but also takes away choices from them when they are older.”
Welcome to the labyrinth
In a law such as this, numerous government institutions are affected and must make systemic changes. Some institutions have proven more receptive than others. This can mean a delayed reaction between the law’s passage, and such institutions implementing the changes the new law demands.
As one example, even though the law codifies the recognition of a third gender marker, X, the National Registry has said it could take them 18 months to add that option to their system.
Another example concerns asylum seekers and refugees. By law, if an asylum seeker or refugee comes to Iceland and they are trans, they should be given ID according to their gender identity, regardless of what their legal documents might say. However, Ugla and the Grapevine have been made aware of instances in which the Directorate of Immigration has failed to honour that section of the law. Ugla says Trans Ísland will meet with the Directorate to be sure they fully understand the part they must play.
Alexandra Briem, a trans woman and Reykjavík City Councilperson for the Pirate Party, believes that a large part of the problem is the endemic inscrutability of Iceland’s bureaucracy. Ministries can even write internal regulations that may seem to contravene national laws.
“It’s part of what makes Iceland and it’s bureaucracy difficult to navigate,” she says. “The law may say something which seems straightforward, but it can turn out that the regulations from the ministry interpret it completely differently. It’s that interpretation that counts, unless you successfully sue a ministry in the Supreme Court.”
Another issue is that the Icelandic authorities often pass the buck on cases they find difficult, says Alexandra. “People don’t want to be responsible for something that costs more money,” she explains. ”They don’t want to be responsible for creating controversy.”
Even with the passage of this law, the trans community continues to face deeper social challenges, both without and within. One of those is that the old system, whereby trans people needed approval (often from cisgender people) to get access to the health care they need, can be internalised into the belief that cis approval is what makes someone trans. Those holding this conviction are, somewhat tellingly, classified as “truscum” by many trans folks (see glossary below).
“There are trans people who believe you can’t be trans without having dysphoria,” Ugla explains. “There are trans people who have taken up this medical view or explanation of what it is to be trans. I just find it wild that we ourselves gatekeep an experience that’s always been gatekept by others. I think we need to stop seeing being trans as something medical, but instead view it as a personal experience of your own gender and gender expression. I think we’ll all be a lot happier and people will feel a lot freer to express themselves if we do.”
Another even more questionable belief is that being trans is somehow a fad, giving rise to the erroneous belief in “transtrenders”.
“People don’t realise how ridiculous this notion is,” Ugla says. “If someone said, ‘you can influence someone into being gay,’ most people who say ‘that’s absolutely not true.’
“It’s a really strange thing. I think there’s a lot of fear around trans issues. So many people are coming out now that others think it must be a fad. But I think it’s actually because we’re reaching a space where there’s much more awareness, people are able to express themselves more freely. If anything, people should be celebrating that there are more people willing to be who they are.”
“What’s the deal with all these new genders?”
A common sentiment one may find bandied about is that the 21st century has blurred the lines between male and female. The historic reality points to the opposite. Countless cultures around the world recognise multiple genders, or eschew gender altogether, and western medical science has recognised for decades that not only gender but also sex is a spectrum.
Alda Villiljós, a nonbinary board member of Trans Ísland, believes that nonbinary people have helped propel the further examination of gender. “I think before nonbinary people became more prevalent in our society—before we started speaking our minds—binary trans people were still saying, ‘Hey, I can be a trans woman and still have short hair and play computer games,’” they point out.
“Then nonbinary people came and said, ‘I’m not a woman, and I’m not a man either, so what is my place within these rules [about gender]?’ I think that this question finally punched through a wall that we’ve been punching for a really long time; where people began to think, ‘Maybe gender isn’t as simple as we once thought.’ This isn’t to downplay the fact that binary trans people have been saying this for a very long time—but I think nonbinary people speaking up was maybe the final drop.”
The contradictions of gender
Another common aspect of the trans experience is dysphoria, both physical and social. This is the part of the experience that cis people are most familiar with; the notion that a trans person “hates” their own body. However, this is not entirely accurate; and not all trans people experience dysphoria. Alda attributes this in part to growing representation on television and movies.
“The thing is, the only people the trans team at the hospital meet are people who have body dysphoria, because those are the people who seek their services; who need hormones and surgery,” they add. “And so naturally, they are going to assume that all trans people have body dysphoria, because that’s all they see.”
Nonbinary people in particular have been diligent in fighting against the idea of rigid gender roles, wanting to break those confines even as they might perform particular gender roles themselves. While this may seem on the surface to be a contradiction, Alda says, nonbinary people are simply trying to live within a system they never asked for.
“We can be fighting against the system, but the fact is that we’re still living inside of it,” they point out. “Trans women and trans men do feel more pressure to adhere strongly to gender roles, especially when you first come out and sort of go all in. Partly because you missed out on being able to perform this gender for all of your life, but also partly to be taken seriously. And to survive. Choose your battles; choose when you feel safe enough to fight against the system. The only thing that we can do is try to survive within the system and expand our ideas of clocking people’s gender.”
“Yes but WHY are you trans?”
Some people have sought to understand what, exactly, it is that makes someone trans; reminiscent of the once-prominent movement to understand the roots of gayness. While the general consensus on gayness has moved from trying to determine scientific causes to simply showing gay people more empathy and respect, the conversation on trans people has yet to move in that direction.
Alda is among those who believe this belies certain dangers. “The scientific and medical community have been trying to figure out why we’re like this for years,” they say. “Is it something in our upbringing? Is it something in our genes? We need to start realising that it doesn’t matter. We need to stop doing this, because this research tells trans people: we want to eliminate you, we want to cure you—which is really scary. Even if that’s not the point of the research, someone in the world will use it that way.”
Iceland’s unique position
The climate is certainly different elsewhere. In the UK and the US, one sees a shocking level of transphobic vitriol and violence. While there have been transphobic assaults in Iceland, the discourse in this country has been largely measured and reasonable by comparison.
“I think it’s due in part to better education and a smaller population,” says Alexandra. “At the end of the day, there’s not that many of us. We all know each other, and most of us are on the same social media. It’s hard to hate people that you know personally, and it’s hard to be in a flame war with your sister’s husband’s daughter.”
Ugla sees the new law as a big step forward, but with plenty of room left for growth. Intersex people need protections; Iceland’s naming laws could be less gendered; and the country’s institutions need to make changes to the way they operate in order to fully realise the new law.
“Just because this law is passed doesn’t mean that we’re all going to relax now,” Ugla finishes. “There’s still a lot to do.”
Glossary: What do these terms mean?
Just as there are experiences specific to being trans, there is also a specific vocabulary that helps express these experiences; some from the medical community, and some from trans people themselves. This glossary is not meant to be authoritative or exhaustive, but rather a jumping off point where the curious can begin their research.
Cisgender: The opposite of trans; a cisgender (or cis) person whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were assigned at birth. It is not, whatever anyone tells you, a slur; it is a medical term.
Dysphoria: The discomfort, stress and anxiety of one’s gender not aligning with their physical selves or with societal expectations of their gender expression. Not all trans people experience dysphoria, but a great many do.
Non-binary: An umbrella term for a person whose gender identity cannot be classified as either male or female. This may mean being both in relatively equal proportions (e.g. androgynous or bigender), being both in unequal proportions (e.g. demigirl/demiboy), experiencing fluidity of two or more genders (e.g. genderqueer/genderfluid), neither (agender), or something else altogether (e.g. fae/faer). Not all non-binary people identify as trans, but they are usually regarded as a part of the trans community.
“Passing” and “clocking”: Passing is the phenomenon of a trans person being seen by strangers as their gender identity, e.g., a trans woman who “passes” is seen as being a woman by a cis person. Clocking, by contrast, is the ability to tell if someone is trans. Both of these terms are somewhat controversial in the trans community, in particular for its erasure of nonbinary people and the value it places on the judgement of cis people. At the same time, many trans people experience pressure to pass to avoid discrimination and violence.
TERF: An acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminist,” i.e., a self-identified feminist who does not believe trans women are “real” women, but rather men who are trying to invade women’s spaces. TERFs usually refer to themselves as “gender critical.”
Transtrender: Derogatory term that implies a trans person is simply pretending to be trans to be cool. Has no scientific basis whatsoever.
Truscum: Someone who believes that a person is not “truly” trans unless they have undergone a medical evaluation process, perform their gender identity on all levels, and elect to have surgery and/or hormone replacement therapy. This belief is also known as “transmedicalism” and is largely regarded as outdated, if not transphobic.
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