Iceland Set To Make Major Changes To Law Affecting Trans, Intersex And Non-Binary People - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland Set To Make Major Changes To Law Affecting Trans, Intersex And Non-Binary People

Published February 12, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photos by
OIII Europe/Sharon Kilgannon

The draft of a bill currently being prepared for Parliament would make several long-overdue changes to Icelandic law regarding trans, intersex and non-binary people. Grapevine spoke with two of the people who helped craft the legislation, who see it as a tremendously positive step that could put Iceland well ahead of the pack in these areas.

The draft in question, which is to be submitted by the Prime Minister at an as yet undetermined time, covers numerous facets of gender identity.

The broad strokes

If passed into law, people will be allowed to change their registered gender without having to endure a lengthy journey through the health care system. This change will only be permitted one time, barring exceptional circumstances. As it is now, changing one’s gender in the National Registry can involve having to meet with psychiatrists and other health care workers over a period of several months before approval. Furthermore, should this draft become law, registered gender will not be limited solely to male or female, either—people will also have the option of selecting a non-binary gender, which will be marked as “X” in passports. For the purposes of the draft, non-binary people are defined as trans.

As such, the transition process itself will undergo a change, from the current lengthy diagnostic process to a more modern informed consent model. In informed consent, it is assumed that the individual knows best what gender they are, and medical professionals are involved simply to inform the individual of what transitioning may entail for them from a health and medical standpoint.

“[The draft] is a product of years and years of work, expertise, emotional labour, consulting experts upon experts and making sure that this bill is the best that it could be.”

These changes would apply not only to native-born Icelanders over the age of 15; it would also apply to all immigrants to Iceland who have established legal residence. These individuals will be permitted to determine their registered gender in Iceland regardless of how their genders are registered in their home countries. Icelandic citizens aged 15 and younger would be able to make these gender determinations with the advocacy of a parent or legal guardian.

Another major change concerns intersex children. The draft would set up a committee to establish guidelines for protections of intersex children, instead of immediately ensuring their protection. As it stands now, unnecessary cosmetic surgeries are performed on intersex children in Iceland, which many have argued violates existing human rights.

“Still a long way to go”

Grapevine spoke with two of the people who helped construct the draft, chairperson of Intersex Iceland Kitty Anderson and writer and trans activist Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, who see this draft as just the beginning.

“I see this draft as a first step towards ensuring bodily autonomy and physical integrity protections in Iceland, but there is still a long way to go,” Kitty told us. “Instead of immediately ensuring that children’s bodily autonomy is respected as the original draft intended, a committee is established to work on the precise wording of these protections. In the meantime, it is unlikely that any changes will occur in medical practice as no limitations are in force when it comes to medical procedures that are performed on the basis of cosmetic, social or psychosocial grounds. All of these grounds mean that adults are making decisions based on appearance or how they believe the child will feel as they grow. 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. 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.”

Kitty points out that in the current government coalition agreement, the intent to enact legislation that fulfils the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) intersex resolution from 2017 is explicitly brought forward.

“We foresee a lot of work in the coming years to bring Iceland to a place where all recommendations from the PACE intersex resolution are met,” Kitty tells Grapevine. “I do think that the bill in its current state will pass smoothly, I also worry that when it comes to bodily autonomy and physical integrity protections for children, the road to its realisation will be long.”

“This bill is probably one of the most well prepared and thought out legislation you will see. It’s based on modern research, best practice and the lived experiences of those it involves.”

Ugla also believes matters are at the beginning stages, while expressing confidence that things will continue to move forward.

“It’s been almost four years now since this process started and it’s been rewarding but also very challenging,” Ugla says. “This bill is taking head on very serious and deep-rooted issues in our society and how we see and treat trans people and intersex people. It’s not easy to try and deconstruct these systems and people’s way of thinking. But it ultimately feels like things are moving forward, but I am also aware that this is just beginning. We’ve put everything into this and it’s terrifying, as well as exciting.”

Challenges ahead

They stress that this draft is the result of “years and years of work, expertise, emotional labour, consulting experts upon experts and making sure that this bill is the best that it could be”, and sees public perception and attitudes as a major challenge that lies ahead.

“Perhaps people that believe the system is good and we are being too radical,” Ugla told us. “We place a lot of faith in the health care system and think that doctors always know best, but in the case of trans and in particular intersex people, this hasn’t always been the case. There are better ways to give quality health care, and that’s exactly what this bill is about. Creating quality health care, legal access and inclusion in Iceland. This bill isn’t trying to create any special privilege and nothing bad is going to happen as a result. The only result is a stronger legal framework around our rights, that will hopefully filter down into better quality service and inclusion in society. This bill is probably one of the most well prepared and thought out legislation you will see. It’s based on modern research, best practice and the lived experiences of those it involves. It’s time that the Icelandic parliament shows in action that they respect and trust trans people and intersex people to know what it is they need.”

With this in mind, Ugla also believes that the support and advocacy of trans and intersex allies plays a crucial role in the continued evolution of Iceland’s laws on trans and intersex rights.

“Now we need to start advocating and making sure people understand the importance of this bill,” they tell Grapevine. “And that’s no easy feat, and will require time, energy and emotional labour. It will require challenging conversations, meetings, campaigns and awareness raising. And that’s where we need our allies more than ever. We need them to talk about this. We need them to bring it up. We need them to challenge and inform those that don’t understand. We need people to speak up and support us. This is only just the start.”


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