In a statement to the Grapevine, the National Registry has denied breaking Iceland’s gender determination law by refusing to change the registered name and gender of an Icelandic citizen with a legal address registered abroad. However, a lawyer the Grapevine spoke with says the relevant ministry should override the Registry’s decision, and the Prime Minster of Iceland—who introduced the law to Parliament—believes the law does not allow for the conditions the Registry is claiming. Furthermore, the requirement the Registry is asking for could be a violation of the gender determination law in other ways. The matter has been appealed, and the Registry has until October 11 to respond to the relevant Ministry.
As reported, Iceland’s law on gender determination greatly simplified the process by which a person can change the registration of their name and gender. Specifically, Article 4 eliminated the need for trans people to undergo any medical procedures in order to make such changes; the only thing the law requires now is that a person is in the National Registry, and that they are at least 18 years old. Literally no other conditions are spelled out in the law.
Despite this, when Alda Vigdís Skarphéðinsdóttir, an Icelandic citizen with a legal address in Germany, sought to make these changes, she was rejected on the grounds that her legal address is registered abroad. The Registry has insisted that Alda should instead change her name and gender registration in Germany, and then submit documentation to the Registry. However, as Alda is not a German national, German authorities cannot make such changes—apart from the fact that Icelandic law on name and gender registration makes no such condition.
The Grapevine contacted the National Registry for an explanation. We received a written statement from Margrét Hauksdóttir, the Director General of the National Registry, saying in part that “it is a principle under international civil law that matters pertaining to the personal rights of individuals are under the auspices of the government of the country where a person is legally registered. Therefore, a person with an address registered abroad must appeal to the government of their legally registered country when seeking to exercise their individual rights.” This, the Registry contends, includes change of name, divorce, and child custody cases. “This is a main principle that does not need to be established in law, i.e., it applies unless otherwise stated.”
This interpretation not only raises questions about what rights by Icelandic law any Icelandic citizens have if they happen to have a legally registered address in another country. This interpretation can also be dangerous for trans Icelanders, and force them to comply with conditions in other countries which would be illegal under Iceland’s gender determination law. Most countries in Europe require that a trans person obtains a “mental health diagnosis” in order to change their names and legally registered gender, and some countries—including 13 in Europe—require forced sterilisation. Both of these requirements are expressly forbidden in Iceland.
The effects of such conditions is very painfully illustrated by Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, the chair of Trans Ísland. In a statement they posted to Facebook, they point out a case from 2013, wherein a trans man from Latvia was denied being able to change his registered name and gender in Latvia due to homelessness and the inability to show a legal address in Iceland. This itself was a consequence of being denied entry to both the women’s shelter, due to his appearance, and from the men’s shelter because his ID listed him as female. Ultimately, he would end up dying of exposure at Klambratún park in Reykjavík.
Ironically, the National Registry was one of the many orgs who participated in the crafting of the bill in the first place, and never raised such concerns about how the law might affect the principle they cite. Birkir Helgi Stefánsson, who was also involved in the workgroup that crafted the bill, told Fréttablaðið that the Registry’s interpretation is confusing at best.
“In the first draft of this bill, the bill required having a legal address registered in Iceland, but it was the collective will of the entire workgroup to remove that clause, which was done to expressly avoid these kinds of problems,” he told reporters. “That obviously didn’t work out that way. We don’t have the imagination for the kind of spin the Registry has taken.”
The Grapevine spoke with lawyer Gísli Tryggvason on the matter, who told us that lawyers know the rule that permanent residence or legal domicile – but not citizenship – usually governs the legal status of persons in the fields of personal issues, family and inheritance rights, amongst other things.
“However, I believe that in this area, as a general rule, legislation should be understandable and accessible to the public without legal advice, as the principle [the Registry refers to] is first and foremost found in academic books,” he told the Grapevine. In this case, it has been publicly stated that both the committee that originally drafted the bill and the Prime Minister who submitted the bill believe that the law as passed in Parliament does not require legal domicile and it was not the idea that legal domicile should prevent registration in the National Registry. “With that in mind, and since the information in the National Registry is probably the basis for proper passport registration, I believe that the Ministry must override this refusal of the National Registry,” Gísli says.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir—who introduced the gender determination law to Parliament, told Stundin that “it seems to me this individual has the right to change the registration of both their name and gender at the National Registry, as is stated in the law. Although there are limits [e.g. this change can only be made once, barring special circumstances], I believe the spirit of the law is completely clear.”
Alda has appealed the matter to the Transport and Municipality Ministry, after initially being told by the Registry that such an appeal must be made to the Ministry of Justice, only to give her different information some days later. As such, the matter is still pending.
Trans Ísland have already issued a statement on the matter, where they have put the onus on the Registry to rectify the situation.
“This contradicts the law on gender determination, and Trans Ísland encourages the National Registry to respect Alda’s gender determination and change her legally registered name and gender immediately, rather than cause more pain and anxiety,” they state in part. “Trans people have to deal with enough obstacles in our society, and it is completely unnecessary to create more.”
For her part, Alda says that she has been doing considerable work and research on her own in this matter, pointing out the legal principle of proportionality, that “if obscure legal principles in one country collide with another, the legal principle of proportionality should prevail,” adding that she hopes a successful appeal of the Registry’s decision will make life easier for other trans people.
“I do realise that I am neither the first or the last person to have my rights violated by the National Registry, which seems to be using the nationality principle or the domicile principle as it pleases when it comes to creating administrative hinderances towards foreign residents in Iceland, Icelandic citizens abroad or their children,” Alda tells the Grapevine. “This case is as far as I know the first administrative appeal involving the new gender law so it is not only important for myself, but also for those who will go through the same process while in the same situation in the future. As much as I would like to believe that there may be something justified on the National Registry’s side, given the fact that the agency had the opportunity to point this possibility out during the four years the bill was being drafted, I cannot see how those hinderances and how this sudden rejection is anything but a representation of a wicked and draconian administrative culture that seems to go unchecked.”
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