Trans people feel that their assigned sex at birth doesn’t match up with their gender identity. Although trans people have always existed, it is only recently that they have been getting the legal recognition that they deserve as conversations surrounding sexuality have evolved over the years.
A recent report created by three main organisations: Denton, the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Youth & Student Organisation (IGLYO), called, ‘Only Adults? Good Practices in Legal Gender Recognition for Youth’, has provoked the question of how much decision-making freedom trans minors ought to get. Its purpose is to aid campaigners in their fight for trans minors to get legal recognition of their gender. This report provides a legal and advocacy framework for organisations and individuals, and includes case studies from different European countries.
The report made me question what I originally believed about trans minors being able to legally change their gender.
My Initial Thoughts
I’ll admit, my initial thoughts were ones of shock and surprise. In actual fact, my very first thought was ‘no they can’t. They’re too young. They don’t know what they want’. But then I took a second to re-examine that thought. I realised that as a young cisgender woman, that thought came from a place of privilege. I have never had to question my gender identity the way others have to. I then remembered something I’d read once on Tumblr:
‘the first thought that goes through your mind is what you have been conditioned to think, what you think next defines who you are’.
So I decided to reconsider this thought process and approach it from another perspective.
I understand that realising your gender identity doesn’t relate to your assigned sex must be a jarring experience. Many trans kids have mental health problems as a result of this; some experience gender dysphoria; some have even reportedly attempted suicide. To give them an opportunity to legally change their gender could make them a lot happier and safer.
Yet the practicalities involved in making this happen seem too complex. But, I promised myself that I would try to keep an open mind.
The Report Itself
In the spirit of keeping an open mind, I looked at the report that I mentioned earlier and discovered some interesting policies.
One such policy involved not requiring individuals to go through any surgical operation like sterilisation or obtain a medical diagnosis to legally be able to change their gender. The report stated that requiring a medical diagnosis often put trans peoples off going through with the process. Some, in fact, thought that it made them feel like they ‘constantly [had to] prove their gender in front of a stranger’. I confess, I initially thought that a professional recommendation seemed like a rational requirement, but knowing the identity crisis that it may provoke made me reconsider my views.
In the absence of this requirement, countries would instead employ the policy of self-determination. According to the NGO Transgender Europe (TGEU), self-determination is when:
‘legal gender recognition is based exclusively on the expressed wish of the person concerned … does not require third-party involvement … and intersex status and/or sex characteristics are not a contradiction’.
The country with the most progressive legal framework for allowing minors to legally change their gender is presently Norway. In Norway, minors above 16 can apply for a change of legal gender without parental consent. They don’t have to experience any kind of surgery, sterilisation or medical diagnosis and must provide self-declaration. There is also no standstill period. This means that there’s no waiting period between their first declaration and their second before legally changing their gender.
For minors between the ages of 6-16, they can legally change their gender with parental consent. For minors under the age of 6, legally changing their gender is only possible if they are born intersex. This would require a medical diagnosis and parental consent. The same conditions apply to emancipated and unemancipated minors.
In regards to how Norway does things, it’s not perfect but it’s a pretty impressive model. The lack of a standstill period is particularly excellent. The idea that you have to wait a certain amount of time between the first and second occasion of you declaring that you want to legally change your gender is a bizarre one. It’s unlikely that a trans person would change their mind after a few months. To me, this extra ‘precaution’ seems less about protection and more about lawmakers being sceptical and mistrustful of young trans people.
I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of requiring parental consent for minors from the ages of 6-16. Unfortunately, not all parents will accept their child ‘as they really are’ and to put a parent’s desires before the child’s needs doesn’t seem right. Too often, as a society, we treat minors as if they don’t have minds of their own; as though they are inept in making decisions for themselves. We have to bear in mind though that not all parents have their child’s best interests at heart.
Still, the case is not that simple. Although I do see the benefit of legally recognising a trans minor’s gender, this can come with some pitfalls. With gender recognition, it would become easier for a child to get gender-reassignment surgery, given that they would already hold legal recognition of being the wrong sex. This involves another level of responsibility and risk, with irreversible consequences. And I cannot agree that gender reassignment surgery for a minor is an easy decision to make, and one that they should be allowed to make alone. To allow minors to opt for gender reassignment surgery and make it as easy as choosing a hairstyle, would be plain reckless. Age limits may seem arbitrary and unnecessary but sometimes they are essential and important.
This has been such a crazy road so far. When I first started learning about this issue, I thought I’d end up with a yes/no answer, the way I feel about so many other social issues. I’m learning that this issue is incredibly complex. The more I read, the more I understand that things are neither straightforward nor black and white, and I’m not sure that I am ready to make a definite judgement just yet.
What I do know, however, is that this is an important conversation that our lawmakers and our society at large must continue to have, and that we mustn’t exclude trans minors from it. After all, it’s their lives that we’re deciding — they deserve to have their own voice.