Thursday, March 15 2012 21:43

Meanwhile, in Sweden

By  Gwendolyn Ann Smith

In 1972, back in the days of Earth Shoes and the Watergate scandal, a law passed in Sweden. The law, in the works since 1966, covered the legal standards for sex reassignment in the country. With this law, Sweden became the first country in the world to officially recognize gender reassignment.

In many ways, this law appears very similar to those in many other places over the ensuing years, and will be familiar to many transsexuals who have sought to have their birth certificate changed in the last decade or so: in order to get your personal identification updated, you needed to have genital reassignment and an official authorization of the change in gender. One key part of that genital reassignment, by the way, involves sterilization.

The world has changed a lot since 1972. The United States saw the downfall of president Nixon two years later, followed by the short presidencies of Ford and Carter, followed by Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama. In 1972, there were no personal computers, no DVDs, not even a fax machine. Weíve gone from 8-track tapes to cassettes, then to compact discs and finally MP3s.

Then, the LGBT movement was still fresh from Stonewall, and still had a couple years before the backlash of Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative. It would be a bit more than a decade until the scourge of AIDS, and more years still until we see the fights over ìDonít Ask, Donít Tellî and marriage equality. Oh, and it wasnít called the LGBT community then: it was the gay rights movement.

Transgender peopleómainly transsexualsówere gaining some visibility then. Harry Benjaminís book The Transsexual Phenomenon came out in 1966: the year Sweden first set up the committee that led to their 1972 ruling. That year, Wendy Carlos would undergo surgery, but not come out about it for some seven years. In 1974, Jan Morrisí autobiography Conundrum would hit bookshelves. In 1975, Renne Richards would have her genital reassignment surgery and be denied a spot in 1976 US Open the next year.

It was right, then, for Sweden to explore the first of transgender people. The laws they came up with, then, were presumably in step with the times.

As I said, though, the world has changed a lot since then, and our societyóas well as our lawsóhas had to be updated to keep pace.

Sweden reviewed their 1972 law recently and decided to keep the provision requiring sterilization in order to have oneís gender recognized legally.

But we live in very different times. Transgender people do not always seek sexual reassignment nowadays, for many different reasons. This is particularly common amongst transgender men, given the high cost and relative lack of functionality from a female to male surgical result. Many are opting to look beyond genitals, and not seeing change in same to be as important as it may have been all those decades ago.

Perhaps more to the point, weíve begun to see a few examples of transgender men carrying children, such as Matt Rice in 1999, Thomas Beatie in 2008, Yuval Topper in 2011, and an undisclosed man in the UK this year.

Yet Sweden chose the conservative path, siding with their conservative Christian Democrat party government and the nationalist Sweden Democrat party, deciding to retain the sterilization requirement.

Many cried foul, given that Swedish law is only reviewed every 40 yearsómeaning it would take that much more time until it could be reconsidered. Who knows, by 2052, we may again see the rise of Earth Shoes and 8-track tapes.

A petition was distributed, eventually delivering 77,000 signatures to the Swedish prime minister. Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europeís Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that forcing people to undergo unwanted medical interventions to change their legal status was a breach of human rights. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe said much the same.

In response to all this, Swedenóso far ahead of the curve in 1972 and so far behind the curve in 2012óblinked. Christian Democratic party leadership reversed course, calling instead for the removal of the sterilization requirement.

Yet things are not perfect. While this is a good move, the rest of the law remains as is. Other requirements remain in place, including the rule that in order to be legally recognized, you must be unmarried. This in a country that already allows same sex marriage.

More than this, Sweden is not alone in having a sterilization requirement. Though it is not entirely clear how many do require it, Transgender Europe reports that Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, and Spain require some genital reassignment and/or sterilization in order to legally recognize a transpersonís gender. There are still places in our country, too, that require suchóheck, there are places that wonít change your birth certificate regardless of surgical procedures.

The world is continuing to change, and with it, the very mature of gender. What was progressive 40 years ago is regressive today. It will be quaint, at best, tomorrow.

In 40 years, will Sweden finally change their laws? Will it even matter then, or will this law and its requirements read like an outdated San Francisco law against piling horse manure more than six feet high on a street corner? Something so far out of step with the times as to be instantly ignored, a relic from a long bygone age.

Letís make for that tomorrow, and see laws like that in Swedenóand closer to homeóreflect our needs now and in the future.


Gwen Smith only vaguely remembers 1972. You can find her online at

Joomla SEO by AceSEF