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According to GLAAD, the term ‘transgender’ describes an individual whose gender identity is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. More specifically, gender identity is a person’s internal and personal sense of being a man or a woman, or for some individuals who do not feel like they fit into either being a man or a woman, a non-binary identity might best describe who they understand themselves to be. The term ‘trans’ encompasses both transgender and transsexual, which can describe someone who has undergone a gender reassignment through medical processes. It is important to understand that not all transgender individuals go through, or want to go through, sex reassignment.
Central European nations belonging to the Visegrad Four (V4) – The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – are often some of the most politically and socially conservative members of the European Union. However, each of these nations is different in their treatment of and history with trans individuals.
The Czech Republic
The Czech Republic is generally considered to be one of the most progressive states within the Visegrad Four. One distinct marker of Czech society is the lack of dominant religious values. Unlike Poland or Hungary, the secular nature of the Czech Republic generally exempts them from religiously-motivated homophobia. Hot button issues like same-sex marriage have garnered enough attention and approval to receive legislative responses. That said, when focusing more closely on trans rights, there remains a discomfort with non-binary identities, likely rooted in traditional attachment to gender and race norms.
The issue of forced sterilization lies at the heart of the Czech Republic’s categorization as a ‘red state’ by Transgender Europe, and like the rest of the V4 nations, legal gender recognition requires a mental health diagnosis, which further stigmatizes and discriminate against the ability to freely dictate one’s gender through self-determination. The requirement to be diagnosed with transsexualism by a sexologist and a physician qualifies the individual for hormone treatment. Once the transition initiates, the individual must select a temporary gender-neutral name to use during their ‘trial year’ in the new, chosen gender. After this year, the individual must appear before a panel of doctors, psychologists, and lawyers, who determine if the individual is in the appropriate mental state to qualify for gender reassignment surgery, and it is only after this surgery that the individual can apply for document changes to reflect their chosen gender.
These types of policies have ramifications in trans individuals’ everyday lives including extreme difficulties with official documentation. Forced sterilization is expensive with the average cost of female sterilization being roughly 5,000 euros, and male sterilization (vasectomy) being at least 500 euros. Other life-altering legislation includes forced divorce, which greatly impacts an individual’s personal life and often is not what that individual would choose for themselves or their partners.
The process is complex and has the potential to make those in the midst of it feel isolated or ostracized, and the future of trans rights in the Czech Republic remains uncertain. While there was a major legal victory against forced sterilization was brought jointly by Transgender Europe and ILGA-Europe in 2015, in which the court determined that it was a violation of human rights, the Czech Association of Sexologists held firm in its belief that castration should be a legal requirement in the formal gender recognition process. The case was brought up under the European Social Charter, and may take time before anything really changes. Further, there remains a fear that, in the wake of rising nationalism and neo-nazism in the region, such movements could have a lasting influence on the societal positioning of trans rights in the Czech Republic.
Hungary is one of the worst-performing countries when it comes to the protection of trans rights. In May 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Hungarian parliament passed a law that defines gender-based on “sex at birth”, thus legally not recognizing trans identities.
This new law is not big news to the Hungarian trans community as the legal gender changes have been halted since 2017. Now, all the requests accumulated throughout the years will be denied. The piece of legislation is not only hindering people who just began their transition, but also trans men and women who have had their documents legally changed before. With the wording “sex at birth”, every trans person is in danger of being outed by their official documents.
The Hungarian government’s feelings towards the LGBT+ community did not get better in 2021. In January, Orban’s government decided to pass a bill forcing publishing companies to introduce a disclaimer on books with topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Due to this hostile environment, many LGBT+ people, especially trans individuals, are taking advantage of European mobility and moving to EU countries with more favorable legislation. In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Ivett Ordog, a 40-year-old engineering manager, recounted the reasoning behind her relocation and it is correlated to the anti-trans bill passed in May. Ordog stated that the constant coming out in public places puts trans people in danger, “usually nothing bad happens, but every time you have to prepare for the worst, when you are outed in front of staff or a large audience, you never know if someone might come after you”.
In March 2019, Swidnik was one of the first municipalities to start to declare themselves as “free of the LGBT ideology” (Strefa wolna od ideologii LGBT). The municipalities were passing motions that rejected what they considered “LGBT ideology” in their homes, workplaces, and, most importantly, schools. These resolutions passed, at first, in the rural and conservative areas of the country to then reach a third of Poland “free of LGBT”. There were waves of new municipalities declaring themselves as “LGBT-free” and the peaks were in the months prior to the elections, both the European elections and national elections. State-controlled media has been campaigning harshly against gender minorities, by shaming and deadnaming the trans community on their outlets.
Formally changing a person’s gender identity is a lengthy and difficult process in Poland. In an interview with Vice, Anton, a Polish journalist, described the systemic discrimination when going through the process of legalization of one’s gender identity. Recalling his own experience, Anton described the various steps towards his gender transition, starting from the “really long process of diagnosis” usually performed by a psychotherapist. When the expert diagnosis gender dysphoria, then the person can have access to hormone treatments. In order to change the gender in legal documents, Anton states that part of the process is “to sue your parents for wrongly assuming your gender when you were born”. Despite Poland being known for its questionable relationship with women’s bodies (see abortion laws in Poland) and the terrible relation with its LGBT+ community, good news for transgender Poles came up in October. A Polish court ruled in favor of a transwoman, confirming that it is not permitted to discriminate against trans people in the workplace. The woman in question is Joanna, hired by a security company while undergoing the legal process of formally changing her gender identity. At the beginning of the recruitment, Joanna did not have any problem in the workplace. However, when the employer found out her documents identified her as “male”, he made her wear a male uniform and gave her humiliating tasks. This new ruling sets an unprecedented standard of protection for the Polish trans community.
While other Visegrad Four countries’ policies are more distinct, Slovakia’s general atmosphere around LGBT issues remains vague. Even though its neighbors have intense processes required to be recognized as trans, or are very openly transphobic, Slovakia’s relatively progressive nature has not been sufficient enough to make it a beacon for LGBT rights. In fact, it is actually the lack of clear legislation that provides a breeding ground for inhumane treatment of trans individuals.
As of 2016, Slovakia, unlike all other V4 countries, does not require gender reassignment treatment. However, further legal requirements are murky and are instead usually dictated by norms and individual judges, lawyers, and medical professionals. Even the government portal, Slovensko, states that ‘the transition process is not comprehensively regulated in the Slovak Republic’. Steps in the transition process that are very clearly laid out in other nations, like mandatory divorce, are not a legal obligation in Slovakia, but are still often insisted upon by healthcare providers involved in the transition.
Unfortunately, in July 2016, birth registries began requiring medical certifications that trans individuals had undergone sterilization, making it effectively compulsory for trans individuals to be sterile in order to change their legal documents. Even though this shift was not legislative in nature and actively contrasts Slovakia’s Criminal Code and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (2015), which both determine forced sterilization to violate human rights, its impacts are, nonetheless, real. The lack of clear legislation poses significant challenges, just like the presence of outwardly discriminatory practices because it allows for extremely liberal interpretations of the unregulated procedures. In a country where the word for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are the same in the local language, the lack of clarity in the language surrounding what it means to be trans in Slovakia ultimately impacts the quality of trans lives by creating a state of uncertainty.
In September 2019, the Minister of Health refused to sign legislation known as the Professional Guidelines to Unify Medical Procedures for Issuing Medical Opinions on Gender Reassignment, which had been prepared in 2019 by the previous government with the help of medical professionals and trans advocates. These guidelines would have abolished forced sterilization and other medical interventions required for legal gender recognition. This is now the third Minister to refuse to move the process forward.
Talks had continued through January 2020, until they were stalled by the elections and the outbreak of COVID-19. For now, it seems that the political and medical will to introduce proper, clarifying legislation on trans rights in Slovakia remains unattainable until there is a significant shift in citizen and governmental priorities.
The EU plays an important role in the future of trans rights in Central Europe. A court case in France that ultimately made forced sterilization of trans individuals illegal, set a precedent for the entire EU, was ultimately brought to the EU Court of Human Rights and made illegal Union-wide in 2017. Practically, however, this has not been implemented Union-wide and remains effective in many countries including the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
- What is the role of the EU in trans rights in the V4? Is the Union doing enough or is it overstepping in its legislative approach?
- Is forced sterilization of trans individuals for documentation purposes a violation of human rights?
- What do changes in the political climate in Central Europe entail for the future of trans rights?
Ayoub, Phillip, and David Paternotte, eds. Lgbt Activism and the Making of Europe: A Rainbow Europe. Gender and Politics Series. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
O’Dwyer, Conor . Coming Out of Communism: The Emergence of Lgbt Activism in Eastern Europe. New York: New York University, 2018.
Slootmaeckers, Koen, Heleen Touquet, and Peter Vermeersch, eds. The Eu Enlargement and Gay Politics: The Impact of Eastern Enlargement on Rights, Activism and Prejudice. Gender and Politics Series. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016;