Nordic countries like Finland have an image as ideal welfare countries: virtually free healthcare, good student support, free education at all levels. There is certainly a lot to praise, especially as a student. However, perhaps due to this image as the quintessential model of equality and freedom, the ongoing fight for trans rights remains buried deep under the radar of the public consciousness. In Finland, to change one’s gender markers in the juridical system (also known as gender recognition), trans people are, still, forcibly sterilised.
In the laws regarding gender recognition, this requirement is called the ‘inability to reproduce’, a choice of words that makes it sound a lot less threatening than ‘forced sterilisation’. Similarly, the procedure isn’t done and over with in a doctor’s appointment, but it is rather carried out over time in the form of HRT, hormone replacement therapy, for a less harsh-sounding reality. Forced sterilisation, of course, is not the only requirement for gender recognition. Simply accessing HRT requires possibly months or even years of waiting whilst running in and out of doctors’ offices to ensure you’re ‘mentally sound’, and the law requires you to have lived as your chosen gender at least for two years prior to your application for gender recognition. Thus, the road to gender recognition is not easy nor quick, similarly to the protocols used in the UK.
However, forced sterilisation poses a very specific issue to trans people in Finland that is not experienced by trans people in the UK. The requirement of forced sterilisation violates the bodily autonomy of trans people, both in the form of relinquishing the right to reproduce and the ability to choose what one does to one’s body. Trans activists in Finland have rightfully decried this as dehumanising and unjust to trans people – the state should not be able to tell who can reproduce and who cannot. Additionally, in forcing trans people to take HRT, the government is implementing a standard of transness that does not map out on the varied lived experiences of trans people. Whilst HRT is a celebratory and life-saving procedure to some trans people, not all trans people wish to medically transition for various reasons. Additionally, some are unable to do so, for another set of various reasons. Thus, the requirement of medical transition is unrealistic to many.
Moreover, viewing HRT as the requirement for gender recognition frames all trans experiences from a wholly medical lens. In positing medical transition as the hallmark of transness, it implies that trans experiences are solely about medical intervention and not about identity. The various consequences of viewing trans identities medically has been widely discussed in transgender studies with various arguments for and against. However, whilst it is an important issue to consider in order to keep medical transition accessible to those who need it, it shifts the narrative uncomfortably to a more normative and narrow definition of what it means to be trans than what the lived experiences of many trans people would suggest.
The inability to change your gender doesn’t only violate one’s autonomy, but it also leads to practical consequences for many Finnish trans people. Many times since moving to the UK, I’ve been asked why I haven’t changed my legal name yet. Believe me, I would if I could’ve. In Finland, your legal name must be in accordance with your legal gender. The only way to change your name to the ‘other gender’ is to change your gender markers or adopt an accepted gender-neutral name from an ever-diminishing list of names. Consequently, because I wasn’t able to legally transition prior to coming to the UK, I also couldn’t change my name. My legal name, however, hasn’t been my name in years; hearing or seeing it is alienating, and sometimes very troubling – which name do I sign under? What name do I get my parcels delivered with? Combine with the humiliation of handing over my ID and having to be someone I’m not whenever I want to have some red wine on a Friday night; the gender recognition laws make the lives of trans people like me undeniably fractured.
The situation over the border is different – in March 2017, the Swedish government decided to give monetary compensation to those trans people who were forcibly sterilised before the new laws were in place. The next summer I was in Helsinki Pride, marching and shouting ‘Trans Rights’ and ‘No to Forced Sterilisation’ amongst thousands of other LGBTQ+ people, the same thing I had done in the Pride of my home town the previous year. And yet, nothing happened – the injustice we’ve met and the anger it has caused has been put on hold, as the government keeps ‘debating the trans issue’ over and over, from year to year. Even better, the government has tried to constantly diminish trans rights on multiple occasions: last year, they tried to deny access to medical help for non-binary people.
With this in mind, I cannot but shake my head every time my Finnishness is met with laudatory surprise, accompanied with comments on the success of the welfare system and the assumed ease of life – they really just sound harsh against my experiences as a trans person in Finland. Of course, trans issues are not the only problem that gets swept under the rug of good public image – racism, police brutality, ableism, you name it – all get swallowed up by ‘but the education system is great!’. That may be the case. Yet many are still wronged and continue to be – these issues should not be silenced by the narrative of welfare only some of us get to enjoy.
Image: Jonas Tana via Flickr