Life In Limbo: How Finland Is Failing On Gender Identity Rights

File picture of person holding paper with transgender symbol on it / Credit: iStock

Finland’s Human Rights Centre Ihmisoikeuskeskus is set to release a new report this month about the status of transgender rights in the country, and will highlight again a problem which the United Nations, and many in the trans community say is discriminatory: that trans people must submit to sterilisation if they want to have their new gender legally recognised by the state.

Trans Rights As A ‘Political Weapon’ 

When Amnesty International and The Huffington Post published stories in February about Sakris Kupila, and his fight to have his gender identity recorded as male on official documents, it got a lot of attention in the UK, but went almost unnoticed in the Finnish media.

“I think it’s about education. That’s why I decided to take my activism to a visible international level, try to educate people and change the atmosphere in Finland” Kupila tells News Now Finland.

Finland is the only Nordic country that forces trans people to be sterilised in order to have their new gender legally recognised. A bill in parliament to rectify this has been stuck in the committee stage without enough support from MPs to proceed.

Kupila thinks the issue has been turned into a political weapon.

“It was one of the reasons I started doing activism, because nothing has been happening. We have been trying to change the law since 2011 when I was in upper secondary school. Now I am in my university studies and it has been delayed several times. I come to the conclusion it’s just the politicians in charge who oppose it” he says.

Criticism Of Finland’s Sterilisation Rules

The new report due this month from the Human Rights Centre will highlight examples of best practice laws from other European countries dealing with trans rights and in particular, legal recognition. Norway, Malta and Ireland are cited as benchmarks. Sweden has even started to pay compensation to trans people who were forced to get sterilised.

At the end of February, the Finnish Human Rights Council told the Council of Europe that trans people in Finland “continue to face discrimination characterized by transphobic attitudes, gender stereotypes and discriminatory legislation”.

And in May last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council urged the Finnish government to update the country’s laws to take out the requirement for sterilisation before someone’s new gender can be changed on official documents like driving license, KELA card, passport or ID card. A few months later the government decided not to heed the UN’s recommendation.

“I think they don’t really listen to human rights groups and the UN criticising this. They come to the point where they don’t have any arguments left. That’s probably one of the reasons they didn’t give a reason for dismissing the UN criticism from last year” says Sakris Kupila.

An open letter to the government from the Human Rights Centre in December about the subject was ignored as well.

“Sadly, we have never received any responses from the ministers” says Human Rights Centre Director Sirpa Rautio.

Some political parties, and many individual politicians, have been actively supporting – or at least remain neutral – on the subject of reforming trans laws. But activists say it’s a difficult subject for many especially to the right of the political spectrum.

“In parliament we know there are groups very willing to do something but they’re not in the position to do something at the moment” explains Kerttu Tarjamo, Secretary General of LGBTI advocacy group SETA.

“When it comes to government parties, obviously they are reluctant to make it into a question that would risk breaking up the coalition. So they don’t want to make it primarily a human rights issues. They value their coalition instead of human rights issues” she says.

Sakris Kupila is more direct.

“We have these old, male, quiet Christian people in charge. I think it is a personal issue for them, with their faith and personal values. And I think they are scared of the backlash, from their own communities, or the hateful people who are already quite vocal on trans issues” he states.

File picture of Sakris Kupila / Credit: Amnesty International

Transitioning In Finland: An Imprecise Process

Transitioning from male to female, or female to male in Finland is as bureaucratic a process as you might imagine. But there’s an air of hit-or-miss uncertainty about the final stages as well.

The first step in the journey is a psychiatric referral in Helsinki or Tampere for people over 18. Then there’s a year of appointments with mental health professionals and a social worker, before around one third of people receive their medical diagnosis of transsexualism. After that there’s real life tests, living as the target gender, usually coupled with hormone replacement therapy. After a year, it’s possible to get some letters to take to a magistrate and get the legal gender changed.

One of those letters should be from an endocrinologist, who might or might not test to see whether the hormone replacement drugs have made the person infertile anyway. That’s where the uncertainty comes in.

Only around 50% of trans people in Finland undergo genital reassignment surgery, so there could be someone who identifies as a man, has outwardly male characteristics, but still has a womb and could biologically carry a baby to full term, if the hormone replacement therapy has not left them sterile anyway.

This is the case with Sakris Kupila, who has chosen to make his fertility public.

“With having surgery, you pay the price with organs. It’s fucked up. They say hormone therapy will make you infertile anyway. I study medicine, and I know it’s not true” says Kupila.

For trans people it’s a huge decision to make to get sterilised, especially those who start their transition in their teens, expected to make a choice about having children that will impact the rest of their adult lives.

“I could ask the endocrinologist [for a letter saying the hormone replacement made me infertile]. They might not test me. But if I want to follow the law on gender legal recognition I would have to go through surgery where they would cut out my ovaries or uterus and that would make me infertile and that is an invasive surgery” explains Kupila.

“People who aren’t trans can never comprehend what it is like. And I feel a lack of compassion often. They demand we go through these surgeries, but I won’t go through any surgery, and that’s my personal decision” he says.

File photo of Finnish passport / Credit: iStock

Everyday Problems

For trans Finns who can’t get legal gender recognition, they face possible difficulties every time they have to show some ID.

“Basically you have to choose whether you want to run into the problems almost daily, of having an ID of someone else you don’t look like. Almost any service you use, you have to come up with your gender” says SETA’s Kerttu Tarjamo.

Those problems are worse if the person has to travel, and presents as one gender, while their Finnish passport says the opposite.

“I wouldn’t dare travel to Russia now” says Kupila.

“I know people who have been arrested on the border and questioned. I did once travel to Russia, but it was before the laws on rainbow propaganda, and it was still quite nerve-wracking” he says.

At the very least there’s awkward looks from immigration officials. At worst, they might think the passenger has someone else’s passport and trying to enter the country fraudulently.

Finland’s Nordic neighbours have sorted that problem by separating the medical and legal processes of gender identity recognition.

Advocates say it is long overdue for Finland to live up to its human rights obligations and do the same.