Do trans self-ID laws harm women? Argentina could have answers

by Enrique Anarte | @enriqueanarte | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 1 June 2022 08:00 GMT

A woman and a man walk down the stairs painted in the colors of the rainbow at a subway station to celebrate International Day Against Homophobia in Buenos Aires, Argentina, May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

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It's 10 years since Argentina passed the world's first law allowing trans people to change legal gender on demand. Here's what we've learned about the impact

  • Country passed world's first gender self-ID law in 2012

  • Some feminists say such rules put women at risk

  • Officials say data shows no rise in violence against women

By Enrique Anarte

June 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It is 10 years since Argentina made LGBTQ+ history by allowing anyone to change their legal gender by self-declaration, tapping into a wider global debate about the progress of transgender rights.

Since then, other countries have also moved to allow self-ID without the need to get approval from doctors and courts, and more are looking at making the change.

They have faced criticism from some feminist campaigners and conservative groups who say trans freedoms are at odds with women's safety - though supporters of such laws say a decade's worth of data indicates those concerns are unfounded.

What can Argentina's experience tell us about the impact of the change for trans and women's rights, and what lessons does the act hold for other nations as they overhaul gender identity laws?

A TRANS FIRST

It was on June 1, 2012, that Argentina became the first country in the world to allow legal transition by self-declaration - a groundbreaking change for trans rights.

Most countries that recognise gender transition for people who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth demand legal and/or medical intervention and endorsement to change their sex on official documents.

The decision to do away with all those conditions was hailed as a game changer by LGBTQ+ rights campaigners.

According to government data, 12,655 people have changed their legal gender in Argentina in the past 10 years - or about one in every 3,846 inhabitants.

"It set us free from ... all the judicial and medical obstacles," said Florencia Guimaraes, who identifies as travesti, a transgender feminine identity in some parts of Latin America.

IMPACT ON WOMEN?

More than two-thirds of Argentines said they thought more should be done to support and protect trans people, according to an international 2018 survey by polling firm Ipsos.

Some women's activist groups in Argentina and elsewhere say trans recognition erodes the rights of those who have lived as female from birth, and fear men posing as trans women could pose a physical threat in single-sex spaces.

Rosana Lopez, a spokesperson for the Trece Rosas feminist group, said self-ID and other trans rights advances "put a lot of pressure on women's rights".

"We think the gender identity law is a danger for women's physical integrity," the Organisation of Argentinian Radical Feminists (OFRA) said in e-mailed comments. 

"These self-ID laws leave us unprotected against situations of abuse and violence."

Other women's groups - and the government - say fears of an uptick in gender-related violence have not transpired.

"We haven't had situations of violence from our travesti and trans sisters," said Candelaria Botto of Ecofeminita, one of the country's most prominent feminist groups. Other feminist groups FEIM, ELA and Colectiva La Revuelta agreed.

Greta Pena, a senior policy officer at Argentina's equality ministry, said there was no evidence of any rise in violence against non-trans women since the law was passed.

A 2021 government study found that one trans woman was accused and convicted of sexual abuse between 2013 and 2019. 

"No one has all the information, but violence (by trans people) ... isn't a problem that data shows," said Carla Majdalani, head of the UN Women's programme against gender-based violence in Argentina.

'RARE' MISUSE

Groups who oppose the self-ID law have pointed to a small number of documented examples of men using it as a loophole to claim female rights such as favourable welfare benefits, or to gain access to single-sex spaces.

Possibilities for misuse do exist in the self-ID law, but instances are rare, said Ana Clara Piechestein, a law professor at Buenos Aires University.

"For every law there's a loophole," she said.

In 2019, local media said a man jailed for gender-based violence self-identified as a woman so as to be transferred to a female prison, where he got a fellow inmate pregnant.

In December, a father in a child custody battle also changed his official gender to female, saying he had done so because the justice system was too willing to believe women's reports of domestic abuse and he hoped to get more time with his daughter.

HAS LIFE FOR TRANS PEOPLE GOT BETTER?

Gender-affirming healthcare - such as hormone treatment, surgery and voice therapy - has been covered by the state since the law was changed. 

Argentina has also introduced a job quota for trans people in the public sector, and last year it launched non-binary IDs, to recognise people who do not identify as male or female. 

Much else in day-to-day life has not changed.

Discrimination and poverty rates are high among trans people, according to a 2017 survey by the Buenos Aires city government, with life expectancy at just 32 years against an average of 76.

"At the age of 41, I can say I am a survivor," activist Guimaraes said. "That should be an alarm clock for society." 

Only 9% of trans Argentines have a formal job - most never finished school - and 70% are sex workers, according to the Buenos Aires survey.

Marcela Romero, head of RedLacTrans, a network of Latin American and Caribbean trans groups, said trans people need more help to enter the job market and find accommodation.

LESSONS FOR EUROPE

Gender laws have moved swiftly in the decade since Argentina broke ground, with self-ID legislations enacted from Chile and Uruguay in Latin America to Malta and Switzerland in Europe. 

Hormone therapy is a prerequisite to transition in many countries, while others such as Finland, the Czech Republic and Romania insist on gender reassignment surgery or sterilisation.

Countries including Spain and Germany are expected to rewrite their gender identity laws. 

Spain is debating a bill in parliament that would allow self-ID. Ten out of its 17 regions already allow it for services they manage such as healthcare and education.

Germany's government has pledged legal changes to allow self-ID, though a bill is yet to be published.

While European countries debate changes, activist Romero said the past decade had proved her country was right in betting on trans rights.

"We're showing the world they need to look south and see what we're achieving here," Romero said.

Related stories:

Transgender job quota law seen 'changing lives' in Argentina

'Unable to learn' - Transgender schools in Latin America offer a fresh chance

Kept out of traditional jobs, transgender people see hope in tech world

(Reporting by Enrique Anarte in Berlin; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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