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Transitioning Reforms and Reforming Transitioning: How Germany is reckoning with its past transphobic sterilization practices

A trans person is trapped in a petri dish filled with bacteria as they are being examined under a microscope.

Angela Merkel’s Germany usually espouses ideals of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion. However, for transgender individuals, the struggle to ensure that Germany’s laws recognize their gender identity has been ongoing and painful. As recently as 2011, the transitioning process for transgender individuals in Germany was fraught with even more legal and institutional barriers than exist today. In fact, sterilization was once a requirement to legally change one’s gender and had been forced upon approximately 10,000 German transgender individuals.

Though this process was reformed in 2011 so that sterilization prior to sex reassignment surgery was no longer mandatory, the process of transitioning in Germany remains extremely challenging. In order for Germany to meaningfully reform its legal systems to allow for greater inclusion of the transgender community, the nation must reckon with its damaging history. While an official apology and reparations must be issued to those who suffered involuntary sterilization, the government must take additional steps to remedy its history of harmful policies. Going forward, then, the government must provide transgender individuals with autonomy by instituting self-determination policies and removing the required role of medical professionals in the legal process of gender change.

Germany’s current discrimination against transgender individuals, as well its their attitude towards gender diversity, can partially be seen as an archaic remnants of Nazi-era eugenics. In 1934, government officials expanded the country’s Criminal Code by adding Paragraph 175, which classified homosexuality as a criminal offense. For more than a decade, more than 50,000 men were prosecuted for homosexual activity and punished through forced labor. Beyond these punishments for homosexuality, the Nazis were infamous for their forced sterilizations of non-Aryan individuals, particularly those who strayed from the “ideal” racial background or deviated from “ideal” health. LGBTQ+ Germans were considered deviant and, if not murdered, were often arrested, imprisoned in concentration camps, and forced into sterilization.

A black eagle representing the German coat of arms tears a trans flag to shreds.

Since World War II, anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies and laws have been gradually challenged and dismissed. In 1969, an adjustment to Paragraph 175 decriminalized sexual activity between men over the age of 21. More recently, in 2017, the German Parliament approved the issuance of reparations to gay men who were once convicted of homosexuality. An estimated 5,000 of these men were identified to receive a base compensation of €3,000, with an additional €1,500 added for each year that they were incarcerated. In 2019, this policy was extended to include €500 in compensation for gay men who were investigated under anti-LGBTQ+ laws but not convicted, adding €1,500 for each year in pre-trial custody and €1,500 for other hardships and burdens experienced due to these discriminatory practices.

The transgender community, however, continues to suffer disproportionately, even as much of the LGBTQ+ community has made significant strides forward. Gaining recognition as a transgender person has been and continues to be extremely difficult due to the passage of anti-transgender legislation. For example, the 1980 Transsexuals Act required individuals to be diagnosed with a mental disorder in order to be recognized as transgender. This legislation harmfully conflated transgender identities with mental illness and stigmatized transgender individuals. The repercussions of this law continue to prevent the self-determination of gender for many.

Although the World Health Organization finally struck down the classification of “transgender” as a mental disorder in 2019, Germany still requires individuals to meet with two different state-appointed psychotherapists to gain “approval” for their choice before their gender can be legally recognized. These policies establish medical professionals as gatekeepers who regulate and monitor the “validity” of one’s identity. This system diminishes patients’ ability to advocate for themselves, especially given the inherently unequal power dynamics in physician-patient relationships and the state’s entanglement with the process. Medicine can be weaponized by politicians as a tool to control and regulate bodies. Legislation that undermines transgender individuals’ ability to self-identify and self-advocate are remnants of such a system, in which medicine is too often used as an instrument of oppression.

Medicine will continue to be a barrier for those who want to transition until self-determination is seen as valid. It is essential that transgender individuals are able to receive government IDs and documents with their rightful gender and name without having to undergo bureaucratic medical appointments and diagnoses. German activists are fighting to implement this change through a statutory self-declaration system, in which an individual’s oath is the primary evidence necessary to make a legal change. This system may be key to finally placing agency in the hands of transgender individuals.

Importantly, Germany is not the only country that must grapple with a history of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Sweden, like Germany, has a past stained by the forced sterilizations of transgender individuals. Unlike Germany, Sweden has made considerable efforts to repair its relationship with its transgender community. These actions can serve as a promising roadmap for change. In 2017, just four years after Sweden abolished its 1972 law requiring transgender citizens to be sterilized in order to be granted a legal gender change, the country became the first in the world to issue compensation to victims of forced sterilization. In the end, this resulted in the provision of 225,000 Krona each to an estimated 800 transgender individuals. While monetary compensation is obviously a meager replacement for forced sterilization, the focus on remedying this past injustice by Sweden’s government represents encouraging progress. Still, an official apology by the Swedish government remains to be issued, which trans activists have called for in order to complement the positive strides made by compensation. Trans activists in Germany have called for similar governmental interventions. An apology might include an intentional ceremony and the issuance of formal statements in recognition of harm done.

Though Germany’s 2011 repeal and ban of forced sterilization signals positive progress towards transgender equity and acceptance, it is not enough. Germany should look to Sweden as a model. It should also consider potential reparations for those affected by the sterilization policy prior to its abolition. Moreover, it would be valuable for the German parliament to issue an official apology in recognition of these crimes committed against transgender individuals and the trans community at large. It is also crucial that Germany re-evaluate the current process for legal gender change by adopting self-identification policies, as this process remains extremely distressing and bureaucratic. Individuals should be able to self-determine their gender and name on documents through simpler processes without the influence of outside authority—a statutory self-declaration system is one example of how this might be achieved.

Repealing the mandatory sterilization policy was necessary, but it was the bare minimum. A long road still lies ahead in creating a more accepting Germany, one in which reparations, government acknowledgement, reforms to current anti-trans laws, and self-identification policies come together to create a path where legal recognition of their identity is accessible to all transgender Germans who seek it.

About the Author

Madeline Noh '22 is a Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Madeline can be reached at madeline_noh@brown.edu

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