Transgender Rights: Why We Should All Be Like Denmark

This post is part of the Mental Health Monday series, in which iustitia examines one aspect of the intersections between mental health and the law. You can find previous posts here

As the recent movie The Danish Girl showed, Denmark has been largely ahead of the international curve on transgender rights. In 2014, Denmark became the first European nation to allow a person to legally and physically change their gender without a medical expert statement. Other European nations, such as Ireland, have followed suit. As of January 2017, Denmark will be the first country in the world to declassify “being transgendered” as a mental illness. This move is monumental for transgendered people in Denmark. However, it also opens the path for other nations to uphold transgendered rights and enables the international community to take a stand. Denmark hopes this move will help to decrease the institutionalized stigmatization of trans people.

Other countries have taken steps to ensure trans rights are upheld. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced new legislation that will formally ban discrimination against transgender people across Canada. When introducing the bill, Trudeau stated that everyone deserves to live “free of stigma, persecution and discrimination - no matter who they are or whom they love . . . and feel safe and secure and empowered to freely express themselves.” He also stated that this move will help to improve the mental health support and address the needs of the transgendered population in Canada. Although these nations are taking the first needed steps, the international community has yet to join this movement.

In particular, the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to classify transsexualism, as well as other categories related to sexual orientation, as mental diseases. The WHO has proposed changes that would remove transsexualism and other sexual orientation categories from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) - the handbook used by the WHO and other national and international bodies. However, this change is not guaranteed. Although medical professionals from around the world have urged that these categories be removed completely from the ICD, there are many that would oppose this change based on the pervasive stigma associated with transgendered individuals. The WHO has yet to make the significant and needed change to remove these categories from the list of mental “diseases,” which contributes to the further stigmatization from countries around the world.

This issue is extremely relevant, especially in the United States, where trans people are fighting for the right to enter the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, among other issues. Transgendered students are treated as though they suffer from a “disease” for wanting to self-identify as they see fit. The Obama administration attempted to assist by issuing a letter to schools around the country, stating that as a condition of receiving federal funds, schools agree to not “exclude, separate, deny benefits to, or otherwise treat differently on the basis of sex any person in its educational programs.” The President stated that this prohibits schools from treating transgender students differently from other students. However, this letter does not carry with it the force of law; it is simply “significant guidance” on how schools should treat transgendered people.

The issue in the United States is the lack of legislation or significant case law that supports the prohibition against discrimination for transsexual persons on the federal level. Although access to restrooms is a significant issue, especially for students, the problems are much larger - the rights of transgendered people are not acknowledged in various subsets of society. Although 29 states have prohibited discrimination against transgendered persons, the federal government has yet to introduce legislation that would ensure constitutional rights are upheld.

iustitia urges the WHO and nations around the world to follow Denmark and declassify transsexualism as a mental health “disease.” Moreover, by declassifying categories of sexual orientation as mental disorders, a space will open up for individuals who actually experience mental health problems to obtain needed services. Finally, the United States should uniformly acknowledge the developments of other major countries, including its Canadian neighbors, in terms of how they treat transgendered individuals and follow suit. 

Also available on medium