The debate between these two schools of thought — the self-ID and gatekeeping models — lies at the heart of every argument we have about the lives of trans adults, from fights over access to gender-affirming procedures to whether transgender athletes should be allowed to compete. Is someone trans because they say they are? Or does it take an outside expert to know for sure?
How the world decides this question will have huge implications for the lives of transgender people. In recent years, self-ID has become the law in about 15 countries, including Ireland, Portugal and Uruguay, and it is likely to become law in Spain, where the government approved a draft bill last June. This week, a self-ID law was introduced in the Scottish Parliament. But elsewhere, transition treatment remains more complicated to get. Despite Germany’s liberated Weimar history, its requirements are outdated and onerous. Under the country’s 40-year-old Transsexuellengesetz (“Transsexual law”) — which forces people to undergo expensive, lengthy and often demeaning tests before they can transition — the process to change one’s name and documentation can take years.
A movement to change that law is underway. In September, two openly transgender women were elected to the Bundestag as representatives of the liberal Green Party: 27-year-old Nyke Slawik and 44-year-old Tessa Ganserer, whose supporters had to vote for her under her deadname because she has declined to undergo the government’s invasive process to change it. In late November, the new coalition government, which has united the Green Party with the Social Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party, pledged to reform the law and move to self-ID for legal name change; they also plan to create a compensation fund for transgender people who were compulsorily sterilized as recently as a decade ago.
To better understand the toll of current gatekeeping measures in Germany and around the world, I traveled to Berlin in September to interview Felicia Rolletschke, a young woman who has become one of the faces of the push for change. High above her apartment in a converted shipping container in the woods of the Atl-Treptow neighborhood of Berlin waves a transgender flag, visible from the S-Bahn trains that pass by. The flag is secured to a five-meter-tall birch branch that she found in the woods and lugged home. “I was sore for a week!” she told me, laughing, as we sat on her balcony. But it was important to her that she have it. Without the flag, her neighbors might not know she’s trans.
By the time I met Ms. Rolletschke, she was about to turn 27 and had lived openly as a woman for six years. She told me that she had known she was transgender since childhood, but having been raised in a small conservative town in southern Germany, she had never met an openly transgender person and kept her identity a secret. Until 2011, all German parents were required to give their children sex-specific names. If a child grew up and realized they wished to change their gender, they were legally required to consent first to sterilization or gender reconstruction surgery.
When Ms. Rolletschke was 17, she moved to Berlin. At 21 and with the help of a therapist, she began the paperwork required to transition. To start hormones, the law mandated that she first live openly as a woman for a year. This has historically (and to many transgender people, offensively) been referred to as the “real-life test” and remains a requirement to get access to surgery in parts of the United States. The requirement can be brutal, even encouraging of abuse and discrimination, because it mandates that people present as one gender without the cosmetic help of medical transition while still carrying paperwork that outs them.
Ms. Rolletschke had a sympathetic therapist who understood the dangers of the requirement and agreed to circumvent it, allowing her to start hormones, but there was still the matter of her name and legal gender. She would need two psychotherapists to vouch that she was “truly” trans to qualify for the legal name change. To be evaluated by those experts would cost her 1,600 euros, money she did not have. An aunt eventually gave her the money, causing a family rift because other relatives were not supportive.