‘The Far-Right Are Getting Inside People’s Heads’: The Battle for Gender Self-ID

What should be a time of celebration for the trans community in Spain, as the country considers becoming the largest EU member to allow gender self-ID, has instead become a moment of anxiety.
July 21, 2021, 12:14pm
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A protester carries a placard reading "Trans Law Now" during a demonstration in Madrid last month. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

When Ezio’s family refused to accept that he identified as a man, he entered a dark place. “I was very unwell and I did things I shouldn’t have done,” the 19-year-old told VICE World News. “I attempted suicide because they wouldn’t let me be who I am.”

“My mother and stepfather didn't accept [that I was trans] because they saw it as abnormal,” he said. His parents kicked him out of the house when he came out. “My grandmother, however, saw it as something natural that I had to be who I was and who I wanted to be.”

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Ezio, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of discrimination, only came out to his family during the pandemic, triggered by spending lockdown surrounded by family members, with plenty of time for reflection.

“The truth is that I realised at a very young age, when I was 8 years old, that I didn't fit into the female stereotype,” said Ezio. “And as I was becoming more and more into boy things, I realised that I wanted to be a boy. And that was my mind: I want to be a boy, I want to be a boy, I want to be a boy.”

It should be a time of celebration for the trans community in Spain right now, as the country’s parliament debates a draft law that would allow gender self-identification. But it also comes as trans rights, and LGBTQ rights more broadly, are increasingly under threat in Europe.

Hard-right, populist governments in Hungary and Poland are chipping away at legislative progress made within the last decade. Just last month, Hungary’s National Assembly passed a law banning LGBTQ education in schools. In Poland, more than 100 towns and villages have been declared “LGBT-ideology-free zones.”

Last year, the Hungarian government moved to end legal recognition of trans people in the country. According to The World Professional Association for Transgender Health, barriers to gender recognition for transgender people, including diagnostic requirements, “may harm physical and mental health.” 

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These attacks on LGBTQ rights are provoking unease in the EU. The EU executive has launched legal action against Hungary and Poland and the Dutch Prime Minister went so far as to question Hungary’s place in the bloc. “This is such a fundamental point, that if we let that go, we are nothing more than a trading bloc and a currency,” Mark Rutte said.

In this context, the Spanish government’s step towards legal self-determination seems even more vital. If passed, the draft bill would permit anyone over the age of 14 to legally change gender without psychological assessment or hormone treatment. The so-called “trans law” would make Spain the largest European country to introduce self-identification.

“It's a big step, really,” Ezio said. “I've already changed my name on my ID card, being able to change my gender as well without having to spend two years on testosterone, it's a big step.”

Women protest against the draft law during a demonstration in Madrid. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Women protest against the draft law during a demonstration in Madrid. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

But some campaigners think the proposals do not go far enough. Dylan Constantini, chair of the Canary Islands-based organisation Trans Boys, an association that defends the rights of transgender men in Spain, said that the draft bill is far from comprehensive. “It is being sold abroad that great advances are being made for rights. This is not correct.”

He pointed to the fact that non-binary and gender-fluid people, migrants, prisoners, and trans children have been overlooked in the draft bill, as it only applies to Spanish citizens over the age of 14, and only recognises male and female genders. There is also a three-month period of reflection between applying to change gender and the change being ratified. Those aged 14 and 15 will need parental consent. “Recognising self-determination is not enough to put you as a leader in Europe,” he said.

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In Ezio’s opinion, societal attitudes are more important than a change in law. “At the end of the day it says [your gender] on your ID card but you're not going to go around showing people your ID card,” he said.

Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people were thrown into the spotlight earlier this month when a gay man was beaten to death in Galicia, northern Spain. The killing sparked national outcry, as protesters marched in support of LGBTQ communities. 

Footage circulated of police violence against protestors, which was later condemned by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “We are being abused and murdered. For being LGBTI,” the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals said in a statement on Twitter. “We will not rest.”

A study published last year by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 41% of respondents in Spain had experienced some form of harassment for being LGBTI in the previous 12 months.

“I’ve had a lot of discrimination from people I considered friends,” said Ezio. “They picked on me saying that I was never going to be a man, that I was a ‘Transformer’ [a slur used against trans people],” he says. “I have suffered things like this since I came out. It's a constant bombardment. All day long these comments don’t stop.”

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Ezio said that the far-right party Vox, and the extreme conservative ideology it propagates, is responsible for the rise in discrimination. In the last general election in Spain, the previously fringe party, became the third largest party in parliament. Notoriously anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ and anti-migrantion, Vox slammed the trans law as “anti-human” and blocked the draft of an initial bill which would have allowed self-ID without age limits.

“Now more than ever, the minds of young people are closing more and more,” Ezio says. “Because older people have no solution [to the country’s problems], young people are getting what Vox says into their heads.”

Apart from Vox, one of the biggest challenges to the trans law came from a surprising place: within the ruling Socialist Party, PSOE. After the publication of the defeated draft bill earlier this year, Carmen Calvo, who was until recently Deputy Prime Minister, expressed her unease: “I am concerned about the idea of thinking that gender can be chosen by simple will or desire, putting at risk the identity criteria of 47 million Spaniards.”  

A collective of about 50 feminist groups also oppose the new draft bill, calling it “regressive” in the fight against “gender-based oppression.”

“I find it so absurd,” said Ezio. “ They feel we are denying women’s rights and that for them it's a step backwards in society. But that's not really the case. It's a big step for us.”

A supporter of far-right party Vox holds a banner reading "we will make a wall" during an anti-immigration protest in 2018. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

A supporter of far-right party Vox holds a banner reading "we will make a wall" during an anti-immigration protest in 2018. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Constantini, the chair of Trans Boys, agrees: “Feminism is a women's struggle for a better society. But they are defending an idea of a small group that isolates women who do not fit their profile. This is not feminism,” he said.

Constantini attributed the general rise in anti-LGBTQ hate in Europe to the global financial crisis, rising unemployment, and the pandemic. “We are in a time of crisis,” he said. “Everyone is afraid because they don't know what is going to happen and so they need a minimum of security. And where do you find this security? In discourse that points the finger. That is what the extreme right tends to do.”

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“It is not just a question of Spain. There is a new regeneration of hatred which is spreading. What has happened in Hungary is a very big alarm bell and Europe should do something about it.”

Mar Cambrollé, president of the Trans Platform Federation in Spain, believes the EU should go further. “I think it is time for the EU to start imposing binding directives on those countries that do not respect human rights to be sanctioned and boycotted,” she told VICE World News.

The UN Human Rights Committee recommends governments guarantee the rights of transgender people, including the right to legal recognition of their gender. If its parliament passes the bill, Spain will join a growing number of countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Portugal in fulfilling these recommendations. Campaigners hope other EU member states will follow suit.

“Step by step things are being achieved,” said Ezio. His vision for Spain’s future is a place of “respect, above all. Respect for all trans people and not only trans people, but for all people as a collective.”

Trans activists in Spain have long been campaigning for the right to self-ID. Common support for the draft bill is, according to Cambrollé, partly attributable to the strength of the transgender rights movement in the country.

“For a decade now, trans people [in Spain] have been organising autonomously from the LGBTI collective,” she said. “[We’ve] done a great job of social pedagogy through dialogue with universities, with psychology professionals, with teaching professionals, with sexology professionals. This has changed the way society views trans people.”

According to a study by Ipsos, attitudes towards trans people in Spain were found to be some of the most tolerant in the world. In Spain, 70% of respondents said they would like their country to do more to support and protect transgender people, higher than the study average of 60%. 

While the draft bill of the trans law has been approved, there is still a long way to go. The draft bill will go to a public hearing before another reading in the cabinet and a vote in the lower house of parliament, in a process that could go on for many months.

But while politicians continue to wrangle over the specific details of the law, Ezio is focusing on his own journey: “My goal right now is to start hormone treatment and have surgery. To move forward on my path, my purpose, to be recognised by society as a man and not as a woman pretending to be a man.”

“I am proud of who I am, of what I have achieved, and I don’t want to hide anything.”