The Netherlands has been urged to change a law which requires transgender people to undergo surgery and sterilisation before being allowed to legally change their gender.

Human Rights Watch said in a new report, Controlling Bodies, Denying Identities, that article 28 of the Dutch civil code must be revised without delay.

This law does not allow transgender people to legally change their gender unless they take hormones and undergo surgery to alter their bodies and be permanently and irreversibly sterilised.

The requirements violate transgender people’s rights to personal autonomy and physical integrity, and deny them the ability to define their own gender identity, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Dutch law causes anguish for trans people who have not had the required surgery,” said Boris Dittrich, advocacy director in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Rights Program at Human Rights Watch.

“Their documents do not match their deeply felt gender identity. This leads to frequent public humiliation, vulnerability to discrimination, and great difficulty finding or holding a job.”

In 1985, the Netherlands was among the first European nations to adopt legislation enabling transgender people to change their registered gender.

Over a quarter of a century later, though, the Netherlands has been accused of losing its leading edge. Human Rights Watch said that the legislation, that at the time represented a progressive development, is now wholly out of step with international norms.

Several European countries like Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Spain have already done away with the surgical and hormonal requirements.

“It takes years before people can meet the conditions imposed by article 28,” Dittrich said. “During that time, they must live with identity documents that deny a fundamental aspect of their personality. For trans people who do not want surgery, and who will therefore never be able to change their identity documents, these obstacles last a lifetime.”

On several occasions since 2009, the former and current Dutch governments have promised to change article 28. Most recently, in March 2011 the state secretary for security and justice promised to present a bill before the summer recess to abolish the infertility requirement for legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender people. The bill has not yet been introduced, however.

“Trans people are tired of waiting and hearing empty promises,” Dittrich said. They want legal action now. Before any new law goes into effect, a lot of time will have passed. Meanwhile trans people have to cope with daily humiliation, discrimination, and frustration.”

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