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'Evaluated' to Be Yourself: Ukraine's Flawed Gender Recognition Procedure

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This is the week in November when we honor the memory of people who have been murdered because of their gender identity or expression. By coincidence yesterday I was invited by two transgender people seeking legal recognition of their gender identity in Ukraine to accompany them to a meeting where their request would be evaluated by a Health Ministry committee.

I had spoken to other transgender people in Ukraine who had traumatizing experiences with this committee, but witnessing the "evaluations" shook me to the core.

One transgender woman (whose meeting I did not attend) was denied an opportunity to change her documents because she refused to divorce her beloved wife of over 20 years. She told me she has spent three years trying to get her gender legally recognized. This was her second denial. She wants to leave her job, where she suffers discrimination because of her gender identity, but knows she won't be able to find another job with her male passport.

Order No. 60 of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health Protection requires transgender people to first undergo 30 to 45 days of confinement in a psychiatric institution to be diagnosed with "transsexualism." Having children under 18, being married, or disagreeing with the volume of surgeries required by law all stand in the way of something that should be straightforward: obtaining a passport with one's true name and gender recognized.

Once they are diagnosed, they can go before this committee to clear them to proceed with surgeries that remove their reproductive organs, even if they don't want it. But they have to have the surgery to finish the process and get a new passport.

Listening to the stories of the people waiting for their turn to meet with a group of doctors who would determine their fate, I was struck by how abusive the process is. It violates the rights to privacy and physical integrity and the right to legal recognition of a person's identity.

A group of 14 doctors meet a transgender person for 5 or 10 minutes, assess their appearance, assess psychological and medical test results, and fill out lengthy paperwork. Then the committee decides whether to allow the person to proceed with having sterilizing surgeries and then changing their documents.

During the two "evaluations" I observed, the doctors let the transgender individuals speak very little. The doctors didn't even introduce themselves, much less ask the people facing them about their individual needs or whether they wanted medical and surgical intervention. The whole conversation seemed more like a trial without the right to disagree than a process in which the person's interests could be recognized and their rights respected. The committee asked one person why he wasn't satisfied with living with a female passport and tried to scare him with a potential cancer diagnosis because he did not want to undergo a hysterectomy.

If the committee does allow the person to proceed, the next time the person will see the committee is after completing these expensive and invasive surgeries. Only then do they have permission to apply for a new passport.

In July, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed Ukraine's procedure for legal gender recognition and recommended that Ukraine amend order No. 60. The Human Rights Committee said Ukraine should remove the requirement for compulsory confinement for an evaluation and mandatory surgery and repeal abusive and disproportionate requirements for legal gender recognition.

Refusal to recognize a person's gender identity through erecting obstacles that interfere with an individual's privacy and physical integrity is not just a denial of their rights. It is also a denial of who they are.

Anna Kirey is a researcher working on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch.