The fight for LGBT rights is ongoing in Norway, as everywhere else. We as a nation like to boast how good we are at respecting human rights; handing out the Nobel Peace Prize every year. But is it true? Are we that perfect? No. Absolutely not. Norway is one of the countries criticised by Amnesty for violating the human rights of trans* people by requiring sterilisation for legal gender recognition.
In 2008 equal marriage laws passed, taking effect January 1st, 2009. Last summer a set of anti-discrimination laws passed as well, one of which protects against discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and gender expression. This law took effect on January 1st, 2014. The inclusion of gender identity and expression was not automatic, it had to be argued for why it had to be stated explicitly.
So far so good, but more work remains. We have an advisory body (LDO) funded by the state that employs lawyers and experts to interpret the anti-discrimination laws, handle complaints from the public, and provide legal advice and recommendations. LDO has no direct legal power, but their advice usually ways heavily in discrimination cases. At the moment they’re working hard to test the LGBT anti-discrimination laws on cases and complaints.
A principle in these laws is also prevention of potential discrimination. For transgender people revealing someone’s transgender status puts that individual at risk of discrimination. Any individual with a gender expression and identity that does not match their legal gender have this information revealed by the state through the social security number.
The Norwegian social security number, like in most Scandinavian countries, has key information encoded into it. In our case it reveals the date of birth and your legal gender. The main reason for this, according to the Norwegian Tax Administration who owns and runs the National Population Register, is that it both makes the 11 digit number easier to remember, and it contains essential information about the individual.
The number looks like this:
The six first digits are the date of birth, the next three are sequential numbers with certain conditions, and the last two are control digits. Since year of birth is two-digit, information of century is encoded into I1. Legal gender is encoded into I3 by even numbers meaning female and odd numbers meaning male. Foreign nationals with a work permit, but not permanent residency, get a so called D-number, which is generated by adding a value of 4 to D1.
As you probably can see the current system is made for a relatively small population. The system has been in use since 1964, and the numbers given to people born from 1855 and on. Due to the encoding of the century, there is currently room for a little under 500 individuals for each day, not including temporary D-numbers. That includes newborns and future immigrants born on this date. That is a very low number, and is already causing trouble. It gets even worse in 2040 when the number is reduced to just over 300 due to other factors of the algorithm, and they run out of new numbers from 2055. Because of this they are working on a new system as population growth is making a change relatively urgent.
Last year the Tax Administration proposed a set of new systems for evaluation. The recommended solution retained the encoding of gender, not even considering the fact that gender is not binary. Fortunately someone pointed this out somewhere along in the process, and they started working on gender neutral numbers late last year. Earlier this year LDO wrote them a letter (Norwegian link) explaining the progress of society in terms of recognition of gender identity and the fact that several nations now allow for more than the two traditional genders.
I and a couple of trans* activists in my organisation, the Norwegian LGBT Association, decided to do the same. We met with the consultant who worked on this case with the Tax Administration, and had a long, productive meeting. We wrote a four page note listing a number of the key challenges transgender and intersex people face with the current system. A few of these are that the social security number is used on all forms of ID even if gender is not stated on the majority of them (only on passports). The number is also used for all tax, medical and other public purposes. This includes use by employers. Since gender is encoded, most systems have no option for specifying gender in other ways, and consequently anyone with the wrong legal gender is listed as the wrong gender in these systems.
This exposes trans* people to potential discrimination when seeking employment, and exposes us to risk of having personal medical information revealed by medical professionals, and a host of identification issues in everything from banks and post offices to the entry into pubs and clubs. It also exposes us to risk when in need of medical care as medical institutions will naively assume your body conforms to the gender indicated by this number. For me this has lead to a number of both infuriating and absurd comments on things like blood tests, and I’ve lost count of the medical professionals I have had to personally educate on trans* medical issues. I am NOT a medical professional, so this lack of knowledge is potentially quite dangerous.
But it worked. Our letter was taken into the subsequent review process, and two weeks ago the consultant from the Tax Administration called me and announced that they are now going for the gender neutral option. They wanted me and one of the trans* guys who co-signed the document to join the director for the Population Register when it was released to the media. So we did, and here’s the news release (in Norwegian).
We’re very happy with this decision. It will protect trans* people who either are in transition or who refuse to comply with the current demands for legal gender recognition by the Department of Health. This last point will change soon. The requirements are currently under review, and will hopefully be changed by the end of next year. The other consequence of gender neutral social security numbers is that we are no longer limited by algorithm to two genders. As legal gender now is moved to a different database entry there is no longer a restriction on the options unless they’re dumb enough to make it a binary 0-1 field, which I hope they will not after this process.
So, yes, we’re having progress. One step at a time. I can see the end of the line for the battle for trans* people in Norway when it comes to recognition and protection under the law. There is a lot left to do when it comes to social acceptance and inclusion though, so we still have the work cut out for ourselves and our organisations. Especially for those of who belong to ethnic minorities in addition to being LGBT. We also have a huge international responsibility in both receiving people fleeing from persecution for being LGBT and also to help promote progress elsewhere. With our current xenophobic right wing government that is a huge battle ahead of us.