Haunted by sterilisations, trans Germans fight for compensation

by Enrique Anarte | @enriqueanarte | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 May 2022 00:00 GMT

Trans activist Cathrin Ramelow, 58, poses in front of the German parliament in Berlin, on April 6, 2022. By Enrique Anarte.

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Thousands of trans Germans like Tsepo Bollwinkel had to be sterilised in order to legally change their gender under a now-scrapped law. Now, they hope to receive compensation, and an apology

* Thousands underwent sterilisation to change legal gender

* Germany mulls compensation for victims of scrapped rule

* Some European nations still require trans sterilisation

By Enrique Anarte

BERLIN, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Tsepo Bollwinkel's wife gave birth to their first child, there was joy but also painful memories for the transgender German, who was forced to undergo sterilisation in order to change legal gender in the 1990s.

At least 10,000 people were sterilised before the requirement was struck down in 2011, according to Germany's Bundesverband Trans* (BvT) advocacy group, but several European nations still require trans sterilisation even as public rejection of the practice grows.

"I would have liked to give birth to a child," Bollwinkel, a 60-year-old life coach who was assigned female at birth, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Why couldn't I have done the same (as my wife)?" 

Bollwinkel – who uses the pronouns they/them - said being recognised legally as a man had been "life-saving" but lamented having been forced to sacrifice the ability to carry a child. 

"For me, the question was: either I do something about it, or I kill myself. So, I did it (but) the price I paid was very high," said Bollwinkel, who has helped lead an almost three-year fight for compensation over the 1980 Transsexuals Act.

Sweden became the first country to offer such compensation, agreeing to pay out in 2018 the equivalent of about $22,000 to hundreds of trans people who had undergone sterilisation as part of the country's legal gender assignment process.   

Two years later, the Netherlands followed suit, offering compensation of 5,000 euros as well as a government apology.  

Now, Germany's new government – a coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and liberals – is planning a similar move.

Some campaigners hope change in Germany could spur reform in countries such as Finland, the Czech Republic and Romania, which still require trans people to undergo sterilisation to change gender, according to Berlin-based rights group Transgender Europe.

"This would be a quite strong indication for us, for our country," said Viktor Heumann, co-founder of Transparent, a Prague-based trans advocacy group campaigning against the country's sterilisation requirement.  

In late March, the Czech constitutional court dismissed an application from a trans person seeking legal gender recognition without having to undergo sterilisation surgery.  

"We're hoping for a signal from abroad," Heumann said.  

FORCED DIVORCE  

Berlin is also examining plans to compensate trans people who went through "forced divorces".  

Until 2009, married people who wanted to change their legal gender were required to divorce their partners, as well as spend one year apart.  

"German politicians wanted to 'protect' society from same-sex marriage and avoid the possibility of trans people having children," said Frank Krueger, a board member at BvT, referring to the trans divorce and sterilisation requirements. 

A spokeswoman for the German Justice Ministry said they did not have figures for how many trans people were forced to divorce, and Krueger said it was difficult to estimate. 

"In the case of forced sterilisations, the numbers are clearer, because all of those who changed their legal gender must have gone through it," Krueger said. 

"But in the case of forced divorces, it's more complicated. Was it because of the law, or were there other reasons?" Krueger added. 

Many of those affected by the divorce law are unwilling to speak out for fear of the impact on their families, but Cornelia Kost, a psychotherapist living in Hamburg, said by going public she hoped to encourage politicians to deliver justice. 

"I knew since I was a little that I was trans. But I hoped that, by marrying and having children, that would go away," said Kost, 59, who had two children with her former wife. "We tried to make things work ... We loved each other a lot." 

But she said the legal requirement had made divorce unavoidable when she sought to be legally recognised as a woman.

"The state told us: 'You have to divorce'," she said, calling for compensation to be extended not just to trans victims, but to their former partners and any children. 

APOLOGY, NOT MONEY

A recent YouGov poll showed 32% of Germans think trans people already have enough rights, while 20% said they had too many, and some of the people affected by the historic laws remain sceptical about finally seeing compensation.  

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Cathrin Ramelow, a 58-year-old photographer who lives in Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea coast.

When she underwent gender reassignment surgery, following the official requirement, she "had to bid farewell to the idea of having children". 

"If only they had left a door open," she said.

The coalition government holds a comfortable parliamentary majority, but there is opposition to the compensation plan. 

A spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which in 2017 fought against legalising same-sex marriage, said they "oppose the (compensation) plans of the federal government". 

The main opposition party, the conservative CDU/CSU, did not reply to a request for comment. 

Exactly how much compensation could be offered has not been decided yet, the justice ministry spokesperson said. 

Green lawmaker Nyke Slawik, who last September made history by becoming one of Germany's first openly trans legislators together with her party colleague Tessa Ganserer, said "there will never be a 'perfect sum' for this compensation".

"We will take a look at how successful compensation in Sweden and the Netherlands has been," said Slawik, one of the members of the parliamentary committee working on the measure. 

For many of the people affected, however, money is not the biggest issue. 

"What's most important is that they acknowledge that they did something wrong, and that they apologise," Ramelow said.

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($1 = 9.8273 Swedish crowns)

(Reporting by Enrique Anarte @enriqueanarte; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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