LGBTQ RIGHTS/Transgender people hope for change in ID regulations after landmark court rulings
[Editor's Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part series that takes an in-depth look at the challenges still facing same-sex couples and LGBTQ individuals in Taiwan, three years after the country became the first in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. Read Part 1 and Part 2.]
By Chiang Yi-ching, CNA staff reporter
"The great thing about having changed my ID is that I no longer have to explain to other people whether the person on my ID is me or not."
This is how Huang Wei-chen (黃瑋晨) sums up changing the gender on his national identification card from female to male. It is reflected in the last word of the new name he has chosen for himself, chen (晨), which means dawn, and signifies the start of his new life.
Huang was able to apply for the change after obtaining the required documents: two psychiatrist diagnoses and proof of undergoing gender confirmation surgery, the latter of which has been debated in Taiwan for over a decade.
Discussion of the issue in Taiwan has recently intensified after a landmark court ruling in September 2021 allowed a transgender woman to change the gender on her ID without proof of surgery, the first such case in the country.
Despite undergoing surgery himself, Huang said that he supports removing the surgery requirement, which is also advocated by LGBTQ rights group in the country.
"Other people should not determine what you have to do to qualify as your gender identity," he said.
"The body I've always wanted"
Huang's dislike of wearing traditionally feminine clothing started when he was young, the 34-year-old said in a recent interview with CNA, recounting feeling intense discomfort over having to wear a dress to preschool and crying over being forced to do so.
He began cutting his hair short as a teenager, much to his mother's anger, and when he moved away from home to university, he began wearing a chest binder because it made him feel more comfortable.
At the time, he didn't have the vocabulary to describe his situation. "I just liked wearing male clothing. I wished I had been born a boy, but I didn't know what to do about it. I hated my body," he said.
Getting chest reconstruction surgery after graduation brought him one step closer to achieving the body he'd always wanted. Afterwards, while researching how he could change the gender on his ID, he came across the term "transgender," and realized that the description fit.
In all, it took Huang a little over a year to obtain the necessary documents to change his ID, which he said is uncommonly fast.
As stipulated in a directive issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 2008, transgender people need two psychiatric evaluations in order to apply to change the gender on their ID.
They also have to present proof of having undergone gender confirmation surgery; removing one's breasts, uterus, and ovaries for transgender men, and removing one's penis and testicles for transgender women.
Typically, transgender people have to find two psychiatrists who issue them with a gender incongruence diagnosis and recommend they undergo gender reassignment surgery for doctors to be willing to perform the surgery, Huang said.
The process can be complicated by many factors, according to Huang. Transgender people who live in places with fewer medical resources have to find doctors whose skills they can trust and who understand their situation in order to get suitable treatment, which he said was a challenge for him personally.
There are also instances when a psychiatrist is only willing to recommend surgery after a transgender person starts hormone replacement therapy and "adjusts well" to living life as the gender they identify with for a period of up to several years.
However, if one reports incidents such as facing discrimination or bullying at work, a psychiatrist may see this as an individual being unable to adjust, even though it is society that is unable to adjust, Huang said.
During the period between starting hormone replacement therapy and being able to change his ID, Huang, who works in the tech industry, said he encountered many problems in going about his daily life because his appearance and his voice had already begun changing.
"I had to go to the bank to pay off my car loan, and I couldn't do it, because they didn't believe I was the person on [my ID]. Numerous employees, even a supervisor, came to try to confirm my identity and made me sign a pile of documents to prove that I wasn't a mule or laundering money," he said.
He also faced issues when traveling for work, as hotel employees would insist that he was not the person listed on the reservation.
Huang said that he might not have rushed to do the surgery if it were not a requirement in obtaining an ID change, and he firmly believes that it is unnecessary for a transgender person to undergo surgery in order to qualify as the gender they identify with.
"I am extremely lucky to have the money, the time, and friends and family who supported and took care of me when I went through the surgeries. Many people don't have that," he said.
Instead of forcing them to complete certain things to correct the gender on their ID, "we should be telling them that if there are parts of you you aren't happy with, you can change them, but you aren't obligated to. You can decide how you want to look."
Not a monolith
According to Hsu Chih-yun (徐志雲), a trained psychiatrist and chairperson of the Taiwan Tongzhi (LGBTQ+) Hotline Association, there are many reasons why transgender people may not wish to undergo gender confirmation surgery, or are unable to do so immediately.
They may have preexisting health conditions that make them unsuitable, or they want to have children in the future, which would be complicated by surgery.
The cost is another factor. Gender confirmation surgery is not covered by Taiwan's National Health Insurance and can range from NT$30,000 to NT$45,000 for transgender women, and NT$150,000 to NT$800,000 for transgender men, Hsu wrote in course materials for government employees in 2020.
Hsu also notes that not all transgender people dislike their reproductive anatomy and the surgery requirement fails to consider those who don't identify as male or female.
Trif, who describes herself as still exploring whether her gender identity more closely aligns with being a woman or non-binary, said in an interview with CNA that she doesn't plan on undergoing surgery because of the cost and her wish to maintain body integrity.
The biggest hurdle she has faced with being unable to change her ID was when applying for a job, said 25-year-old Trif, who works in the tech sector, as companies would misgender her.
She feels that the cost of raising the issue would be too high at her current job, however, and even though she would have legal protection if she faced discrimination after coming out, filing a lawsuit would be a major hassle.
Chen Si (陳思), 36, who began transitioning in 2018, told CNA that she has only begun considering surgery in the past year, but hasn't been able to go ahead as the COVID-19 pandemic complicated her plans to travel abroad for the procedure.
Even though she has faced difficulties due to the gender on her ID, it isn't a major issue in her current life as a post-graduate student living at home, and the fact her family has been supportive, she said.
Nonetheless, she supports removing the surgery requirement to change one's ID because it would solve issues faced by transgender people in circumstances that differ from hers, she said, such as difficulty in finding a job, renting a place to live, being misgendered in their daily lives, or having to save up exorbitant sums to get surgery they don't even want.
"Transgender people are not a monolith," she stressed, and each individual may face different problems over not being able to change their ID that cause them significant difficulties in their lives.
On Sept. 23, 2021, Taipei High Administrative Court ruled in favor of a transgender woman, who goes by "Xiao E" (小E) in her lawsuit against a Taoyuan Household Registration Office, thereby allowing her to correct the gender on her ID without submitting proof of surgery, the first such case in Taiwan.
The ruling, which took into account Xiao E's medical history, stated that the surgery requirement violates the principles of legal reservation, equality and proportionality, and is not explicitly authorized in any of Taiwan's laws.
It noted that international human rights experts invited to Taiwan to review the country's implementation of United Nations-related human rights conventions have repeatedly urged the removal of the surgery requirement.
Taiwan's Ministry of Health and Welfare also concluded in 2013 that the requirement should be removed, and referred the issue to the Ministry of the Interior, the ruling stated.
However, the government has not taken much action on the issue since then, said Neil Pan (潘天慶), one of the attorneys who represented Xiao E in court, and an executive director at the Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCR).
An official change to the law may be on the horizon, as judges presiding over a lawsuit filed by Wu Yu-hsuan (吳宇萱), who was also denied a change to her ID because she did not submit proof of surgery, decided to file for a constitutional interpretation on the issue in December last year.
Pan said that he thinks it is likely the Constitutional Court will strike down the surgery requirement, as it clearly violates human rights, but when the ruling will be finalized and how specific the judges will be in laying out new guidelines to change the gender on one's ID is up in the air.
He called on cisgender people, who are the majority in society, to support transgender people in their fight for equal rights, as the support of heterosexual people was crucial in the passing of Taiwan's same-sex marriage law in 2019.
By learning more about transgender issues, people will realize that the fear surrounding transgender people is "groundless", he said.
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