European Court of Human Rights Furthers Transgender Rights

The court room of the European Court of Human Rights. (Wikimedia Commons)

The court room of the European Court of Human Rights. (Wikimedia Commons)

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a transgender North Macedonian attempting to correct his legal sex on January 17. According to Balkan Insight, North Macedonian law states that in order to legally change one’s gender, one must undergo a sex change operation. The plaintiff, who the court ruling states was born female but diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2010, successfully changed his name, but the government barred him from adjusting his gender because he had not had surgery.

Prior to this ruling, the World Economic Forum listed North Macedonia among a handful of countries with no reliable administrative process to deal with gender reassignment, and activists for transgender rights have frequently raised concerns about the country’s poor management of the issue. Balkan Insight previously reported in 2016 that even those who had undergone gender reassignment surgery were caught in a bureaucratic web that made the change very difficult and time-consuming. While activists described this as a violation of ECHR rulings, the justice ministry claimed that it was a result of an administrator’s lack of experience in processing the rare request.

Despite the history of legal hurdles, it appears that this ruling will force the hand of the North Macedonian government. Per Balkan Insight, the plaintiff ’s lawyers allege that the country is currently revising its law on changing one’s legal sex, indicating that it will uphold the ECHR ruling. Balkan Insight adds that the decision follows precedents set in Italy and France, both of which similarly denied transgender individuals a legal gender change on grounds of not having “fully” transitioned.

This ruling is significant, as North Macedonia ranks among the worst in Europe regarding LGBT rights. ILGA-Europe placed North Macedonia 41st out of 49 states, while TGEU’s Trans Rights Index shows North Macedonia failing to offer numerous legal protections to its transgender citizens. That North Macedonia may be revising this law shows promise for future reforms.

One notable area where this ruling might lead to significant change is Kosovo. Balkan Insight notes that Kosovo is not a Council of Europe member, and Kosovar citizens cannot have their case heard in the ECHR. However, according to the Heidelberg Journal of International Law, Kosovo’s constitution grants legal standing to a number of international arrangements, with the ECHR being one of them. Thus, Kosovo is at least nominally compelled to follow ECHR mandates. Like North Macedonia, Kosovo is among the few countries without any process for legal gender adjustment.

However, these developments could set a precedent for the entire lagging Balkan region. The response to the court ruling from LGBT advocates has been mostly positive. In a blog post, human rights lawyer Constantin Cojocariu, who worked on the case, said the ruling “holds great promise for the future.”