MADRID (AP) — Victòria Martínez continues to sign official documents with the name that she, her partner and their two daughters ditched four years ago. Barring any surprises, she expects the Spanish government to recognize her as Victòria by May, closing a patience-wearing chapter familiar to transgender people around the world.
Changing her legal identity at a civil registry office in Barcelona will allow Martínez to update her passport and driver’s license and to carry a health card that correctly states she is a woman. But the process, which the pandemic prolonged, has been, in her words, “humiliating” — requiring a psychiatric diagnosis, reports from three doctors and a court’s approval.
“Did I want to be stigmatized by being labeled as crazy? Did I want to voluntarily apply for a shrink’s report that says so, to have a judge decide whether I can be what I already am?” Martínez, 44, recalls asking herself. “The whole thing has been emotionally exhausting.”
A new law proposed by the far-left party in Spain’s coalition government would make it easier for residents to change genders for official purposes. A bill sponsored by Equality Minister Irene Montero aims to make gender self-determination — no diagnosis, medical treatment or judge required — the norm, with eligibility starting at age 16. Nearly 20 countries, eight of them in the European Union, already have similar laws.
Factions of the Catholic Church and the far-right have focused their opposition to the bill on the fact that it also would allow children under 16 to bypass parental objections and seek a judge’s assistance in accessing treatment for gender dysphoria, the medical term for the psychological distress that results from a conflict between an individual’s identity and birth-assigned sex.
Less expected has been the fierce resistance from some feminists and from within Spain’s Socialist-led government.
“I’m fundamentally worried by the idea that if gender can be chosen with no more than one’s will or desire, that could put at risk the identity criteria for 47 million Spaniards,” Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, a veteran Socialist and women’s rights advocate, said last week.
Opponents argue that allowing people to choose their gender eventually would lead to “erasing” women from the public sphere: if more Spaniards registered male at birth switch to female, they say, it would skew national statistics and create more competition among women for everything from jobs to sports trophies.
The divide in Spain mirrors a debate between a branch of feminist theorists and LGBTQ rights movements around the globe. At one end, activists often derogatorily referred to as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) posit that the advancement of transgender rights could undercut efforts to root out sexism and misogyny by negating the existence of biological sexes.
The State Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual people says that if passed in its current form, the law would help end discrimination against transgender people and leapfrog Spain to the European vanguard of protecting LGBTQ rights.
Montero’s bill nonetheless has provoked unusual fury on online platforms, where critics express alarm over provisions that would assign public toilets and prisons according to “registered gender.” Confluencia Feminista, an alliance of dozens of women’s rights organizations, also has come out against any changes to Spain’s existing law.
The concern of Alexandra Paniagua, one of the new platform’s activists, pivots around the idea that by eliminating the opinions of doctors and judges, state-subsidized hormones and gender reassignment surgery would become more available, ultimately “promoting” more dysphoria among young people.
“More people will see easier access to the invasive treatment, especially girls who have been told that their bodies are less worthy in our society,” she said.
But Trans Platform Federation President Mar Cambrollé argues that some of the fears cited as reasons to keep existing hurdles in place are based on outdated ideas that reduce boys and girls, men and women to a handful of socially prescribed characteristics and roles.
“Transphobic attitudes piss me off,” Cambrollé said. “As a woman, I’ve been discriminated against for being a woman in a world made by men for men, but also by cis(gender) people who build it with other cis people in mind.”
Finding a compromise any time soon looks like an insurmountable task judging by the virulence of the debate online. Cambrollé has sued 85-year-old Lidia Falcón, the founder of Spain’s Feminist Party, for repeatedly saying that transgender and gay people promote pedophilia; prosecutors are investigating Falcón’s statements as a possible hate crime.
Ángela Rodríguez, an advisor to Montero on LGBTQ issues, said the bill’s timing has added to the tension, with International Women’s Day coming up on March 8.
“There is a dispute for the hegemony of the message in the feminist movement,” Rodríguez said during a recent panel discussion.
What for many is a theoretical debate is painfully real to Martínez, who has closed most of her social media accounts. She says the constant chatter feels both too “personal” and “perverse, generalizing about what a trans person is.”
“Unfortunately, to this day, it’s still easier for people who stare at you when you are walking down the street and they can reconcile a certain type of face with a pair of tits,” said Martínez, who wears round-edged glasses and her hair in a bob to soften her sharp facial contours.
To come out as transgender, first to herself and then to her partner, required Martínez to grow a kind of confidence that wasn’t part of growing up as a boy in 1980s Spain. There were suicide attempts before she started living as Victòria, and she doesn’t consider herself brave.
“For me,” she said, “there just wasn’t any other choice.”
Yet Martínez hesitated over taking hormones and updating her civil registry record. She fought hard to be proud of the woman she is, with a deep voice and a way of carrying herself that stands out. Didn’t she want to break with traditional gender molds, including expectations that transgender women should embody stereotypical femininity?
In the end, she decided it would be easier to navigate the world with a more socially conforming appearance and an identity card that confirms she is female, even if that meant bowing down to existing legal requirements and the notions of people who still think in binary terms.
“I lived 40 years in hiding,” she said. “Now I protect myself, but I don’t hide.”
AP reporters Emilio Morenatti and Renata Brito contributed to this report.