Oct 19 2017

Gender-Change Law in Greece: Education, Ideology, and Reality

By Katerina Glyniadaki, PhD Candidate at the European Institute, LSE 

Why did suddenly a gender-change law become such a ‘hot’ topic in Greece?

 The word ‘gender’ originates from the Greek language. Yet, there is no distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in Modern Greek. The term ‘fylo’ is used instead to denote both. Even though social scientists make sure to draw a clear line between the social and the biological aspects of ‘fylo’, this distinction rarely takes place in everyday language use.

As it became apparent from the recent parliamentary discussions, a significant proportion of the Greek MPs fail to differentiate between the related but distinct concepts of biological sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, then, the majority of the Greek population also fails to make this distinction. It could be because academic research spreads very slowly. Or, because of the Greek education system. Or both.

Regardless of the reason, in a society that struggles with the fundamentals of such a multi-layered and multi-dimensional topic, of course a discussion on its more complex aspects appears rather challenging. What does the phrase ‘an individual with gender dysphoria does not identify with their biological sex’ mean to the residents of a typical Greek neighbourhood? Would they be able to see why the legal recognition of gender change would be helpful to both trans and intersex people? Have they been—knowingly—in contact with any such individuals? If not, is it because their numbers are so low, or because these groups have been heavily stigmatised and ostracised?

In this context, a law that aims to ease the legal recognition of trans individuals with the gender they identify, irrespective of their biological sex, becomes very quickly very a ‘hot’ and controversial topic. Because it is not at all well-understood. What it ultimately asks from MPs and the public alike is conceptual leapfrogging.

Does ideology matter?

 Is it simply a matter of lack of awareness, though? Of course not. Perhaps more than any other recent parliamentary debate, this one signifies a deep ideological polarisation between tradition and modernity that is all but new, especially in the context of gender values. On the one hand, there are the conservative social forces, among which the Greek Orthodox Church having a predominant role. The Church, for instance, circumscribes the Greek woman’s identity with the roles of wife and mother[1], and reinforces the already predominant gender stereotypes. On the other hand, in the decades after joining the EU, the Greek state has appeared keen on adopting egalitarian gender laws and policies, in an attempt to meet the modern and progressive Western European ideals of gender equality[2].

Indeed, with regard to legislative changes relating to gender, there has always been a tension between conservative and liberal arguments. Family law (Law 1329/82), for instance, has been a domain in which most reforms have been justified in terms of either tradition or modernity. Even though the institution of dowry was abolished because it was deemed “anachronistic” in 1983, in the same year the feminist proposals to switch to a community property regime for the protection of homemakers were defeated on the basis of the national tradition argument[3].

However, it is important to note that the law may also serve to educate the public. Law 3500/2006 for example aimed to address violence within the family, through the criminalisation of marital rape, the prohibition of children’s corporate punishment, and the establishment of the institution of mediation for cases of domestic violence. Nonetheless, for many years to come there was observed a decoupling between policy and practice, largely because both perpetrators and victims were unfamiliar with what exactly constitutes domestic violence or marital rape, not to mention the lack of knowledge among policepersons expected to handle such cases[4]. The point here is that the introduction of a new law often times aims to educate, and for that it is useful, even if the people need some time before seeing why improving the protection of the rights of some, constitutes an improvement for the rights in a society at large.

Time to face reality?

Many of the MPs who voted against what is now the new law, indeed expressed concerns that are worth engaging with. Is a 15-year-old teenager mature enough to make such a significant life-change? Maybe not all, but why prolong the ordeal for those who are, and who also have their parents’ support? Would a psychiatric evaluation add greater credibility to the process? Possibly yes, but the debate on whether gender dysphoria constitutes a psychiatric disorder is an ongoing one. What if a person later changes their mind? Well, is it a strong enough argument to say ‘we should not go for a policy that helps many, because few may misuse it’? These are all meaningful questions, worth discussing further. The law certainly has room for improvement, albeit always on the basis of scientific research rather than ideological dogmas.

While countries like Poland, France and the UK already had examples of trans individuals as elected officials[5], Greece was finally able to lift the forced sterilisation and surgical reassignment requirement before a legal gender change[6]. But even so, it is arguably a good start. Practically, allowing individuals to legally change their gender means to help them escape—at least partially—discrimination, bullying, and marginalisation. It means to open to the door to continuing their education, renting an apartment or applying for jobs without the fear of rejection due to the mismatch between their physical appearance and their identity name. It means to allow them to have access to more dignifying employment options than sex work, and generally a more dignifying life.

Finally, it is worth highlighting the instrumental role of the state, not only in assisting the inclusion of those who are ‘different’, but also in shaping social attitudes of welcoming difference. Unfortunately, the Greek state so far does not have many cases of successful integration of minority groups to exhibit. Think of the Muslim minority in Thrace, the Greek Pontiacs in Aspropyrgos, or the individuals with physical or mental health conditions. The Greek society is in fact far from homogenous, and—whether this is something we like or not—it is actually becoming increasingly diverse. And, as with everything, pretending an issue is not there does not make it go away. Perhaps granting rights to trans people is as simple as facing reality.

[1] Dellios, R. (2008). Institutions and gender empowerment in Greece. In K. Roy, H. Blomqvist & C. Clark (Eds.), Institutions and gender empowerment in the global economy (pp. 277- 292). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing

[2] Lyberaki, A. (2010). The Record of Gender Policies in Greece 1980-2010: legal form and economic substance. Greece Paper No36 Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe, June 2010

[3] Tsoukala P. (2010). Marrying Family Law to the Nation. The American Journal of Comparative Law 58(4):873-910

[4] Glyniadaki, A. (2012). Gender Representations in a Changing Society: A Case Study of Greece. Unpublished MPhil Thesis, University of Cambridge

[5]https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/transgender-politicians-around-the-world_us_57337ccae4b0436a18b5aeed

[6] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/this-is-what-transgender-rights-in-europe-looks-like/

Katerina Glyniadaki is PhD Candidate at the European Institute, LSE and Managing Editor of GreeSE Paper Series.

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