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North Karelia Pride fights transgender sterilisation law

Finland is relatively advanced in recognising the rights of sexual minorities, but some groups still have a way to go. Transgender people have to undergo sterilisation, for example, before their gender is officially recognised. The North Karelia Pride parade is this year focused on the rights of transgender people.

Joensuulainen Roope Tiihonen on käynyt läpi sukupuolenkorjauksen
Joensuu resident Roope Tiihonen started his gender transition in 2015. Image: Nelli Kallinen / Yle

Human rights are generally regarded as one of Finland's strong points, but there are some weak spots—including the rights of transgender people. Last year Amnesty International criticised the country's refusal to recognise gender transitions unless the person concerned can prove they've been sterilised. Activists are fighting to change that law.

That's the focus of the Pride Parade on Saturday in Joensuu, a town of 75,000 people iright on the border with Russia in Karelia. It's an issue that's close to the heart of Joensuu resident Roope Tiihonen.

In the spring of 2015 Tiihonen was just beginning his transition, but it was clear from the beginning how medical staff felt about his decision. 

Tiihonen says that one nurse even told him that his partner would certainly leave him if he had a mastectomy. Relationship breakdown was even brought up during appointments Tiihonen and his partner attended as a couple.

Focus on gender, not sexuality

"The psychologist called after one appointment to say that I couldn't be this normal, as I should be depressed," said Tiihonen. "I thought should I be depressed, even though I'm not?"

Tiihonen says that throughout the 12 month process, he has had to justify what he is, or what he wants to be.

"The staff wanted to put me in a box as either female or male gender," remembered Tiihonen. "In my opinion people shouldn't be pigeonholed, because a person doesn't necessarily categorise themselves as either a man or a woman."

"Then I was asked whether I'm gay, straight, lesbian or bi," adds Tiihonen. "The process should focus only on gender identity, not on sexual orientation."

The worst, however, was still to come. Tiihonen was angriest, saddest and most hopeless about the sterilisation he had to undergo to be officially recognised as male.

Forced sterilisation

Residents of Finland must have a personal identification number to carry out the most basic of tasks. Information attached to the number is visible to a range of official and commercial bodies that need to officially identify customers, so it's important to have the correct gender noted down.

In Finland, that's only possible for transgender people once doctors have certified they cannot have children.

"I don't understand why I should be sterilised just to get a new ID number," said Tiihonen. "I only got my new ID number once three doctors had certified that I'm now sterilised."

This year the European Court of Human Rights ruled against forced sterilisation in a landmark case that should force European countries that still require sterilisation to change their laws. The issue is now being raised by the local Joensuu chapter of LGBT organisation Seta, which has organised a pride parade in North Karelia since 2004.

"Finland's transgender law has been criticised at the UN," noted Jussi Hermaja, chair of the Joensuu branch of Seta. "Forced sterilisation violates a person's body. Discriminatory laws should be changed, whichever government is in power."

Joensuu's Seta branch has in recent years spread its Pride parade to neighbouring towns including Kitee and Lieksa—where there is still some work to do in raising awareness of LGBT rights.

"Schools in smaller towns don't want to join our training sessions, because they say they don't have 'rainbow people' in their schools," said Hermaja. "The answer indicates that 'rainbow people' in those schools could well be on their own."

EDIT-This story has been updated to include the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

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