Year after year, Samuel De Schepper would ask Santa Claus to bring him a penis for Christmas.
Born female and attending an all girl’s Catholic school in East Flanders in the 1970s, he could tell no one his wish.
“I would pray ‘Please Santa don’t bring me a Barbie, bring me the body I didn’t get’. The next morning I would look under the sheets and nothing had changed. I thought maybe I hadn’t been good enough,” De Schepper, whose first name at the time was Veerle, says.
He finally started his transition from female to male in 2004, aged 42. “It was like coming home to my own body. I was finally arriving where I wanted to be,” he adds.
However doing so came at a cost. At the time to legally change your gender in Belgium meant having to take hormones that make you infertile.
In 2018 the Government changed the law, and people no longer had to sterilise themselves to transition. They can now determine their own gender, without needing to go under the knife.
But while some countries have progressed in leaps and bounds on transgender rights, others are slipping back into the kind of discrimination not seen since the 20th century.
In Poland, over 100 regions and towns – nearly a third of the country – have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. Lesbian, gay, bi and transgender people must either emigrate, hide their gender identity or face open abuse.
“You can only get by if you remain invisible,” says one gay man currently living in Poland, who asked to remain anonymous.
These places also do not recognise intersex people, who are generally included, sometimes alongside “questioning”, under the umbrella terms LGBTI or LGBTIQ.
In May 2020 the Hungarian Parliament passed a law making it impossible to change gender legally – a major step backwards for transgender and intersex rights. The following December, it also voted to abolish the Equal Treatment Authority, the Hungarian body that investigates discrimination on grounds such as gender and sexuality.
According to the annual index compiled by ILGA-Europe, an advocacy group, in half of all European countries the situation for LGBTI people had either seen no positive change or actually worsened in 2020.
The biggest regressions were noted in Hungary and Poland, with France also falling significantly in the rankings. The number of hate crimes against LGBTI people in France increased again in 2020, for a fourth consecutive year, according to SOS Homophobie, a support organisation.
However the rest of Europe has not simply sat back. In September 2020 Head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, described Poland’s LGBT-free zones as “humanity-free zones”, insisting that “they have no place in our union”. A few months later in March 2021 the European Parliament declared the EU to be an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone.
“While it’s a strong symbolic gesture, this will not have any positive impact in LGBTI people’s lives unless it’s followed by meaningful actions and measures at EU and national levels,” says ILGA-Europe.
Some action has been taken, but the impact has been minimal. When one Polish town, Tuchow, that had declared itself an ‘LGBT-free zone’ was stripped of funding for the European town twinning programme, the Polish Government is believed to have compensated it with a cheque worth three times as much.
According to De Schepper, even in Belgium, which was named the second most LGBTI-friendly country in Europe in 2020 by ILGA’s index, people still live in fear.
“A gay man was murdered in a park near to where I live. He was beaten to death because of who he was. Others kill themselves because society doesn’t accept them,” he says. One of his friends who was transitioning from male to female, was caught wearing a bracelet at work. Her bosses, who believed her to be a man, asked for an explanation and on learning of the transition fired her. She eventually killed herself.
There is also disagreement on which course progress should take. In November 2020 the Belgian government announced it would introduce a third gender: X. It is intended to be a gender-neutral option for people who do not identify as either male or female. However some non-binary people are unhappy with the decision.
“I have non-binary friends who strongly disagree with the idea of a gender X. They fear the stigma that would come with it,” De Schepper says. “You’ll have males, females, and X: the “other”, the strange ones. My friends don’t understand why they need to be categorised. Why must we ask the question about gender at all or have a piece of paper to prove who we are?”
He himself believes gender is something you feel innately within yourself, a private matter.
“When I was three-years-old, my baby brother was born and relatives said to my parents: ‘Finally you have a boy after three girls’. It came as a shock to me, as I was sure I was a boy. I knew I didn’t have a penis, but I thought maybe it was growing.”
De Schepper says every time someone used his female name, Veerle, growing up it was like a knife going through him: “I was slowly dying”.
He recently published a book, called ‘Aan de achterkant was alles in orde’ (At least my backside was ok), and does talks in schools about his experiences as a trans person.
The cost of ignoring trans rights is not just personal either: it is economic and quantifiable.
Discrimination against LGBTI people costs Eastern European countries almost 2% per annum in economic growth, a coalition of global companies calculated this year. This equates to almost nine billion dollars a year lost by Hungary, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. The group, which is called Open For Business (OFB), said this was due to the “brain drain” of skilled workers who fall into these categories and factors such as higher health costs related to HIV, AIDS and depression.
The OFB, which counts Deutsche Bank, Google, Microsoft and IKEA among its partners, also said that Hungary, Poland, Romania and Ukraine’s poor records on LGBTI rights were part of the reason why these countries struggle to win foreign investment.
While political institutions have largely been ineffective in acting against discrimination in these countries, action by private companies could well provide the answer.
In 2019, Coca-Cola launched a campaign in Hungary featuring posters of same sex couples kissing alongisde heterosexual couples. Although the local government reacted by fining Coca-Cola 500,000 Hungarian forint (€1,388) for “harming the physical, mental, emotional and moral development of children and minors”, the firm’s message was heard loud and clear.
By Marianna Hunt