Self-Determination Act Creates New Rights for Transgender People in Germany

Steven Paulikas

All Saints’ Episcopal Church

The Rev. Steven Paulikas is the rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York. He has focused his ministry on congregational development rooted in radical welcome and acceptance of all people. He serves on the Board of Directors of Episcopal Relief & Development, which promotes early childhood development, prevention of gender-based violence, and climate resilience in the most vulnerable global communities. While a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he co-chaired the New York Term Member Advisory Council. His opinion writing has recently appeared in the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others. Prior to attending seminary, Steven was a journalist based in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Zana Çobanoğlu

Free University of Berlin

Zana Çobanoğlu is currently completing his degree in veterinary science at the Free University of Berlin. While working at the veterinary department of the Free University during his studies, he also actively participated in local initiatives and advocacy campaigns that focus on raising awareness on socio-political issues and fostering understanding amongst diverse communities. Mr. Çobanoğlu is one of the hosts of the digital education format ‘erklär mir mal' and an assistant manager at the initiative 'Barrierefrei Feiern'.

On April 12, 2024, the German Bundestag passed the Selbstbestimmungsgesetz, or Self-Determination Act, arguably the most important piece of legislation for transgender people in Germany in over a generation. When the law comes into effect in November 2024, Germans aged 14 and older will be able to change their gender marker and given names on official documents through a simple declaration process at their local civil registry office. The law fulfills the governing “traffic light” coalition’s promise to reform the existing law and passed with 58 percent of lawmakers present voting in favor. It passed the Bundesrat, Germany’s upper parliamentary chamber, on May 17.

The Self-Determination Act replaces the draconian Transsexuellengesetz, or Transexuals Act, adopted by West Germany in 1980. According to this earlier law, German citizens who wanted to change their gender marker or given names to reflect their gender were legally obliged first to undergo sex-reassignment surgery and be certified as permanently infertile. A court ruled in 2011 that this requirement was unconstitutional, but other restrictive aspects of the law remained. Under the Transexuals Act, non-binary and transgender people must be evaluated by two psychiatric professionals and receive a court order in order to change their gender markers and given names. A study found that these bureaucratic steps cost on average more than €1,800 and subjected applicants to inappropriate and degrading questioning from psychologists.

The invasive provisions of the Transexuals Act hearken back to Germany’s dark history on LGBTQ+ rights. One of the few laws dating back to the German Empire and retained by the West German government was Paragraph 175, which made all types of sexual contact between men a felony and was only fully repealed in 1994. It is estimated that 10,000 queer people were convicted before 1918 and a further 50,000 imprisoned under the Nazi regime, of whom 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. That includes a significant number of people assigned male at birth who identified as female. Only in 2017 were all judgments after 1945 revoked.

The Self-Determination Act seeks to put Germany on a progressive path with respect to the rights of transgender people and to replace the current expensive and burdensome discriminatory practice with a streamlined procedure. People living in Germany will be able to declare their own gender to the state without outside evaluation. Moreover, minors who are at least fourteen years old will be able to change their gender marker and name by filing an application with the approval of their legal guardian, allowing them to receive schooling and enter adulthood with their correct gender officially registered. Minors  under 14 can have an application filed by their legal guardian on their behalf.

On April 17, just a few days after the passage of the Self-Determination Act, participants of “Building LGBTQ+ Communities in Germany and the U.S.,” a transatlantic project of the American-German Institute, had the opportunity to meet with Bundestag member Nyke Slawik. Slawik was elected in 2021 as one of the two first transgender individuals to the German Parliament and represents an area near Cologne, where the program took place. She was a leader in the new legislation and spoke on the floor of the Bundestag on the day of the final vote about her own difficult personal experience of changing her gender marker ten years earlier.

The Self-Determination Act is significant not just for Germany, but also because it was adopted at a time when transgender rights are being eroded in many other countries, including the United States.

Slawik spoke to the group about her experience as a lawmaker with a high profile. She said she was motivated from a young age to become a politician in part because she knew there needed to be more transgender representation in German public life. Yet she has also had to work hard to prevent herself from becoming essentialized in her policy work and her public profile. “At a certain point, I had to become more selective about what interviews I would do so that every story wasn’t just about me being transgender,” she said. She was also candid about the pressure of being the object of consistent transphobic comments online and in person. “I decided to prioritize my mental health,” she said.

Slawik said that the Self-Determination Act only passed because of continued pressure from activists and lawmakers like her who pushed for it to remain on the legislative agenda. The far-right AfD party and center-right CDU/CSU opposed the act, and 251 members of the Bundestag voted against it. Nonetheless, Slawik said that groups supporting the new law worked hard to gain support from some unlikely yet important sources, including religious groups. “The endorsement of lay Catholic groups in particular gave permission for some who might not have supported it otherwise,” she said.

The Self-Determination Act is significant not just for Germany, but also because it was adopted at a time when transgender rights are being eroded in many other countries, including the United States. According to Transgender Legislation Tracker, 579 anti-transgender bills were introduced across forty-two U.S. states just in the first five months of 2024. The rise of aggressive anti-transgender legislation coincides with what activists call an epidemic of violence against transgender people in the United States, including the violent deaths of fourteen transgender people in 2024 through May. Transgender victims of violence are disproportionately people of color, with Black transgender people in particular suffering extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, poverty, sexual assault, and police discrimination.

Even though Germany is moving in the opposite direction of most other countries on transgender rights, the Self-Determination Act did not deliver everything activists were hoping for. The law imposes a three-month waiting period between registration and final declaration of a change in gender marker. Those living in Germany without a permanent or renewable residence permit are excluded, and adults living with significant cognitive disabilities can only make a declaration through a legal representative. Another provision states that only a person’s gender assigned at birth will be considered in cases of a national security emergency, meaning that officially-declared transgender women and non-binary people would be conscripted for military service in case of war. While Germany has never faced such a situation since the Second World War, transgender Ukrainians assigned male at birth have been banned from leaving the country since the Russian invasion because of that country’s similar conscription laws.

These and other shortcomings in the Self-Determination Act as well as the amount of political opposition the law faced point to the transphobic misinformation that still exists in German society and the work that remains to be done to create full equality for transgender people. Opponents of the law claim that it is anti-feminist and anti-family. Similar arguments are made against transgender equality in other countries, reflecting the global scale of the current political hostility toward transgender people.

Yet there are also questions about transgender rights specific to the German context that will linger even after the Self-Determination Act takes effect. Given Germany’s uniquely brutal history of violence against LGBTQ+ people, how is it possible that Paragraph 175 and the Transexuals Act were allowed to remain on the books for so long? Why did it take forty-four years for the Bundestag to officially repeal a law that required transgender people to be sterilized in order to claim their rightful legal status? Does the increasing influence of the far-right in Germany portend a dark future for transgender people? And will the broad coalitions that formed to enable the passage of the Self-Determination Act remain intact to continue advocating for full transgender equality? With Germany taking a step forward on transgender legal rights, the world will be watching to see how these questions will be answered.

This article is part of the project “Building LGBTQ+ Communities in Germany and the United States: Past, Present, and Future” and is generously funded by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz(BMWK) (Transatlantic Program of the Federal Republic of Germany with Funds through the European Recovery Program (ERP) of the Federal Ministry for Economics and Climate Action (BMWK)).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.