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Belgium’s trans-friendly reputation faces far-right rise

by editor

BRUSSELS — Belgium has built a reputation as among the most progressive EU countries on trans rights.

For the past five years, people there can legally change their gender and name without medical certification. Its current government includes a transgender politician in a leading position.

And, just recently, the city of Ghent in Belgium’s northern Flanders region polished those progressive credentials by granting city officials a month of leave to undergo gender transition.

But that polish may rub off if far-right Vlaams Belang gains power in government.

Vlaams Belang or “Flemish Interest,” a separatist party that dominates Flanders, has been leading in polls. The party has expressed concern over a “growing trend of minors identifying as transgender” and called for “hormone therapy and sex surgery to be halted for underage patients until clear and concrete research has been carried out.”

With elections on the horizon, there are fears that Vlaams Belang and right-wing Flemish nationalist party N-VA may gain a majority and team up to form a government — a realistic possibility for Flanders.

Tilke Wouters, Ghent’s city diversity and inclusivity expert who was involved in creating the new policy, is currently undergoing transition — and will be one of the first to take advantage of the new framework there.

“People in my community are afraid,” Wouters said in an interview with POLITICO. “We know that things can change very quickly … in America, for example, trans rights are disappearing, and that is very scary.”

European voters are shifting right — Belgians among them. And with that shift, rights for transgender people are increasingly in the spotlight as far-right parties turn this classic culture war trope into a part of their platforms.

“We do realize that we have to keep fighting for the rights that we have in order not to lose them,” Wouters said.

Haven for transgender community

Often considered a paradise for LGBTQ+, Belgium ranks second behind Malta in terms of legal, political and human rights granted to LGBTQ+ people on the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Index for 2023.

Around 742 people changed their gender identity on their ID after after Belgium adopted its transgender law in 2018 — compared to 110 in 2017, according to the Institute for the Equality of Women and Men. The most recent figures show that 569 people changed their gender identity in 2022.

Petra De Sutter, the country’s current deputy prime minister, broke new ground for the transgender community upon being appointed in 2020. Meanwhile, Elio Di Rupo, the current minister-president of the Walloon government and former Belgian prime minister, became one of the first openly gay heads of government in Europe.

Petra De Sutter, the country’s current deputy prime minister, broke new ground for the transgender community upon being appointed in 2020 | Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

The 20-day leave for city employees of Ghent in Belgium’s Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region that makes up the northern part of Belgium, follows the Flemish government’s lead on introducing the same leave for employees. Flanders and Ghent are among the first governments to offer such leave in Europe.

“It’s not a vacation,” Wouters said. “For me, it’s a bit difficult to call it a leave, because it’s not really a leave. It’s a service exemption.”

The exemption, introduced there at the end of May, only applies to nonsurgical aspects of the gender transition process — so those relating to social, psychological, or emotional aspects. That can include consultations before and after surgery, visits regarding fertility options or to the endocrinologist or dermatologist, as well as guidance counseling.

“For example, if someone starts taking hormones, they sometimes have to go to a consultation to learn to talk with their new voice,” explained Wouters, who is at the beginning of their transition.

Since gender reassignment consultations are not covered by medical leave but take place during work time, transgender employees often end up having to take vacation days or unpaid leave. And since Belgium struggles with a lack of gender clinics where sessions are reimbursed, the cost for many such sessions comes out of pocket. “These professional consultations … are, of course, not free,” added Wouters.

Joy Van de Cauter, an occupational therapist and researcher at Ghent University focusing on transgender people’s return to work, believes that the introduction of the leave is a “good start.” But she also noted some issues.

“Sometimes they don’t use the service exemption out of fear of possible consequences for their career,” she said. “People should realize that gender minority stress can lead to a lot of physical and mental health effects — and those are mostly socially induced.”

Fragile progress

The Flemish government, currently run by a coalition consisting of liberal and center-right parties along with the right-wing N-VA, in 2019 introduced the transgender leave exemption, providing the blueprint for Ghent to follow.

But with elections looming in Flanders, Belgium and the European Parliament next year, the transgender community is concerned the rise of the right could translate into progress on LGBTQ+ rights coming to a halt — or even regressing.

Vlaams Belang pushed back against that accusation. “Our party takes no stance against the rights of LGBT-persons,” Alexander Van Hoecke, spokesperson for Vlaams Belang, told POLITICO. “We also understand the hardship that people with gender dysphoria undergo,” he continued.

“Our party takes no stance against the rights of LGBT-persons,” Alexander Van Hoecke, spokesperson for Vlaams Belang, said | Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

“Recently we opposed legislation that makes it possible to change the sex on your ID-card an unlimited amount of times. It seems to us that the government is actually trivializing someone changing their gender. It’s sending out a signal that such a decision is meaningless,” Van Hoecke countered.

Looking beyond Belgium, LGBTQ+ rights are under fire in a number of places in Europe, including Hungary, Poland, Georgia and Russia, which has recently banned sex change procedures. In Italy, the government is demonizing surrogacy as an affront to traditional values.

“I am originally from a small Flemish city that is very right-wing,” Wouters said. “When I came out there, people were very aggressive about it.”

“But when I moved to Ghent, of course, things improved for me,” Wouters continued. “Ghent is known as a very inclusive city.”

The policy is part of a wider plan for the city of Ghent, led by a liberal-Green government, to make its staff policy more inclusive and welcoming toward LGBTQ+ people, people with migrant backgrounds and those with disabilities.

“You can’t attract diverse staff to a workplace where they don’t feel good, safe, or involved,” said Siham Benmammar, a spokesperson for Hafsa El-Bazioui, the Ghent councilperson responsible for the new policy, told POLITICO. Other measures include using gender-inclusive language or inclusiveness training for the team leaders.

“Our strategy is to ensure that our local body is representative of society.”

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