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Explainer: The Crucial Fight for Legal Gender Recognition

April 03, 2023 • By Emma Kenny, Emily Bloom
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In many parts of the world, transgender people are still denied the right to have their gender identity legally recognized or are forced to make impossible choices between full participation in society and other basic human rights. But many countries have also seen recent advances in legal gender recognition, an important area of transgender rights. Let’s examine the signs of positive change and explore why these technical procedures are so important. 

What is Legal Gender Recognition?  

Legal gender recognition (LGR) allows transgender and gender-diverse people to change their sex/gender marker and names on official identity documents. Inconsistencies between a person's identified gender and official documentation often create barriers that can limit a person's access to health, education, employment, and public services. 

Why is LGR important for democracy?  

In short, LGR plays a fundamental role in ensuring that all individuals are treated equally under the law, regardless of their gender identity. LGR can affirm the individual’s right to self-identification and bodily autonomy, while the lack of LGR creates barriers exposing transgender and non-binary individuals to exclusion from full societal participation and to significant amounts of discrimination and violence in various areas of life. For example, conflicts in the voter register may create obstacles to exercising the right to vote, exacerbated by increasingly strict voter identity laws in some places. 

Controversially, the process of LGR often includes requirements that constitute human rights violations, including compulsory medical treatments, genital surgery, and sterilizations. These interventions are often costly and arbitrary, and they infringe on one’s right to physical integrity and in some cases procreative freedom.

Where and how is LGR made available? 

Laws vary considerably in different countries and localities as to how transgender people can have their legal identity documents changed, as shown in The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) map. (Click the map below to view a larger version.)


What types of approaches are used to enable (or in some cases restrict) LGR?  

LGR approaches 



The legal recognition of a person’s self-defined gender identity on the basis of a declaration by the person concerned, with no other requirements 

Mandatory sterilization and/or surgery requirements 

Requirements for sterilization and/or sex reassignment surgery often based on false ideas of demonstrating “commitment” to one’s chosen gender identity 

Non-surgical medical requirements 

Can include submitting to a compulsory medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and/or psychological evaluation, as well as compulsory medical treatments i.e. hormonal therapy 

Other requirements 

Can include marriage/divorce requirements or age restrictions 


What are some good practices from around the world? 


  • Civil society activism is driving progress in Europe. In Georgia, a transgender woman was first able to change her gender on official documents in 2021, following years of advocacy by queer and women’s rights groups, yet the prerequisites remain costly and invasive, requiring sex reassignment surgery. 

  • Malta passed landmark legislation in 2015 protecting against medical interventions and introducing self-determination, making it a first-mover in Europe, despite resistance from the Catholic Archdiocese of Malta  for potentially imposing a “new definition of sexuality and gender.” The law was passed as part of a package of legal reforms expanding transgender rights after a case was brought by a transgender activist to the European Court of Human Rights.  

Asia and the Pacific:  

  • Hong Kong’s top court ruled on 9 February 2023 that full sex reassignment surgery is no longer required for people seeking LGR. LGBTQIA+ activists hope the ruling influences neighboring Asian countries.  

  • South Asian countries like Pakistan, India and Nepal have taken great strides on legal LGBTQIA+ issues. In 2018, Pakistan passed a historic bill allowing people to have their self-perceived gender recognized on all official documents.   

  • New Zealand passed a landmark self-identification law on 9 December 2021, allowing people to change gender markers without requiring any medical or legal procedures. Within Oceania, New Zealand and Australia both offer the option to have one’s gender listed as “unspecified” in official documents.  

Africa and Western Asia:   

  • South Africa is considered one of the most progressive countries in Africa on LGBTQIA+ legal issues. Transgender people have been able to attain LGR since 2003, although obstacles remain, such as the requirement for medical treatments (hormonal) before getting LGR approval. 

  • Israel has significantly eased the process of changing gender markers on identity cards over the past several years. Until 2015, gender reassignment surgery was required, but as of 2020, the Justice Ministry approved new rules that removed this demand, as well as the need for hormone replacement therapy. 


  • South America is advanced in terms of self-determination for official documents, procedures for which are currently in place in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador.  

  • A 2018 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the right to update official documents to conform to a person’s gender identity to be protected under the American Convention on Human Rights, and required states to institute domestic LGR procedures. A February 2022 judgment by El Salvador’s Supreme Court has since urged the passage of reforms to allow LGR.  

  • In Honduras, President Xiomara Castro has committed to establishing LGR procedures after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found Honduras responsible for the killing of transgender activist Vicky Hernández in 2021.


What are the latest LGR developments in 2023?  

International IDEA’s Democracy Tracker recently highlighted the following developments:  

What are some common concerns for LGR applicants around the world? 

  • Medical mandates: Sterilisation requirements remain prevalent across the globe. The LGR procedures of 13 European countries retain mandatory sterilisation, despite a 2017 European Court of Human Rights ruling that the requirement represents a human rights violation. Other restrictions persist as well, such as having to undergo sex reassignment surgery, which is required in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. The uptake of self-determination also remains limited: Only nine European countries allow for individuals to change their gender identity based on their own declaration.  

  • Criminalization: Several countries in the world, most notably in Central Asia, Western Asia, East Africa and North Africa, criminalize LGBTQIA+ people’s very existence and lack LGR frameworks altogether. In March, for example, the Ugandan parliament passed a bill that would criminalize identifying as LGBTQIA+.  

  • Other requirements: In some countries—including 19 out of 46 Council of Europe member states—married transgender people are required to divorce if they want to access LGR.



About the authors

Emma Kenny
Associate Programme Officer, Democracy Assessment
Emily Bloom
Associate Programme Officer, Democracy Assessment
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