Something's Rotten in the State of Denmark: A Tale of Two Identities

February 10, 2014

Josh Bryan is an American transgender man living in Denmark © Private.
Josh Bryan is an American transgender man living in Denmark © Private.

Josh Bryan is an American living in Copenhagen, where he helped to launch a recent Amnesty International report on discrimination against transgender people in the European Union. Below, he tells his story how strict Danish legislation has left him trapped in a system that doesn’t recognize his true identity while demanding that he surgically change his body.

My story is about being stuck in two legal identities. I live in Denmark, a country that prides itself on its liberalism and welfare for its citizens. However, the Danish legislation is very strict when it comes to transgender people – people whose gender identities don’t align with the legal gender they were assigned at birth – and that is why I’m now trapped in the system.

I’m originally from the U.S., and I grew up in Kansas. I knew from a very early age that I was transgender. I also learned quickly that being transgender was not very acceptable. So I stayed hidden, waiting for the day I could finally transition and be myself.

They told me they didn't have the authority to change my information. This was because I had not been castrated.
In 2007, I married my Danish wife and moved to Denmark. This was before I had completed my transition, and that turned out to be a fatal decision. In 2010, I had finally saved up enough money to complete my transition and update all of my American paperwork: my passport, my birth certificate and my name. I was so happy and thought that everything would be smooth sailing from there, but I was very wrong.

When I went to update my Danish paperwork with immigration officials in Denmark, they told me they didn’t have the authority to change my information. This was because I had not been castrated. Denmark has a law stemming from the 1930’s that requires transgender people to be surgically castrated to obtain legal gender recognition. For those who cannot afford to pay for the surgery themselves, there is also a demand to have a psychiatric diagnosis in order to be considered ‘transsexual’ and therefore eligible for surgery in the public health care system. It takes years and is an extremely humiliating process.

I found that very surprising, because I’ve always considered Denmark a more liberal country than the U.S. And it puzzled me that the immigration authorities here could not just update my information because I’m here based on my American identity. It’s really absurd.

When I apply to have my residency extended here, they make me fill out a form and use a name that doesn’t exist in the U.S. I have to sign the paperwork in a name that doesn’t belong to me! Yet, they still grant me permission to be here. Denmark is now the only country in the world that does not recognize my American identity.

As you can probably imagine, having two identities causes a tremendous amount of problems in my life. Anytime I need to pull out my identification, whether that is going to the bank, going to the doctor, using my credit card at the store, going to my children’s school, I am outed on a daily basis. And it hurts. I’m not ashamed of being transgender, but it’s not really something I wish to explain to complete strangers on a daily basis. It is a complete violation of my right to privacy. I’ve moved on in life, but the system won’t let me be me.

I haven’t seen my family in the U.S. since 2010 because frankly, I’m afraid to travel. Danish immigration authorities cannot give me a clear answer on how I can safely re-enter the country, because my passport and residency reflect two different identities. Things you normally take for granted like owning a house or a car, I cannot do. I cannot own anything in my real name. I cannot be my wife’s husband in Denmark. I cannot earn money in my name. When I have to pay taxes in the U.S., I literally have to send a document from Denmark that confirms that Josh Bryan is really Josh Bryan. I have to out myself to the U.S. tax agency, to my home country, because of being stuck in this legal limbo. It would be funny, if it wasn’t my life.

Denmark rejects my American identity, my passport, and my birth certificate. It makes me feel like they reject me as a human being. Despite having two identities, I feel like I have none. I’ve been haunted my whole life by having the wrong name and the wrong body. I used to hide who I was by choice, but now I’m forced to.

So why go through all this mess? Why not just comply with the castration demand?

For me, it’s simple. I’m taking a stand against being diagnosed with a mental disorder and against the castration demand.

First, I refuse to be diagnosed as having a mental condition. Transgender people aren’t crazy. I’m not crazy. I know exactly who I am, and I always have. It’s purely physical what I had to fix. Let me put it this way: what other ‘mental’ illness can be fixed with surgery and hormones?

It stigmatizes the entire community of transgender people to put a label on them that they are not right in the head. It leaves us with no rights in the health care system. And it leaves us without the opportunity to have treatment with informed consent.

As for the castration demand, it is a complete slap in the face to any parent out there. I don’t care to have the reproductive organs inside of me, and someday I will have those removed. But it will be my decision.

No government authority should decide over someone’s body or who is fit to be a parent. Denmark does not have the right to stop people from starting a family and have invasive, medically unnecessary surgery. I wouldn’t want my children, my future grandchildren, or any child out there to have to choose whether to be themselves or to have a family in life. There is absolutely no medical justification for this demand, and it needs to be abolished immediately.

Denmark’s (and most of Europe’s) outdated laws are violating our human rights on so many fronts: the right to privacy, integrity, health care, and the right to family. And it needs to stop now.

I could never have written these words without the support of Amnesty International. Their report on transgender rights has highlighted the struggles I face every day. And most importantly, they have given the transgender community a platform to speak about the violation of our human rights.

For me, it’s been life-changing to be a part of this publication. I’ve felt very voiceless and ignored these last few years. Amnesty has given me the opportunity to use my voice, and it’s lit a fire in me. I will speak out from now on. So let me start by saying this to Denmark, especially to the Danish politicians:

I will not put up with your discrimination and your ignorance any more. I will not be put in a box and labelled for your comfort. I will not be medicated, pacified, or ignored. Me being transgender does not affect you or your family. But you enforce laws and regulations that affect me and my family every day.