The Dutch government has given an official apology to transgender and intersex people affected by a law that forced them to undergo surgery and sterilisation in order to be officially recognised in their gender.
Some 2,000 people are thought to have been impacted by the law, introduced in 1985 and in force until as recently as 2014, despite years of criticism from human rights groups and organisations including the United Nations and Council of Europe.
Following legal action by more than a dozen individuals and organisations to demand an apology, the Dutch government moved to offer one last year – and to announce that those affected would receive €5,000 in compensation, echoing a scheme announced in Sweden in 2018.
While ministers first gave an apology last year, the government acknowledged that there had been a “critical response” to the way it was communicated, and to parts of their compensation plan, which critics say is not inclusive enough and is more than four times less generous than Sweden’s.
Further steps had been taken to give the apology “shape”, which included a financial donation towards a documentary and research into the suffering experienced as a result of the law, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science said in a statement to VICE Netherlands.
In addition, a 75-minute ceremony was held on Saturday afternoon in the Hague’s historic Knights’ Hall, with Willemijn van Kempen, a trans woman who led the legal action seeking redress from the government, the first speaker.
Noting that the government had “structurally disadvantaged and damaged transgender and intersex people for almost thirty years”, she said in a statement: “It is important that it now apologises.”
The minister for education, culture and science Ingrid van Engelshoven made what was reported by the Associated Press to have given an emotional speech, in which she said: “Nobody should have experienced what you have experienced. I am truly sorry that it happened.”
“For decades, people underwent medical procedures that they did not want at all. But they knew they had no other choice,” Ms Van Engelshoven added. “Others have waited because of this law; they were forced to postpone becoming themselves for years.”
She said that “standards about what a body should look like do not belong in a law and a law should never force people to undergo an operation. And today I make our deeply sincere apologies for this on behalf of the full Cabinet.”
Transgender Network Nederland, which also took part in the lawsuit, welcomed the ceremony, and said it hoped the apology – thought to be the first from any country – would serve as an example to nations where the sterilisation requirement still applies, such as Finland, the Czech Republic and Romania.
But the rights group accused the government of taking too long to scrap the law and criticised the compensation as too low and not inclusive enough. Currently, people must have changed their birth certificate or received a new one to qualify for the scheme.
The government’s initial apology also came in for criticism last year. Speaking to VICE, Ms van Kempen described ministers having taken campaigners by surprise by rushing out statements for parliament and the press about their apology – given during a meeting – and compensation plans, which she said seemed to effectively push ministers’ proposals beyond the realm of negotiation.
But ahead of Saturday’s ceremony, she suggested the government now has a moment to show it will actively protect transgender and intersex people’s human rights.
Ms van Kempen suggested banning non-medically necessary operations on intersex children, moving to better legally recognise non-binary identities, and making the laws around trans parenthood more inclusive.
Additional reporting by AP