Belgium has long been considered one of the most progressive countries in the European Union (EU) regarding LGBTQ rights, especially transgender rights. The nation has made significant strides in protecting the rights of its transgender citizens, allowing legal gender and name changes without a medical certificate and including a prominent transgender politician. Recently, Ghent in the North Flanders region of Belgium boosted its image by giving city officials a month off for gender reassignment.
But this progressive image is threatened by the rise of far-right parties, such as the separatist party Vlaams Belang, which governs Flanders, which has expressed concern about the identification of underage transsexuals and called for an end to hormone therapy and sex operations on minors. As the election approaches, there are still concerns that Vlaams Belang and the right-wing Flemish nationalist party N-VA could win a majority and jeopardise the rights of transgender people in Belgium.
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Belgium: a haven for the transgender community
Belgium has earned its reputation as a haven for the LGBTQ community, ranking second in the 2023 ILGA Europe Rainbow Index for legal, political, and human rights granted to LGBTQ people. The country adopted the Transgender Act in 2018, allowing approximately 742 people to change their gender identity on their ID cards yearly legally. By 2018, the corresponding number was 110 in 2017. In 2022, that number will increase to 569 people.
In addition, under the leadership of Petra De Sutter, Belgium has made pioneering progress in the political representation of the transgender community. Like the current deputy prime minister of the country and Elio Di Rupo, the former prime minister of Belgium, who became one of the first openly gay heads of government in Europe.
Male Progress: Gender Transition Free
Ghent, a city in Flanders, is known for its complete and diverse environment. Ghent recently implemented a significant policy change under the leadership of the Flemish government, introducing an exemption for transgender leave in 2019 and offering 20 days off for city workers undergoing gender reassignment.
This leave covers the non-surgical aspects of the transition process, such as the social, psychological, and emotional aspects, including pre-and post-operative consultations, specialist visits, and counselling. For transgender workers, these consultations often occur during working hours, resulting in the need to take vacation days or paid time off, exacerbating the community’s challenges.
Challenges and Hopes for the Transgender Community
While the introduction of gender transition leave is seen as a positive step towards greater inclusion and support for Ghent’s transgender community, there are concerns that some people may not take the rest due to the potential career consequences. Stress in gender minorities can cause significant physical and mental health effects, mainly due to social factors, and to alleviate this stress, it is necessary to create a supportive environment.
Delicate Progress: Threats from the Far Right
As elections approach in Flanders, Belgium, and the European Parliament, fears have grown in the transgender community that the growing popularity of far-right parties such as Vlaams Belang and N-VA could halt or reverse progress on LGBTQ rights. Vlaams Belang denies anti-LGBTQ rights views but opposes specific legislation, such as allowing unlimited gender reassignment on identity cards, which trivialises gender identity decisions.
Broader context: LGBTQ rights in Europe
Belgium’s situation is not unique, as LGBTQ rights face challenges across Europe. Countries like Hungary, Poland, Georgia, and Russia have seen developments, including the ban on gender reassignment procedures in Russia and the demonization of surrogacy in Italy. Against this backdrop, Belgium’s reputation as a haven for the LGBTQ community becomes even more critical, and potential threats from far-right parties require increased vigilance and advocacy.
Belgium has made significant strides in accepting and supporting its transgender community, making it one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in Europe. The introduction of gender transition leave in Ghent is a significant step toward creating an inclusive work environment for transgender employees. However, the upcoming elections and the rise of far-right parties pose a potential threat to the hard-won rights of the LGBTQ community. To preserve and promote its progressive values, Belgium must remain vigilant and steadfast in protecting the rights and dignity of all its citizens, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Only through continued advocacy and inclusion can Belgium be a beacon of hope and inspiration for the global LGBT community.