Japan’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that requiring transgender people to undergo sterilization in order to legally change their gender identity is unconstitutional, a step forward for L.G.B.T.Q. rights in a nation that has been slow to recognize them.
In the unanimous decision, the court said that a legal clause forcing the plaintiff, a transgender woman, to be sterilized before changing her gender on the all-important Japanese family registry certificate “restricted her freedom not to harm herself against her will.”
Still, the court did not rule on a separate requirement that transgender people must undergo transition surgery in order to legally register as the gender with which they identify. In practice, that means many transgender people will still be unable to make the legal change. The top court said it would send the case back to the High Court for further discussion of the transition surgery clause.
“In the end, the result is that my gender cannot be changed,” the unnamed plaintiff said in a statement read by one of her lawyers, Kazuyuki Minami, at a news conference. “I’m very disappointed that my case still has to go on.”
Although not a full victory, activists welcomed Wednesday’s decision, which reversed a 2019 Supreme Court decision that said the sterilization clause was constitutional.
The decision will “change the lives of so many trans people,” said Yuichi Kamiya, secretary-general of the Japan Alliance for L.G.B.T.Q. Legislation.
Wednesday’s decision could be more helpful to transgender men, for whom the sterilization requirement is the most invasive clause in the law. Many trans women, however, will still face surgical obstacles to changing their gender.
Japanese lawmakers have been slow to expand gay and transgender rights. In June, Parliament passed a bill to “promote understanding” of L.G.B.T.Q. people, a watered-down version of an anti-discrimination bill that activists had pushed for years.
Courts, however, have started to challenge legal and societal norms. This month, a district family court in Shizuoka Prefecture in southern Japan ruled that forcing a transgender man to undergo transition surgery in order to change his legal gender identity violated his constitutional rights. Several district courts have ruled that the country’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
In Wednesday’s decision, the Supreme Court found that requiring transgender people to undergo sterilization forces them to make a “harsh choice” between having surgery or being unable to legally register as the gender with which they identify.
Japan’s Gender Identity Disorder Law currently requires that people wishing to change their legal gender identity fulfill several requirements. In addition to being sterilized and undergoing transition surgery, they must be over the age of 18, be unmarried, not have any children under 18, and receive an official medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria from two doctors.
According to Mikiya Nakatsuka, president of the Japanese Society of Gender Identity Disorder and a doctor who performs transition surgeries, about 60 percent of the patients his clinic treats would volunteer for the surgery and hormone treatments even if they were not required by law. But for those who do not want to physically alter their bodies, the court’s decision could “help people live as the gender they identify with, sooner,” he said.
Gen Suzuki, the transgender man who filed the suit in district family court in Shizuoka, welcomed that court’s decision but said in an interview after the ruling that it was an “obvious” right he should already have.
The Supreme Court’s decision is likely to face pushback from some lawmakers. The leaders of a group of at least 100 members of Parliament from the governing Liberal Democratic Party met with the justice minister last month to submit a statement objecting to changes in the law governing transgender identity.
Earlier this week, a coalition of conservative activists seeking to “protect women’s spaces” submitted a petition to the Supreme Court urging that it uphold the sterilization requirement.