Katrin Hugendubel is advocacy director at ILGA-Europe.
The appointment of Petra De Sutter as Belgium’s deputy prime minister — the first out transgender minister in Europe — is a milestone.
But what is perhaps even more meaningful is that it’s a milestone that went almost unremarked upon in yesterday’s headlines.
De Sutter has always been open about her trans identity and has never sought to hide that fact in her political career. Still, it was always clear that she is so much more than that identity.
As a doctor and gynecology professor, she has been a champion of women’s rights, gender equality and sexual reproductive rights. In every political position she’s held — whether in the Belgian senate, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe or the European Parliament — she has been a strong advocate for LGBTI rights.
But it’s her competency in so many other areas and her impressive professional track record that, combined with her advocacy, have defined her career and earned her the respect of her peers.
That the media coverage of her nomination as deputy prime minister focused on her work rather than on her trans identity is a reflection not just of her impressive political career but also of the progressive nature of Belgian politics today. It is not hard to imagine that the headlines would have looked very different in another country — even another European country.
And yet, while the non-event of De Sutter’s appointment is a good thing, it still sends a powerful positive signal to trans people across the world.
De Sutter may never have made trans rights the focus of her work, but she has never shied away from being a role model. But more importantly for trans people, the fact that she is accepted at a national level, and that she is treated fairly and respectfully in the media, is a hopeful sign at a time when trans identities are being disavowed and legislated against in a growing number of European countries.
In Romania, the constitutional court this week discussed legislation to delete discussions of gender and gender identity completely from any educational curricula. Similar legislation has already been introduced in Bulgaria. Poland’s “Family Charter,” signed by President Andrzej Duda, will ban lessons on LGBTI issues in schools. And in the U.K., rights advocates have warned that confusing new educational guidelines risk being interpreted to mean that schools should not use materials discussing gender identity and the possibility of being transgender.
Earlier this year, at the start of the coronavirus lockdowns, Hungary introduced legislation to effectively ban gender recognition, while in Russia legislative moves are underway to do the same.
As a worrying number of governments are actively trying to deny LGBTI and trans people their place in society, it is heartening to see Belgium’s political system embracing a member of the LGBTI community as an equal.
De Sutter did not attain her powerful position in the new Belgian government because she is a trans woman who brings expertise on specific issues related to LGBTI rights and trans rights. She was appointed because of her competence as a politician and experienced policymaker.
That’s a validation of her identity both as a politician and as a trans woman — and it’s a rebuke to the attacks against trans identities happening in other parts of Europe.
De Sutter’s gender identity may be missing from the headlines in Belgium. But that absence is sending a powerful message.
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