When German authorities insisted Tsepo Bollwinkel get sterilised in order to be legally considered a man 25 years ago, he was “eager to follow the rules, even if they sounded insane”.
Now Bollwinkel, a 58-year-old empowerment coach, wants compensation for himself and potentially thousands of other trans people who underwent mandatory sterilisation to change their sex on identity documents before legal reform in 2011.
Back in 1994, “I felt grateful for that opportunity because it was important for me to get legal recognition,” said Bollwinkel, who is also campaigning for a government apology, backed by Bundesverband Trans* (BvT), a trans advocacy group.
Today Bollwinkel’s goal is to make Germans aware of the country’s dark history of sterilisation – dating back to the Nazi era – and to acknowledge the rights of trans people, despite conservative attitudes among many voters and lawmakers.
Several European nations still require trans people to undergo surgery and sterilisation, or be diagnosed with a mental disorder, to have their new gender legally recognised, Transgender Europe advocacy group says.
Sweden became the first country in the world in 2018 to offer compensation of $23,882 to hundreds of trans people who had to undergo sterilisation to get their change of gender recognised – and it wants Germany to follow.
“I am not interested in money,” Bollwinkel told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But in Germany, like in other European societies, recognition has to come in the shape of euros to be considered real.”
The justice ministry declined to comment. The interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
One German trans woman who was sterilised almost 30 years ago said the law robbed her of her chance to start a family – a choice being made by a growing number of trans people who have transitioned and retained their reproductive organs.
“They just could not conceive that a man could get pregnant or that a woman could make another woman pregnant,” said the woman who is in her late 60s and declined to be named.
“They stole that from us … There was no justification.”
Sweden called on Germany last year to set up a national compensation fund for trans people who were coerced into sterilisation or unwanted gender reassignment surgery.
When one lawmaker raised the issue with the German parliament this year, an interior ministry official said in a written reply that the federal government had “taken note” of Sweden’s recommendation but “saw no need for those measures”.
Germany’s first trans lawmaker Tessa Ganserer, who transitioned from male to female in Bavaria’s regional parliament in 2019, is also pushing for reform to make it easier to change your name and sex on identity documents.
Under the 1980 Transsexuals Act, a mental health diagnosis is required in order to make legal changes, which campaigners reject as distressing, stigmatising, costly and inaccessible.
Additional requirements of proof of sterility and gender reassignment surgery were struck out by the constitutional court in 2011. At least 10,000 people were sterilised prior to this ruling, according to the Berlin-based BvT.
The health ministry said it did not know how many cases exist.
A growing number of countries, including Ireland, Belgium and France, have adopted laws allowing self-identification, which campaigners say is less invasive and traumatic for trans people who often face abuse when their documents do not match.
A new draft law for Germany was leaked to the media in May but no further action has been taken.
Winning political backing for reform will not be easy in a country that is unwinding a legacy of discrimination, which included sending gay men to Nazi concentration camps, and where many conservatives and Catholics have opposed gay marriage.
Under German “racial purity” laws, ethnic Roma were subjected to forced sterilisation from 1934, as were thousands of women in Japan, Sweden and dozens of U.S. states during the 20th century whose governments did not want them to reproduce.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Germany in 1969 and parliament in 2017 agreed to compensate thousands of gay men who had been jailed under the law.
When Germany legalised same-sex marriage in 2017, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, voted against the bill, as did the majority of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) lawmakers.
Merkel said she believed marriage as defined under German law was between a man and a woman.
Alexander Vogt, who heads the CDU’s LGBT+ group, said parliamentary dynamics further complicate the push for reform.
“If something is brought to the table by the Left or the Greens, the natural reaction in the centre-right is often no, unfortunately,” said Vogt, whose CDU is in coalition with the Christian Social Union and centre-left Social Democrats.
Not all conservatives oppose LGBT+ rights.
Openly gay CDU health minister Jens Spahn last month submitted a draft law to ban so-called conversion therapy, which aims to change a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation, for under-18s.
Lawmaker Doris Achelwilm said her Left party is preparing a request to fund research into mandatory sterilisations and compensation for victims, as well as demanding a state apology.
But she recognises the public is unlikely to back the idea.
“We need to go on working on that,” she said.
Sarah, who underwent sterilisation in 1998 and declined to give her full name, said politicians should take responsibility for the human rights abuses that took place.
“This is not about our private past. It’s about the history of this country,” she said. “Many of the victims have already died. I wonder how many of us will leave this world before they understand what was done to us in the name of law.”