In May of last year, proposed legislation that would have made it possible for trans people in Germany to change their name and gender marker solely with an application to the registry office failed to gain the majority of votes needed to pass. Following the disappointing result of the draft bill, filmmakers Sam Arndt and Sophia Emmerich decided to produce the documentary AB HEUTE.
AB HEUTE is an authentic, intimate documentary that voices the discriminatory legal process of official name change experienced by transgender people in Germany. The full film can be viewed here.
In the process of filming AB HEUTE and many conversations with activists around the globe following its premiere, the filmmakers learned that Germany’s shortcoming in modern legislation on self-determination for trans people is not an isolated case but a global one.
Together with GLAAD and in observance of the annual Transgender Day Of Visibility, the project expanded further.
Trans people worldwide came together to share their stories, experiences, and dreams of changing their name and gender marker to accurately represent themselves in official documents in their respective countries. For the interview series, a diverse group of trans people from 12 different countries, including India, Japan, Australia, and Ukraine, spoke to the filmmakers and the result is an important encapsulation of trans people’s existence across the world.
Twelve people, twelve voices, twelve backgrounds, twelve experiences, yet one common belief: we believe that having the correct name and gender marker on official documents is a matter of dignity and respect. In many cases, it is lifesaving. Yet trans people worldwide still face highly discriminatory laws that target them directly and can also be classified as contrary to human rights in general. For example, in a lot of countries trans people continue to be denied the ability to have their individually correct name and gender marker on their identity documents unless they undergo sterilization, divorce, or a time-consuming, costly, and degrading legal process.
While some countries laud their progressivity for having laws in the first place, the legal hoops trans people are required to jump through to simply be recognized for who they are represents a widespread lack of social, cultural and legal acceptance.
The experiences across the legal spectrum vary widely. For example, in one of the most restrictive countries included in this project, the filmmakers learned that it is impossible to effectuate a legal name or gender marker change in Tanzania. In Clara of Tanzania’s words, “We would like for the government to first acknowledge the existence of transgender people.”
Conversely, in countries like Colombia or Sweden, the process is simple, requiring a mere two-hour administrative process or even just filling out an online form.
Contrary to expectation, Colombia which is one of the most dangerous countries for LGBTQIA* people, is toward the top of our list regarding trans equality globally. One piece that became clear was that simply having the legal framework is not enough. It might be the first step, but one of many.
Whenever the filmmakers talked to people about the project, one thing stands out the most and shocks people, even. For a long time, most countries required trans people to be sterilized to change their gender marker. Germany only repealed the obligation in 2011, Schweden in 2013, France in 2016, Ukraine in 2016 and Kyrgyzstan in 2017.
Of the countries that are part of this project, not only Japan but also Australia, Indonesia, and India still require surgery and/or sterilization.
Even in countries that don’t require any surgical intervention, trans people often have to go to court, pay exorbitant legal fees, wait lengthy periods of time and are often asked to go through invasive physiological assessments. These processes tend to be exhausting, time-consuming, and harken back to the outdated beliefs that trans people are incapable of self-determination.
Amidst the chaos, confusion, and conflict in the world, there is hope, however, to be found in the first-person stories of trans people across the world.
In Germany, the new government promised to abolish the current transsexual act and replace it with a self-determination act that would give trans people the right to change their name and gender marker just by declaring it at a registry office. New York City recently passed the Gender Recognition Act, which means trans people are no longer required to publish their old and new names along with their address in a court-designated newspaper. In India, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, was passed by Parliament in November 2019 and came into effect on 11 January 2020. It protects transgender people against discrimination in education, employment and healthcare. In Japan, people are fighting at the highest courts to repeal the sterilization requirement.
These are first steps toward trans being fully and legally recognized as themselves in their communities. Though there is still a long way to go, shifting this important topic from a siloed and singular to a more expansive awareness of trans people existing across time and cultures despite outdated institutional barriers in medicine and law, specifically.
Today, the trans community is stronger than ever because of the more global recognition that trans people are a part of every society, community, and culture even in places where discrimination and defiance against gender diversity persist.
The filmmakers hope this project can shed light on the difficult realities trans people face in achieving legal recognition, but also show the diversity of trans people’s lived experiences, providing representation of the possibilities for other trans people to see themselves reflected in ways they might not have, geographically or otherwise.
Berlin-based Sophia Emmerich is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker whose work amplifies queer voices and tells authentic stories about identity, diversity, and representation. Trained as a lawyer, Sophia is passionate about fighting for causes she believes in and has found a way to marry her legal training with her artistic endeavors.
Sam Arndt went through the process of changing his name and gender marker as a teenager, and back then shared his experiences on his YouTube channel. Today, 10 years later, he stands up for trans people not having to go through the same emotional pressure as he did.