Tobias Raun
Denmark – A Transgender Paradise?
Denmark – A Transgender Paradise?Denmark – A Transgender Paradise?Denmark – A Transgender Paradise?
Denmark – A Transgender Paradise?

When I talk to people from the United States or Great Britain they tend to think that Denmark is “the promised land” for trans people. They imagine that trans people get all the medical and legal support they need – for free. This perception might derive from an overall opinion of Denmark as a liberal and tolerant country: it was the first country to legalise pornographic texts and images in 1967 and 1969 respectively as well as to introduce civil partnership laws for homosexuals in 1989. The image of Denmark as a pioneer in relation to trans issues probably also owes to the role the country has had in the history of sex reassignment surgeries. It was a Danish citizen who was known as one of the first recipients of the sex reassignment surgeries performed by German doctors in the late 1920s and early 1930s, namely the Danish artist Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe. She was a patient of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld at the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin between 1930-32.[1] Several years later, the first surgery to become widely known was performed in Denmark. It was in 1952 when Christine Jørgensen became a media sensation, appearing on the front page of New York Daily News under the headline “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty”. The headline referred to how Jørgensen had become the recipient of the first “sex change” and that it was performed in Denmark.[2] Something was new in Jørgensen’s case, namely the added prescription of hormone therapy. But just because Denmark is the provenance of remarkable trans-related histories in the past, it has proven to be far from as progressive and tolerant in the present as often proclaimed.

[1] The upcoming film The

exgi becomes blonde beauty


This article takes as its point of departure a recent Danish documentary about trans people, namely Nobody Passes Perfectly by Saskia Bisp. The film deals especially with trans men – a topic that is untouched and unexplored in a Danish context. But before I will turn to the film, a reflection of the political aspects of the situation for trans people in Denmark today seems necessary.


Human Rights and transgenderism in Denmark

The focus on lack of trans people’s rights in Denmark was manifested this summer when the Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, visited Copenhagen for The World Outgames 2009 Human Rights Conference. The Commissioner presented twelve human rights recommendations in relation to trans people that every member state of the Council of Europe should accommodate:[3]

1. Implement international human rights standards without discrimination, and prohibit explicitly discrimination on the ground of gender identity in national non-discrimination legislation. The Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity should be used to provide guidance for national implementation in this field.

2. Enact hate crime legislation which affords specific protection for transgender persons against transphobic crimes and incidents.

3. Develop expeditious and transparent procedures for changing the name and sex of a transgender person on birth certificates, identity cards, passports, educational certificates and other similar documents.

4. Abolish sterilisation and other compulsory medical treatment as a necessary legal requirement to recognise a person’s gender identity in laws regulating the process for name and sex change.

5. Make gender reassignment procedures, such as hormone treatment, surgery and psychological support, accessible for transgender persons, and ensure that they are reimbursed by public health insurance schemes.

6. Remove any restrictions on the right of transgender persons to remain in an existing marriage following a recognised change of gender.

7. Prepare and implement policies to combat discrimination and exclusion faced by transgender persons on the labour market, in education and health care.

8. Involve and consult transgender persons and their organisations when developing and implementing policy and legal measures which concern them.

9. Address the human rights of transgender persons and discrimination based on gender identity through human rights education and training programs, as well as awareness-raising campaigns.

10. Provide training to health service professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists and general practitioners, with regard to the needs and rights of transgender persons and the requirement to respect their dignity.

11. Include the human rights concerns of transgender persons in the scope of activities of equality bodies and national human rights structures.

12. Develop research projects to collect and analyze data on the human rights situation of transgender persons including the discrimination and intolerance they encounter with due regard to the right to privacy of the persons concerned.

[3] The following recommendations and

It was concluded that Denmark barely meets three of these recommendations.[4] Denmark, amongst others things, still upholds “forced” sterilisation as a necessary legal requirement for state recognition of a person’s gender identity, even though the transgendered person, through other kinds of sex reassigning surgeries and/or hormones, incarnates the gender they identify with. Furthermore, Denmark still requires “forced” divorce before the transgendered person’s “new” gender can be recognised. This is partly due to the fact that Denmark does not have equal laws as far as marriage and civil partnership are concerned. Finally, the Danish State has consigned the responsibility of performing the psychological evaluation of transgendered people, offering medical treatments, as well as making recommendations about who qualify for a name change and for a legal change in gender status to The Sexological Clinic (Sexologisk Klinik). It is also primarily the responsibility of The Sexological Clinic to develop and collect research data on trans-related issues, but no academic research has been carried out or published. The Danish State does, however, consult the transgendered pressure group Trans-Denmark (Trans-Danmark) when developing and implementing policy and legal measures regarding trans people, but their recommendations are often overheard.

[4] For further elaborations see

Denmark does provide trans people with hormone treatment, surgery and psychological support reimbursed by public health insurance schemes. But people might be denied treatment if they do not fit into the standardised diagnostic schema. Only a small percentage of the trans people who seek help at Sexologisk Klinik are eventually provided with the medical and surgical support they have applied for. Compared to the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark allows very few people to change their gender. A statistical comparison shows that from 1996 to 2005 permission for a sex change was granted to 91% of the applicants in Sweden while it was only granted to 37% in Denmark.[5] Many choose to seek support elsewhere and fund the transition themselves[6] because they have difficulties conforming to the pathologising discourse surrounding the diagnosis “transsexuality”. Accepting this diagnosis includes accepting having a mental illness: “Gender Identity Disorder”. It also includes succumbing oneself to a system of labels. As the queer theorist Judith Butler has formulated it, one has to “submit to labels and names, to incursions, to invasions; one has to be gauged against measures of normalcy; and one has to pass the test. […] The price of using the diagnosis to get what one wants is that one cannot use the language to say what one really thinks is true. One pays for one’s freedom”.[7]

The lack of research on trans people points to a general lack of visibility for trans people in Denmark. It is only a few months ago (November 21, 2009) that the professional organisation for LGBT people in Denmark included the T in their name (LGBT Danmark), thereby making it visible that trans people were welcomed in their politics.

[5] Betina Hvejsel, “En kritisk

Giving voice and representation to a minority

Accordingly, this is why documentaries such as Saskia Bisp’s new film Nobody Passes Perfectly are so important. This 45-minute long film centres around two trans men Tomka and Erik thereby focusing on a group of people that not only constitutes a minority within LGBT coalitions, but also has a minority voice within transgender community as a whole.[8] When it comes to representation, trans individuals have often been exploited and sensationalised by others with little concern for the lives and perspectives of the trans people themselves.[9] This is fortunately not the case here.

Tobias Raun: Denmark – A Transgender Paradise? Narrations and negotiations of trans masculinity in Nobody Passes Perfectly. Trikster #4, 2010.

[8] Kate O’Riodan, “Transgender activism



Nobody Passes Perfectly consists of a series of loosely connected scenes linked together via a thin narrative thread. We follow Tomka, a trans man in his early thirties, and the little older trans man Erik who is his late forties. It is shot with a static camera that records only one shot per scene, often in rather long and stylized takes. The long takes facilitate conversation, giving voice and representation to the characters. These conversations take place in arranged tableaus that are evocative and aesthetically beautiful emphasised by the background music composed especially for the film. It reminds me in some ways of Roy Anderson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000), but without the absurdist comedy dimension. Apparently none of the scenes were thoroughly scripted or storyboarded, but the tableaus were carefully arranged and thought through in order to create the right atmosphere and aesthetics.[10] The chosen locations are all places where gendered and sexual identities come into being and where they are policed. We are in a public swimming pool, bathrooms, a fitness centre, a bed, a club, a bar, and a restaurant. Many of these rooms require that you are “readable at a glance” and if you are not, you will be perceived as “gender deviant”.[11]

[10] According to Saskia Bisp

erik + freddy


The film tries to integrate a beautiful visual expression with substantial discussions that do the protagonists justice. However, the film is not structured as a progressive story, whereby it avoids repeating the well-known trans narratives tracing the journey from one gender incarnation to another with certain benchmarks (typically childhood memories, coming out to friends and family, first shot of testosterone, top surgery, change in legal gender status).[12] Unlike many other trans documentaries and video blogs on YouTube which centre on the body in transition through hormones and/or surgery, Nobody Passes Perfectly explores transgenderism as a feeling or a perception of oneself. The audience is not initiated in medical procedures and how these affect the body. Only implicitly, and drip by drip, does the audience become aware that both of the two protagonists, Tomka and Erik, take testosterone and that Erik has had a top surgery.

[12] J. Seipel drew my

Accordingly, the film is somehow political, but focuses only indirectly on the debates about the medical and legal apparatus of sex. Instead, the film takes its point of departure in the director’s own curiosity concerning how and why somebody chooses to become a man – and what the transition does to what previously was perceived as a lesbian relationship.[13] The investigation is frank as we get very close to the people on screen through the long tableau shots, often with close-ups of naked or semi-naked bodies and intimate conversations. Sometimes it seems as if the movie is too intimate with the result that I as a spectator get slightly claustrophobic. I cannot help being a little overwhelmed by the intimate situations and conversations that I feel I was not supposed to witness. This feeling of invading the private sphere is obviously somewhat paradoxical, taken into the account that the scenes are clearly staged.

lotta + tomka


Gender trouble in the media

The press coverage of Nobody Passes Perfectly bears witness to a general invisibility and ignorance about transgenderism. Two well-reputed film experts reported the film incorrectly in their otherwise very positive reviews. The film critic Michael Bo writes, “A young couple are lying in bed, a long-haired feminine woman and a short-haired masculine trans who is becoming a woman but technically is still a man”.[14] Michael Bo is referring to the lead protagonist Tomka (“short-haired masculine trans who is becoming a woman but technically is still a man”) and his girlfriend Lotte (“long-haired feminine woman”). But Tomka was not assigned the male gender at birth and he is not becoming a woman but a man. The quote highlights that trans people are often exclusively associated with trans women, thereby surfacing that trans men are an invisible and almost unthinkable group of people. This misreading also confirms another phenomenon, namely that many FtMs (Female to Male), contrary to MtFs (Male to Female), pass as the desired gender after just a few months on testosterone.

[14] Michael Bo, “Guide: Filmfestival

In an article in the film magazine Ekko, film professor Ib Bondebjerg writes, “There are also a lot of bodies in Saskia Bisp’s intense investigation of homosexual identities in Nobody Passes Perfectly. We are among common people and couples who struggle with gender identity and bodily problems pertaining to the transgression of your biological gender”.[15] According to this review, the film is primarily about “homosexual identities”, which is not quite the case. The quote highlights a common misconception, namely that trans is equivalent to homosexual. But whereas homosexual refers to a sexual preference, trans refers to a gender identity. However, sexual orientation is questioned as the film explores the sexual labelling and un-labelling of couples once one of them decides to transition. As Tomka says, “What are the categories for it?”, then asking Lotte, “What categories fit for you – lesbian?” Apparently Lotte identifies as lesbian, but she is, as Tomka says, “together with a man”. The question is whether the homosexual category has ever been relevant or adequate for them as a couple, even as the heterosexual category does not seem applicable either. For Lotte it does not matter whether Tomka identifies as a man or not. That will not change her feelings or their relationship, but she is afraid that they as a couple will be perceived differently. His transition will eliminate the queerness about them as a couple and her position will change as well. She will, as she says, be read differently when she is together with a partner who passes as male than when she is together with one that passes as female. She will be perceived “as a woman”. This statement points to a feeling of being “womanized” in a more profound way when she is together with someone who is read as a man – as if manhood installs and reinforces womanhood.

[15] Ib Bondebjerg, “Talenter med

It is obviously not manhood or masculinity per se that is the problem for Lotte, but rather the role it ascribes to her when the relation is read as heterosexual. I cannot help thinking of a quote by the French feminist Monique Wittig:

“The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of man”.[16]

What Wittig is proposing is that the category “woman” only exists through its relation to the category “man”, and that “woman” without relation to “man” would cease to exist. For Wittig the category lesbian represents the possibility to escape the category of “woman”. This understanding is echoed in some ways in Lotte’s wish to hold on to the category lesbian: “if anybody asked me if I was a lesbian I would without the slightest doubt say that I am”. Lotte seems to subscribe more to lesbian as an identity category than as a sexual orientation. And yet the discussion points towards the sexual categories’ incapability of accounting for the identity of and the practice between two people in a relationship. Sexual orientation and sex/gender identity are complex constructions and they are not easily reducible to homo/hetero/bi or man/woman.

Tobias Raun: Denmark – A Transgender Paradise? Narrations and negotiations of trans masculinity in Nobody Passes Perfectly. Trikster #4, 2010.

[16] Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Beacon Press, 1992), p. 13.

One might argue that trans people in particular makes clear how inadequate it is to assume or derive a person’s sexual orientation from the sex of that person’s desired partner. For many people erotic desire does not automatically fit preconceived binaries of either gender (man/woman) or sexuality (homo/hetero/bi). However, moving across or beyond the preconceived gender binary one may risk being put on the borders of the human and be seen as an alien, a freak. As Judith Butler states:

The mark of gender appears to “qualify” bodies as human bodies; the moment in which an infant becomes humanized is when the question, “is it a boy or a girl?” is answered. Those bodily figures who do not fit into either gender fall outside the human, indeed, constitute the domain of the dehumanized and the abject against which the human itself is constituted.[17]

Language also has an inability to name that which is not man or woman, as well as to represent the transgendered subject’s movement over time between gendered positions.

[17] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.

Trans masculinity and feminist theory

Nobody Passes Perfectly challenges in various ways a binary conception of gender. It shows different ways of thinking and doing masculinity, with a preference for a more soft and gender-bending masculinity. In this way the documentary highlights that bio-men do not own masculinity or maleness. Masculine women have, according to Judith Halberstam, played a large part in the construction of modern masculinity, but still there is a presumed essential relation between masculinity and men as well as a general disbelief in female masculinity.[18] On a bodily scale, the trans men in the film do not aspire to unequivocal maleness, but embrace in various ways the modified and specified trans body. This queering of masculinity exemplifies Halberstam’s argument that even though “not all transsexualities, obviously, present a challenge (or a want to) to hegemonic masculinity, ... not all butch masculinities produce subversion. However, transsexuality and transgenderism do afford unique opportunities to track explicit performances of nondominant masculinity”.[19]

Halberstam’s positive perception of trans masculinity has however not been prevalent in feminist theories. Janice Raymond has been one of the most critical voices, theorising trans men as treacherous women. In The Transsexual Empire from 1979 she writes, “Female-to-constructed-male transsexuals divest themselves of the last traces of female identification. Their collusion crosses a critical boundary, from which there is little hope of return. They are truly ‘the lost women to other women’”.[20] Even in the new edition of the book, published sixteen years later, Raymond maintains her standpoint. Sheila Jeffreys has supported Raymond’s denouncements, claiming that trans men are a “modern invention”, nothing but a product of a “woman hating culture” where lesbians are portrayed as freaks. Transgenderism is according to Jeffreys “a damaging practice amongst lesbians” and she argues for the need to “save” the butches from becoming trans men. In her argument, positive stories and representations of FtMs actually work to encourage male trans practices.[21]

[18] Halberstam, Female masculinity, pp.

[20] Janice G. Raymond, The



Nobody Passes Perfectly shows a connection between trans masculinity and identities and practices from lesbian and queer subcultures. There is especially one scene in the film where these overlaps and connections are explicitly discussed. Filmed in a bar in Germany, Tomka talks with a group of friends. He reflects upon how he was against taking hormones only two years ago, thinking that “one should put up with having an ambiguous appearance”. But, as Tomka makes clear, he “just can’t stand it anymore”. Reconfiguring his body and his voice with the use of hormones makes him more comfortable about himself and more comfortable around others. It keeps him out of trouble. Before taking hormones the voice gave him away which caused bullying, and as he says, “I’m sick of getting into trouble”.

Performing masculinity, but not being read as a man, can be dangerous. And yet, as Tomka’s friend points out in the film, “there is always a new problem”: as a trans man you will always risk failing as a man. Either because you do not take testosterone, have not got a top surgery, have not had a phalloplasty, or because of your history. This makes several forms of everyday social activities difficult for trans men, especially sports where you have to participate on gender specific teams and undress/shower in front of others. Another friend adds, “You won’t fit the norm as a man, but it has changed a lot for me”. He continues, “For me it wasn’t the ambiguity that I couldn’t handle. It was being pressed into the female mould. Testosterone has helped me get out of it. It’s a relief not being a woman no matter how people perceive me”. The binary gender system prevails and makes it almost impossible to occupy a position in between the categories. No matter what your gender presentation is, you will always be categorised according to your perceived bodily signifier. After taking testosterone and having a top surgery, the friend passes as male at work, but as he states, “there is still a very big part of me that isn’t seen. Then I either choose to talk about it or not. But lots of people do not understand what it means to be transgender. But in a way it’s easier, and it makes everyday life easier. But still...” Even after transitioning, the binary gender system feels inadequate, silencing trans as a legitimate position. You may want to pass as a man in order to disassociate yourself from a female assignment and in order to gain access to masculinity, but you may not want compulsory assimilation.



To pass is a crucial issue for many trans people, connected to a feeling of being recognised as the gender they feel they belong to.[22] As Sander Gilman points out, “‘Passing’ is not becoming ‘invisible’ but becoming differently visible – being seen as a member of a group with which one wants or needs to identify”.[23] Passing is the “ability to become (in)visible, seen but not seen”.[24] Invisibility involves being part of a norm instead of being considered deviant; being unmarked contrary to being marked. Passing is therefore about inclusion and exclusion, suggesting that identity involves performance and recognition of certain kinds of signifiers. Passing can be a wish, a possibility and also an imperative for certain people, for instance trans people.


[22] Cf. Jamison Green, “Look!


Tobias Raun: Denmark – A Transgender Paradise? Narrations and negotiations of trans masculinity in Nobody Passes Perfectly. Trikster #4, 2010.

Teksten er første kapitel fra en roman med den foreløbige arbejdstitel ”Padder og krybdyr”.

The title Nobody Passes Perfectly plays with the notion of passing, implying that we all try very hard to pass, but nobody really does. Erik explains it in this way in the film:

when I was going to a party at Warehouse I used a roll of sports tape, or, if I didn’t have any, I used duct tape […] Then I put on a tight vest so it looked even smoother. So I had a chest instead […] And then I put a sock in my pants. Then I would think: “Today I’m wearing something really masculine”. And at times it hit me: “This is so fake. It’s an act”. On the other hand, it wasn’t because the feelings were inside me.

Erik’s description of the difficulty in separating the real from performance exemplifies Judith Butler’s understanding of gender as a performative practice. According to Butler, all gender is performative and therefore we are all in the very same process of becoming, striving for the effect of “realness”.[25] But we fail in different ways and with different consequences. The film touches upon the various systems of power seen (or not seen) in the act of “passing”, thereby also making passing visible as a means through which the violence of assimilation takes place.

[25] See Judith Butler, Gender

Who needs to explain themselves?

As Tomka states in the beginning of the documentary, the feeling of gender identity can be hard to explain:

Sometimes it might take a really long time to find out […] But it seems like it was totally clear that I was bound to do that […] But I find it really hard to explain sometimes […] I don’t know. It seems like it’s so obvious and clear […] That’s how it is. And that’s how I’m making myself happy.

Most people will recognise Tomka’s description of how hard it is to explain what feels so obvious and clear – the things that make one happy. However, non-trans people are not expected to account for their gender identity and the genealogy of that feeling. Thus, it is only a certain group of people that are required to account for themselves, namely those with a non-gender normative self-presentation. Trans people are constantly required to elucidate the origin and ongoing sense of gender.

Within the health care system trans people are commanded to narrate a coherent story about their gender identity in order to be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and access a medical and legal sex reassignment. To get access to medical treatment then, you need to “pass” these criteria:

“There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification, which is the desire to be, or the insistence that one is, of the other sex (Criterion A). […] There must also be evidence of persistent discomfort about one’s assigned sex or a sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex (Criterion B)”.[26]

[26] Quoted in Cressida J.

The diagnosis criteria used worldwide assume that gender norms are fixed and that the problem is making sure that you find the right one. Furthermore, the discomfort or distress is assumed to be derived from the trans person and not from the gender norms that it takes as fixed and intransigent.[27] As Judith Butler explains it in Undoing Gender, “What is most worrisome, however, is how the diagnosis works as its own social pressure, causing distress, establishing wishes as pathological, intensifying the regulation and control of those who express them in institutional settings”.[28] A coherent explanation is often also expected from trans people’s family and friends. There seems to be two possible options, either you tell the story of your lifelong suffering in the “wrong body” (enabling their understanding, but pathologising yourself) or you refrain from telling a story of suffering, explaining it as a choice you have made (keeping your feeling of “sanity” and agency, but putting their understanding and acceptance at stake). In Nobody Passes Perfectly Tomka points to this problem when he asks, “What should I explain about it? ... I just want to do what I want to do”. In this way, Tomka enacts gender as an existential choice that does not require further explanation besides being a deeply felt aspiration. Or as the theorist Christine Overall suggests, “aspirations for sex/gender transition are not necessarily different in kind from other deeply felt and long-held aspirations”.[29]

[27] Butler, Undoing Gender, p.

duct tape


Negotiating trans identity

The strength of Nobody Passes Perfectly is its reformulation of the dominant notion of a trans man as a man trapped in a woman’s body. In the film, the persons portrayed do somehow see their bodies as wrong, which necessitate a wish for a re-embodiment, but there is no core self, waiting to appear. There are, however, personal urges to connect the felt sense of gender with the physical body. The incongruence is very strong among trans people, but not at all restricted to them. Body modifications are used in an attempt to achieve intersubjective recognition in many other instances as well.[30] What is needed is on the one hand visual explorations of trans people and the different subject positions within trans communities. On the other hand there also seems to be a need for a theoretical exploration of trans embodiment that can account more comprehensively for gender constitution and iteration on a material level. How can we reformulate the wish for re-embodiment? How can we theorise the process of becoming man/woman while taking people’s actual lives and political demands into consideration?

[30] Hall, “Tracing a Ghostly

For some years now, transgender has become a key figure and a battlefield for feminist theory, queer theory, and transgender studies. Many feminists have, as mentioned, claimed that transgender is antifeminist and that trans men automatically access the privilege of manhood.[31] But as Butler has pointed out, “those analyses don’t ask whether it is easier to be trans than to be in a perceived bio-gender […] If social advantage were ruling all these decisions unilaterally, then the forces in favour of social conformity would properly win the day”.[32] Queer theory has in many ways paved the way for trans identities by pointing out that all gendered and sexual identities are socially constructed, thereby dissolving the naturalisation and pathologising of minority identities. Scholars within Transgender Studies have however stated that queer theory celebrates transgender identity as a transcendence of identity, as play, performance or a strategy, without taking trans people’s actual lives and political demands into consideration.[33] According to Jay Prosser, queer theory bypasses the importance of embodiment. Many trans writers’[34] objections to queer theory’s presumed dismissal of the reality of bodily materiality and the lack of room for bodily resistance hinge, according to Gayle Salamon, on “a fundamental misreading of the meaning of social construction and a misunderstanding of the use to which it has put in theorizing gender”.[35] This ongoing discussion, as relevant as it may seem, does however in my opinion call for collaboration instead of fractionation. Such collaboration might be the best way to understand the contradictory terms by which we think and live our lives.

[31] Raymond, The Transsexual Empire,

While it seems important to account for trans subjectivities deprived of rights, which means to make people aware of the discrimination acted upon this group of people, it is also vital to contribute to the more general “gender fucking” that argues for an inclusive trans politics,[36] questioning binary gender categories and recognising trans as a multiple and diverse identity. Nobody Passes Perfectly is one step in this direction.

[36] Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw:

Tobias Raun: Denmark – A Transgender Paradise? Narrations and negotiations of trans masculinity in Nobody Passes Perfectly. Trikster #4, 2010.

tobias raun

TOBIAS RAUN (b. 1974) is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Culture and Identity, Roskilde University.