ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Before she had even reached puberty, Anna Kouroupou knew she wasn't what her birth certificate said she was: a boy. But having herself officially declared female was a painful process, and one that could only legally be done if it included gender reassignment surgery.
Stigmatized, often abused and rejected, Greece's transgender community is now hoping a controversial new law passed by parliament Tuesday will improve their daily lives and foster greater acceptance in what is often a deeply conservative society.
The law, passed with 171 votes in favor in the 300-member parliament, allows Greeks over the age of 15 to change the gender listed on their identity cards and other official documents at will, following a simplified procedure in court. Until now, those wanting to change how their gender is officially defined had to prove they had undergone sex-change surgery and psychiatric assessment.
"The legal recognition of gender identity is a huge positive step," said 53-year-old Kouroupou, who began hormone therapy at the age of 17 and underwent gender reassignment surgery abroad at the age of 24. "The world of a trans person won't change that easily," but it will improve the daily problems and humiliations suffered by her community, she said.
The bill was met with vociferous opposition from many quarters, including members of the government's junior coalition partner, the small right-wing Independent Greeks party, and from Greece's powerful Orthodox Church. The most controversial article was extending the right to change documents to 15-year-olds.
Speaking in parliament, the head of the opposition New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, related the case of a psychiatrist being told by an 18-year-old he wanted to change gender because "he went up Mount Hymettus and an alien told him to."
In a heated exchange, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described Mitsotakis' comments as abusive toward the trans community.
"What kind of hypocrisy has led us to a debate that is being held with terms of the Middle Ages?" he questioned.
Some lawmakers said they feared the law could be abused by young men to dodge their compulsory military service. The church pressed for the bill to be withdrawn.
"This ... bill is extremely provocative for the core values of society, threatens to dissolve family as an institution and actually undermines and underestimates the value of each and every human being," said Haris Konidaris, spokesman of Greek Orthodox Church head Archbishop Ieronymos.
On the other side, the Transgender Support Association said the law should have gone even further in some aspects, but nonetheless hailed the vote as "historic" and said it was a "first positive step toward enjoying basic rights and freedoms."
Under the new law, transgender people will "be able to find jobs, and they won't be forced to go out onto the streets and into prostitution, as my generation was, and previous generations," said Kouroupou, who spent 30 years as a sex worker.
"Therefore they'll have security, they'll have health care, all those rights that each person has from the minute they're born," she said, discussing the draft law before it was brought to parliament.
Kouroupou said simple everyday transactions — from routine bank visits, buying public transport tickets to picking up post office packages — can lead to traumatic experiences for transgender people due to their documents. Traveling is fraught with humiliating delays, with border police sometimes suspicious that the passport or ID card has been stolen.
"Documents, and in particular the ID card, are a very important means to practically be able to resolve many things," said Ariadni Prokopiou, a 28-year-old hairdresser who said she felt from the age of 3 or 4 that she was a girl rather than a boy.
She said bids to rent a house often fell through when identity documents were required. She also said she left her job at a salon because her clients insisted on referring to her as a man.
"Our community is very happy, and this is a huge step," she said of the bill. "It is a step that I consider should have happened a long, long time ago, because the problems that we face as trans people are massive."
The main remaining issue, Prokopiou said, is more education about trans people in schools, "so that (people can be) more at ease. For trans people not to be viewed as something surreal. We are real. We are here. We've always been here."
Raphael Kominis in Athens contributed.