I am more than a number

The ten-digit CPR number allows you to participate in Danish society. But for all the doors it opens, it still has the power to categorise people in ways they don't agree with. And it may get worse

After turning 18, Sara Méndez decided to take a more masculine sounding name. Méndez was assigned the female gender at birth, but self-identifies as a transgender non-binary person. Identifying as neither a man nor a woman, Méndez prefers the pronoun ‘they’ to ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Méndez always thought a name like Antonio sounded about right. It both references their Spanish heritage and distances from their assigned gender.

But changing a name isn’t that easy in Denmark. The state only allows individuals to choose from lists of names for men, women, and a limited gender-neutral selection. An individual’s gender is registered by the Danish state, and visible in the personal identification number – CPR number – that all Danish residents hold.

To legally adopt a name not found on the list for one’s assigned gender, people in Denmark must first change their CPR number. Before September 2014, this was only possible after genital surgery. In effect, not just sterilization – but castration – was a prerequisite to name change.

When Méndez discovered these high stakes they quickly put the plan aside.

CPR: A necessary evil
Danish law has since been improved. Residents can now legally define themselves as female or male but the issue remains touchy for transgender people in Denmark. The number itself reveals legal gender and now the UN would also like Denmark to register racial information.

Interacting with many Danish state services without a CPR number is almost impossible. Given recent changes, it is all the more pressing that we understand its role in Danish society.

The ten-digit CPR (Det Centrale Personregister) code was designed to make it easier to interact with the state’s bureaucracy. The first six digits show the bearer’s date of birth. The last four are a sequence number that, combined with the first six digits, uniquely identifies the individual. It also indicates the individual’s gender assigned at birth: odd for male, even for female. There is no option for non-binary people like Méndez or for intersex people such as the ‘x’ used in German IDs for intersex babies.

While it is common across Europe for national identity numbers to display gender, it is largely unheard of in the Americas. Similarly, many country’s ID numbers don’t include a person’s birth date.

The ID system was designed with archetypes of Danish men and women in mind. Carsten Grade from the CPR department of the Ministry of the Economy and Interior explains, “Gender is included in the number because that’s how it was made in 1968 – it was a reasonable way to construct the number at the time.” Almost fifty years later, gender’s presence in the CPR number remains unexamined.

Until 1987, South Africa’s identity numbers indicated race. We now understand that this fuelled discrimination. And yet, on May 15, 2015, the UN recommended that Denmark adopt racial identifiers into the CPR. They argue it will help track discrimination and hate crime statistics, but the proposal demonstrates a lack of insight into the CPR number’s function in Danish daily life.

In many countries, the national ID is used for taxes and employment contracts – but little else. Not in Denmark. Your legal gender is shared with the librarian, doctor’s receptionist, university officials, police, DSB employees, landlords – and more. We do not have the right to decide how and when our legal gender status is disclosed because the CPR card is integrated into all levels of society. Including race in the ID number would bring it under the same daily scrutiny.

Embedded race?
Mikkel Jensen – not his real mame – is in the process of changing his CPR number and explains how having a female-numbered CPR card has made his personal trans identity a public matter.

“It takes energy every time to explain. It causes social discomfort and leads to misunderstandings. I don’t want to be forced to inform people all the time that I’m a transman – I want to choose when I bring it up,” says Jensen.

The problem isn’t simply that Jensen’s card displays the incorrect gender: it’s the mere existence of gender identifiers. When he receives a male CPR number, Jensen worries he’ll have to defend his gender to officials with a narrow idea of maleness. He wants the health system to regard him as a man with low natural testosterone levels. Other than that, his gender identity is irrelevant to strangers.

Jensen, who is multiracial, is also outraged at the UN suggestion to include race.

“What will they want to say about me – that I’m brown? White? Asian? Black? You can’t boil gender or race down to clear categories.”

Please fit our boxes
Trans experiences with legal gender demonstrate how the CPR system squeezes individuals into categories that do not necessarily exist. The Danish system is prepared to handle “abnormal” people – non-Danish speakers, homosexuals, single parents, people living with disabilities – but only if they conform to the prototypes constructed about these groups.

“Intersex and trans people shed light on the mistakes that are invisible in the system,” explain Elvin and Elias from the Transpolitisk Forum in an interview. with the Murmur. “The people who don’t fit in reveal problems.”

For example, transgender women who have received new CPR numbers have been sent automatic reminders for cervical cancer screening. They are allowed to be women before the law, but being a woman doesn’t mean having a cervix. The CPR number lacks the digits to articulate that nuance.

Drop the gender
There are other problems with the CPR system. Immigrants can’t get one until they have an address, but finding housing can be difficult for new arrivals even when they have a job waiting. Until they have a number, they are unable to access the rights and services to which they are entitled.

Including race in the CPR number could be counterproductive if the goal is protecting minorities. If race were included in our numbers, can we trust all the authorities that use the number to be completely free of racism and prejudice?

A myriad of services are available to Danish CPR number holders. The troubling fact is that the CPR creates groups that we must conform to – groups that are neither normal nor inevitable. A system that was intended to give access actually excludes those who don’t conform to gender norms. If we can agree that markers like race or sexual orientation have no place on a national ID card, then it’s time we also take that step with gender.


By Alice Minor

Hailing from Seattle, Alice is working to understand Danish society through the lens of intersectional feminism.

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