All names in Iceland are technically gender neutral — Yes, even yours

OPINION Ugla questions the need to continue dividing Icelandic names into male, female and gender neutral.

Iceland is quite funny with names. In Iceland, there is a specific naming committee, called Mannanafnanefnd. This committee is responsible for keeping a list of approved names that people are allowed to name their children. People are only allowed to name their children something from this list, but can apply to the committee if the name doesn’t exist on their list.

The committee then deliberates and decides whether the new names fit Icelandic grammar and naming traditions. The reasoning for this is to preserve our language, grammar and traditions. It’s also done in order to make sure people don’t give their children inappropriate names, or names that could cause them grief.

While I can understand the reasoning, it seems really bizarre to me that a group of people that you’ll never meet get to decide what you can or cannot name your children (or yourself for that matter). It seems quite unlikely to me that Icelandic naming traditions and language will plunder into chaos simply because parents are allowed to name their kids whatever they like, or change their own names.

There are plenty of countries which have no such regulation and the sky certainly hasn’t fallen.

These naming laws have also historically caused people a lot of grief, as they have been fiercely regulated into male, female and a handful of gender-neutral names.

In 2013, a 13 year old girl legally named Blær was ordered to change her name, as at the time the name was considered a male name. She ended up suing the state, and thankfully won and was allowed to keep her name. In 2018, a couple wanted to name their baby girl Alex, but were denied by the committee to do so. They tried to appeal, but were faced with heavy fines if they didn’t find an approved name within a year.

“Imagine the state contacting you after 13 years and telling you that you have to change your name because of some system error or that you can’t call your kid Alex? It’s mind-numbingly ridiculous.”

Imagine the state contacting you after 13 years and telling you that you have to change your name because of some system error or that you can’t call your kid Alex? It’s mind-numbingly ridiculous.

It’s also caused trans people a lot of grief.

Before 2019, transgender people needed to have lived in their true gender for at least 18 months and get approval from a medical team at the hospital before they could change their gender marker and name. Something that should’ve been the very first thing people should be able to do as a part of their transition was gatekept from them.

Thankfully cases like that are a thing of the past, although some still face denial to use certain names.

Since 2019, with the passing of the Gender and Sex Autonomy Act (kynrænt sjálfræði nr. 80/2019), naming laws were changed. Names in Iceland now have no gender restriction, and anyone, regardless of their gender marker, can take on any name. They can mix female, male or gender-neutral names as they wish. People can even have their paternal names with a gender neutral form, replacing the traditional -dóttir and -son with -bur. This technically means that all names are essentially gender neutral.

I therefore just shrug when I see news articles about some newly approved male, female or gender neutral names. It seems unnecessary to separate them like that anymore. But I do get it, since traditions won’t change that easily.

We still live in a hugely gendered society and language and I don’t think we’ll ever live in an entirely gender neutral society. That’s not really the point either — the point is that everyone should be able to express their gender how they please, without judgement or persecution, whether that’s as a man, a woman or a non-binary person. We’re slowly moving towards a place with more freedom for all, but we still have a long way to go.

But despite my personal grievances, I still think it’s great they are releasing this list so we get to see all the approved gender neutral names, even if I find gender segregation a bit pointless now. Regardless, it will be very useful for people who want names that aren’t perceived as male or female traditionally.

Traditions will probably continue to dictate naming traditions and norms in Iceland for the unforeseeable future — in particular while this committee is in place. There have been calls to remove this committee entirely over the years, but it’s never actually happened. I personally only think it’s a matter of time, and I find the whole idea a bit archaic for many reasons.

“I still think it’s great they are releasing this list so we get to see all the approved gender neutral names, even if I find gender segregation a bit pointless now.”

As an example, I have several friends who go by names that are not their legal names — yet everyone around them knows and recognises that name. The name they use is much more their actual name than what it says on some piece of paper. The idea of restricting names itself therefore becomes obsolete as they can never truly control it.

While we’ve certainly made a step forward with naming traditions in Iceland in the past few years, and I look forward to seeing this list, I’m also looking forward to seeing this committee in its entirety becoming a thing of the past — at least in its current form. It shouldn’t be up to anyone else to dictate what names we name our children or what names we choose for ourselves.

Our names are something deeply personal to us, and no state, government or authority should have the power to restrict our freedom of choice in that way. That power should belong to us, and us alone.

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