Sweden: feminism in progress

My first day at the Gay Pride 2019 began at the Pride House. (For those of you who don’t know what the Pride House is, read my last post here!)
I was really excited that day, probably even the most excited from all my interviews I have ever held before. Why? Because this was my first time talking about the LGBTQ movement. Up until now, I have focused on the heteronorm perspective: There are men and women, and they don’t get treated the same. But (hopefully) everyone knows that that’s not the whole gender-story. A large part of the world does not identify as the sex they were born into. Therefore, it is really important for anyone who talks about gender equality to also talk about the LGBTQ movement.

In this article, you will read my conversation with Anna Stendin, an activist at the front of the LGBTQ movement in Sweden and speaker at the Pride House. Anna has worked with the anti-discrimination bureau of Uppsala, a city close to Stockholm, for the past seven years and educates companies and organizations on discrimination. I had the pleasure to talk to them about their work in more detail (Anna is a nonbinary trans which means that they don’t identify as either man or woman. They ask others to use they and them as personal pronouns when talking about Anna in third person).

Hey guys, my name is Anna! I work in one of Sweden’s 17 anti-discrimination NGOs. To be more specific, I work on educating others about anti-discrimination in all parts of Swedish society. We mostly do our work through lawyers who help with the legal processes at court or who give free legal advice to people that have been discriminated.
There are seven grounds of discrimination in Swedish law, which all have been a topic in my work one time or the other. Two of these grounds are specifically aimed to protect sexual orientation and transgender identity and/or expression.

To understand discrimination in Sweden, it is important to understand it’s seven grounds. The Swedish Discrimination Act defines the seven grounds of discrimination as following: it is prohibited by law to discriminate against someone based on their sex, transgender identity or expression, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation and age.

While this seemingly includes many areas, the Act it a civil act which only protects certain, designated areas in society, such as working life, education, health care and some more. This means that the Discrimination Act does not protect situations that take place between private individuals such as neighbours or friends. Also, the content of TV and radio is not regulated, even if it is being discriminatory.

This can lead to problems when such private conflicts arise and cannot be helped by the law. However, in that case other laws can protect crimes between private persons.

In my work, the aim is to educate on how to prevent discrimination and promote equality through identifying these norms and structures. For example, one social norm is the idea that everybody is ‘born heterosexual’. Many, if not most people believe in that social norm. But that means that everybody who is not heterosexual, like lesbians, gays, bi- or pansexuals, falls outside of what has been considered ‘normal’. Since our society is not built around the idea of accepting all sexualities, most people who are not ‘straight’ experience discrimination at some point in their lives. It’s important to identify these social norms because they are so embedded into our societies.

One social norm is the idea that is everybody is ‘born heterosexual’. And most people believe it.

What’s also important in my job is to identify the legal background: What is discrimination from a legal perspective? Many people have been discriminated against in their everyday life because of their sexuality or their race or some disability they might have, but often the law does not consider these situations discrimination. For your understanding, there are certain areas in Swedish society that are protected, that means that if you are being discriminated in a protected situation, you can seek legal help. Other situations, for example acts between private persons, are often not protected by the Civil Discrimination Act – in other words, not legally considered a discrimination. In those cases we can help our clients with information on where to report or turn for the help they need. In our work, when we meet clients, we first dissect the law and try to see how we can use the law to help the people in question. Ideally, we can figure something out that can help in a court session or to write a complaint to a company, for example.

And so the educational part of my job comes in again – I look at what can be done before the discrimination even happens – such as educating each other about the unequal social norms we might have.

ME: So who exactly do you educate about this problem?

It depends on where we get invited or asked to be! Today, the workshop and panel discussions I have been part of at the Pride House has been in collaboration with other NGOs and a Swedish study organization. But I have also often work with the municipality of Uppsala, a city north of Stockholm. One job that we have been doing for the municipality in collaboration with a LGBTQ NGO called RSFL, is to educate employees of the municipality on LGBTQ issues and normcritical perspectives (on social services, schools, pre-schools and nursing homes). And we also do a lot of lectures about the Discrimination Act and inform the public, students, employees, NGOs and others interested in these issues about the work we do.

ME: So are you particularly interested in educating others on discrimination against the LGBTQ community?

To me personally, it feels racist, and even colonial to call Sweden the best.

No, not per se. Well, I am transgender myself, so I do have a personal angle. But we work with all grounds of discrimination in my job. Perhaps because we have a lot of experience with the topic, we are often asked to do an educational workshop on discrimination against the LGBTQ-community. Also, I wouldn’t like to take a job if I didn’t know what I was talking about. For example, when we get questions like ‘Could you look over this questionnaire, is this sensitive enough from a transgender’s perspective?’, it’s really important to know what you’re talking about.

But apart from this topic, we have also collaborated with organisations to raise awareness for topics like racism on the internet. We don’t really choose one area of discrimination that we want to educate about, we just happen to have experience on discrimination against members of the LGBTQ-community, and so we’re often involved in these issues.

ME: So would you say that you had personal experience with discrimination against transgenders and therefore got into this job?

Previously, I worked as a mechanic for cars and busses. Because I am a woman by birth, people often asked me questions like ‘What’s it like to be a female mechanic?’. So, gender played in how I was treated and valued as a mechanic. That was one experience of being treated differently than my male colleagues.

ME: To come back to the Pride, how is the general situation for the LGBTQ community like in Sweden?

Sweden has a history of being an open environment for feminist movement. Many areas of Swedish society put an effort on issues related to gender equality and a lot of people in Sweden seem to generally feel like this country is the best in that area. But to me personally, it feels really racist to say that, or even colonial. Sweden is reaching out to teach other countries on how to ‘become more feminist’ but when it comes down to it, Sweden still has huge problems itself. I think there is this blown-up idea about the feminist Swedisch government. It takes away the focus from other grounds of discrimination.

It’s a huge problem that LGBTQ asylum seekers experience difficult processes and lack of protection in Sweden.

ME: So you’re talking about the fact that although Sweden seems to be so far ahead, there are still areas to work on. Could you describe that in more detail?

The work that is being done here in Sweden is of course giving us more rights, and the law is being changed in good ways. As an example, a few years ago members of the LGBTQ community could not get married but could only become registered partners. That is one thing that has changed by now. Also, transgender rights were improved in 2014 when the long struggle to end sterilization of transgender persons wanting to change legal sex was won by activists who managed to change the law.

But on the other hand, there is still so much work to do here. For example, even though Sweden looks so progressive, there are still only two registered genders in this country, either man or woman.

Or the fact that we have very outdated parenting laws: At my work we are working on one case right now of two mothers whose child was born in Spain. And both women are officially mothers to the child according to Spanish law. But when they moved to Sweden, one of them was forced to adopt the child she already was a mother to, so that Swedish authorities would consider her the mother. In this case, Sweden is much less progressive than Spain.

Also from a global migration perspective, it’s a huge problem that LGBTQ asylum seekers experience difficult processes and lack of protection in Sweden even though they have a legal right to protection and asylum because they are LGBTQ. The Swedish government deports LGBTQ asylum seekers although they know they have no rights in their countries of origin. So again, the Swedish government is claiming to be feminist and supportive of the LGBTQ community, but that support and perspective is not applied to migration politics. Sweden is acting totally colonial in wanting to change other countries but at the same time not giving asylum to people who need it. That is a huge problem, I think.

Another issue that arises now and then is transphobic opinions within the feminist movement. This includes discussions criticizing identity politics and often resulting in very hateful opinions from certain part of ‘feminist movement’ towards transgender individuals and movement.

A recent trans issue in Sweden is transphobia directed towards trans kids. There are constant backlashes in public opinion which effects young transgender rights to health care. Last winter for example, there was a media storm related to a public service program about transgender youth. Without facts and consent, media criticized the system of mental and medical support available to young transgender persons in Sweden. And these opinions affect the reality of young trans kids.

ME: What’s the reason behind these transphobic views in your opinion?

Well, this way of interpreting feminism is from a heteronormative perspective. The idea that people are born with, and identify with one of two very opposite genders causes a huge problem for everyone. When feminism is used in such a narrow way, very many are excluded, not only transgenders.

The reasons for transphobic opinion towards young trans kids in specific are many. One being the heteronormative perspective. Another is the recent global increase in the amount of trans folks coming out which confuses people who don’t understand this. A third reason I think is ageism. Adults and society have a hard time listening to young people’s experiences in general.

Homo, bi and trans people of colour experience a double-oppression in Sweden.

ME: I am a person of colour. You mentioned that it is difficult to identify as LGBTQ anyway, but it is even more difficult to identify as LGBTQ if you’re a person of colour. Could you tell me more about that?

Yes that’s true. I am not a person of colour myself but I see daily how racism is one of the biggest problems Swedish society faces. And I can definitely say that homo, bi and transphobia affect people of colour in a way that intersects with racism. So a form of double-oppression. Which is of course more difficult to deal with because it’s more complex and strikes from different angles.

ME: Last question. What’s the Pride for you?

The first pride was a riot, and it should continue to be since it is a place to continue fighting for our rights. I know it’s very contradictory to be in a capitalistic place like this (The Clarion Hotel) if you’re actually rioting. I mean, the Clarion Hotel is inviting the Pride but it’s actually about selling themselves. But nevertheless, the Pride is a moment to remind ourselves that we are still not done, so the riot for our rights has to go on.

This is what I thought before I coming to Sweden: Sweden is at the top when it comes to feminism. But I was wrong. Feminism does not only include gender equality between men and women, but gender equality between all genders. That means also homo, bi, trans people and all the genders that exist.

My conversation with Anna has been very eye-opening about the situation in Sweden. Like many people, I looked at Sweden in this glorious way of being the top of civilized society. But maybe it is colonial to think that we can ‘look up’ to Sweden for tips. Every country has their own reality and issues, also Sweden. Some countries still have to fight for voting rights for women, while other countries – like Sweden – treat men and women equally, but don’t give equal rights to other genders beyond these two.

A major problem that Sweden still has to deal with is the tradition of seeing heterosexuality as the norm. Even though many organizations are trying to raise awareness about this problem, most people still believe in it. Unless the majority of people becomes more open-minded to other sexual orientations, the LGBTQ community will continue to be seen as less. This is definitely an issue about Sweden that I did not think about earlier.

Racism is another big obstacle in Sweden’s fight for feminism. It is horrible to hear that asylum seeking LGBTQ people do not receive asylum by Sweden. This is a problem that goes even further than just discrimination – if LGBTQ refugees return to their home country, they could even face imprisonment because of their sexual orientation. This is an issue that clearly shows that Sweden has not achieved ideal gender equality yet.

Also, each country has their own set of obstacles that stand in the way of gender equality. For some it’s poverty, for some it’s religion, for some it’s politics. Therefore I don’t think it’s fair to look to other countries for tips because each country should have their own, custom way of tackling gender issues.

Still, in some situations it does make sense to copy Sweden. Countries with a similar social system like Germany, the Netherlands or France could actually learn from Sweden. But they have to remember that Sweden is not the ideal for gender equality.

Sweden still has a ladder to climb before it can reach true gender equality. And until then, no country – also not Sweden- holds the right to school other countries on how to improve their feminism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: