During my visit of the Pride House in Stockholm, I met with a wonderfully inspiring person: Emilia. Emilia is a transgender woman who has made it her mission to share her journey with other people who might be struggling with life as a transgender person or with their transition. In our conversation she is not only very open about her own struggles along the way, but she also shares her deeply inspiring and moving view on life.
EMILIA: In my lecture at Pride House today, I talked about my journey through life, from the day I was born until today, and all the stations on the way I had to pass through. That is, coming out, my transition, and how these stations have affected me. And explained how through my experiences, I turned something that made me feel bad first, into something that made feel strong.
ME: This is one of the first times I am writing about this topic. So, I think it’s best if I learn from someone who is part of the community, like you. Could you maybe explain to someone like me, what the different terms mean? What exactly does trans mean, for example?
EMILIA: Well, the most common terms are gay, lesbian and bisexual. I think most people kind of know what these terms mean. But when it comes to trans, being transgender is an umbrella term for everyone in the trans community. That includes non binaries and binaries (like myself). The term transsexual is used for the trans community, but there is a problem with this word: being trans doesn’t have anything to do with sexuality as in sexual orientation, but refers to sex as in one’s biological sex. Being transsexual actually means that the sex you were assigned to by birth, does not correlate to the sex that you identify with, so the sex word in ‘transsexual’ is about the genital parts. It’s a great thing that transitioning by surgery is possible today, because it’s a lifesaving process to align your body to the gender you identify with.
Especially puberty was very hard. When you start to get hair on the chest and a beard, that’s terrible when you feel like you’re a woman.
ME: You talk about ‘life-saving’. How has this experience been for you?
EMILIA: Tough. Hard. But in the end, I managed to survive, I managed to become the woman I am today. Especially puberty was very hard, when you start to get hair on the chest and a beard, that’s terrible when you feel like you’re a woman. That can make you very depressed. In Sweden, a survey by the Social Health Department made in 2015 showed that in the group of trans persons aged 15-19, 57% strongly considered or had tried suicide. That’s almost six out of ten. In that age, in their prime of their life, they feel so bad that they think about suicide. And I was one of them as well.
ME: That is so horrible. I can’t even imagine how difficult this must be. When did you first become aware of the fact that you actually identified as a woman?
EMILIA: I would say I have been aware of it all my life. My earliest memory is of when I was six or seven years old, I think that’s when I put it into words in front of other people for the first time. But I wasn’t ready for transitioning then, mainly because I was born in 1975. Back then, there was no possibility to do anything about it. And, people didn’t even know much about this topic. That’s also why activism and lecturing is so important: by sharing our stories with others, we can contribute to enlightening society about what it’s like to be transgender. Even if it’s painful or if it hurts to tell some parts of it. It’s important that society gets to know what it’s about.
ME: How was the environment around you back in ’80? When you first talked about it?
EMILIA: It was pretty normative, with people saying ‘boys do this, girls do this’. I for example wanted to go to the stables, to writing school, and take ballet classes. I didn’t play football, I was never that sporty. I got bullied because of this in school, and that made me stop writing and dancing. Which made me feel worse. I tried playing handball, soccer, but I didn’t like it, and also I had to share a dressing room with boys. Which made me feel very misplaced. I wasn’t allowed to play with girls, because everyone saw me as a boy. I ended up in a very awkward situation, so in the end I played by myself in the forest because there, no one could tell me what to do. I ended up being alone.
I was denying myself to be myself. I wasn’t being me.
ME: That must have been so difficult for you. Apart from isolating yourself, what was your way of coping with this situation?
EMILIA: I went through something called hypermasculinization. That’s a psychological term for when you go all the other way. As I said, I was bullied for school for being a sissy, so I wanted to protect myself. And the only way to do that was to be more manly than the other kids in school. For some years, I was probably the most masculine kid in school. And that was self-protection. I kind of found a way of keeping the lid on, I could pretend to be a man, I even got rather good at it. Nobody could see the woman inside, so I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone. It worked that way but it was also killing me slowly from the inside. I was denying myself to be myself.
ME: When did you notice that the situation changed around you?/And when did things start to change for you? When did you feel better again?
EMILIA: I would say in my case, around 2010/11. That’s when I could start seeing some changes in society. I wasn’t aware of them then, but that’s when the process in my mind started. I went to therapy and we started to work on something inside me that wasn’t right. Thanks to the way society had opened up, I could realize that I needed to start my transition. At least the therapeutic part of my transition. The practical part didn’t start until I was 41.
I realized that life is too precious to waste. Especially when you have kids, the only choice you have is to choose life.
ME: You mentioned that to protect yourself, you went through hypermasculinization. How was this journey for you? Going from hypermasculinization to transitioning?
EMILIA: I realized that I had to do it. I have children, and I realized that life is too precious to waste and most of us are only given one chance in life. I was thinking to myself, I have to cherish this precious value of life. Be myself, be happy. Why should I go around being depressed, every now and then? Why should I deny myself my identity? I realized there was no other alternative. Especially when you have kids, the only choice you have is to choose life.
I knew my journey was going to cost me a lot, and people were going to turn their backs on me. But I told myself that I was going to meet new people and make new friends. And the freedom of being allowed to embrace my inner self and just relax, that was something that I had never done before. I had only seen everyone else around me do it. But life is not fast cars, or being beautiful, life has to have value for yourself. I was practically living as a super masculine ghost. I wasn’t being me.
ME: You mentioned that starting from 2010, you noticed that the society started to change and to open up. How far is it changed today? One often hears that Sweden calls itself the first feminist government in the world, but I also heard that it’s more about the equality between men and women, only including those two genders. How is the acceptance for members of the LGBTQ community?
EMILIA: Well, the laws here in Sweden are binary, so you can either be a he or a she. There’s no ‘their’, there’s no non-binary perspective, although in reality there is one. There is a debate taking place but there are not many changes in legislation. But I think it’s probably going to happen soon because the society is opening up. It’s sad were not further, we are only in the beginning of the process. The first laws of giving us the right to undergo gender reassignment process was in early 70ies (in 1972). Back then, we were one of the groundbreaking countries in the world in this field. But today, there are several countries in the world that already got alternative genders in their system, who have cut the binary system – except for Sweden. So we went from being groundbreaking to not much happening.
ME: What do you think why that is?
EMILIA: I don’t know, maybe because people have a problem putting anything other than ‘normal’ sexuality into relation with themselves. Its very easy to say you are either a he or a she, but they don’t understand that it’s more like a spectrum. I think one especially needs to get people in power to understand this, and that process is actually happening now but it takes time. And to the law structure after that takes time as well. It’s a rather long process.
You have to have an intersectional perspective. A woman has to face issues in her life, but a trans woman faces even more, and a gay trans woman even more.
ME: What change do you think you would be happiest about here in Sweden?
EMILIA: I think that something that really needs change is that people get the right to love whoever they want. (Sweden is wonderful in that.) I can for example walk down the street and sometimes no one will react, and sometimes people do. Some people smile at me, while others toss really bad, homophobic comments at me. Sometimes I get transphobic comments as well, but mostly they are homophobic. It’s the same in Britain, although London is a pretty good place for LGBTQ members to live in. I personally love London. They have gotten further than we have but at the same time, a couple of weeks ago a lesbian couple was assaulted by some young guys while they were travelling. Most of the time people don’t actually have a problem with you being gay or of a different gender, sometimes it all falls down to sexism (feminism). The thing with two women holding hands makes boys feel threatened. ‘There’s no place for me’, they think, and so they attack. And the reason they attack them is because they are women, not because they are gay. That’s a huge problem.
Another example is when a lesbian goes to a club with her girlfriend, and a guy hits on her, she says ‘Sorry, I’m gay’. Very often, the guy then says something like ‘Then you have to kiss her to prove it’. Why should she have to prove anything to him? Still, people expect things like this. And then we are again back to gender questions: he is a man so he feels like he is worth more and can demand something like this from the girl.
What I’m trying to say is, you have to have an intersectional perspective. That means, with every aspect of your identity like your gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., you have to deal with more or less issues in your life. As a woman for example, one has less issues to deal with than as a trans woman. If the trans woman is gay on top of that, you have to put on another perspective. If the gay trans woman is from an ethnic minority, then you got another perspective. You have to understand that the more perspectives, the more issues the person has to face. But still, most of the time it falls down to sexism. My girlfriend can walk down the street without being catcalled, but if she hold hands with another woman (me), it’s a threat to men. And when they see that I am a transwoman, they feel even more threatened. And so on. The more perspectives you put on, the higher the risk that you are met with some kind of phobic behavior. Trans people of color are probably the worst off. Which is very sad, because one should remember that the first people who started activism in this scene were actually trans people of color! They had everything against them back then, and they are still the most threatened group.
Sadly, we live in a society where it can easily happen that if two women kiss each other on the subway, because maybe they have not seen each other for a week, people might start screaming or calling it provocative. But if the same thing is done by a man and a woman, it’s not seen as provocative, which is illogical. Very much of what we need in society as LGBTQ people.
Many people in the LGBTQ community don’t trust people from the government or the police. If a gay man is harassed and goes to the police to report it, they are probably going to laugh at him.
ME: Does assault like the one you mentioned in Britain also happen here in Sweden often?
EMILIA: Yes, it does! It happens but it’s actually hard to find statistics about it because many people in the LGBTQ community have issues trusting people from the government or the police. It’s because they are afraid of being harassed or not being taken seriously. They refrain from reporting, so it’s a shaded zone where we can’t see how many people are actually being assaulted or harassed. That’s a big issue in this society that we need to work on because we need to see how bad it really is.
ME: You said it’s hard to trust the police or the government. Why is that?
EMILIA: Some people have had bad personal experience, and some people have friends who had a bad experience.
ME: So what would a bad experience be?
EMILIA: Harassment, catcalling, …
ME: By the police?
EMILIA: Yes! There are bad people everywhere. Sadly, if a gay man is harassed and goes to the police to report it, they are probably going to laugh at him. Even a strange look is enough for the harassed person to feel looked down upon. People are often unaware of it themselves, how they are smiling or tweaking their eyebrows, but this can already make the experience unbearable for the harassed person. Even if the police men don’t mean it, they can easily behave in a humiliating way because our social norms are so strong. So therefore, that gay man will probably not go to the police anymore, and he will carry shame from this experience.
I have kids myself, I have to meet their teachers, I have to go to the police to get passports when we want to travel etc., and in these moments I am always carrying an awareness that I might be encountered awkwardly. That is quite energy draining. But at some point, you don’t care anymore, because you just can’t avoid it all the time. But that is probably the worst thing you can do: if you don’t put down your foot and say stop, then you’re basically supporting this system. I think the best thing I can do for other people is to live my life the way I want to. To not be afraid to go to the police to get my passport, or to go and get my kids from school. I think that is also a way of activism because by stepping out like this, I show other people that I’m a person, too. That makes the norms including everyone: instead of standing outside of the norms and thinking I don’t fit in here, I can also just force myself in and say ‘Hey, this is me. I love my girlfriend, I was born like this, and that’s also normal.’ That’s the statement you make by living your life. And most of the people I know within the community are doing that.
I’ve been lecturing in schools and things like that, where I have shared my way of living with others. When we educate people like this, it will become more and more normal for people to include trans persons into their understanding of ‘normal’. For example, after I’ve visited a school, they might remember me later and say ‘That’s just like Emilia from last week’. In this way, people can start to relate.
This is what it feels like to be transgender: You have to explain something to people the whole time, because you are the minority.
ME: I think that is such a beautiful way to look at it, thank you so much for sharing this! Taking the way you live your life as a form of activism is a perspective I had never thought about.
EMILIA: You have to remember that just living your life is breaking norms already. I once travelled to Australia for several weeks with some friends, and we were the Scandinavian bunch, so we were a minority there. Therefore, we had to explain everything to the people [we met there]. And that was interesting, because that is exactly what it feels like to be transgender: You have to explain something to people the whole time, because you are the minority. If I called a governmental agency for example, and I present myself with my name, number, birth date and so on, then I often get the response ‘So you are calling for your wife?’. And when I say ‘No, I’m Emilia’, they say ‘No, I can hear you’re a guy’. It can get so exhausting to hear this every time because it’s like a constant reminder. You don’t have to remind me that I was born inside the wrong body/gender, I already know that. In the beginning of my transition I took things like this very personally, and I would end up crying for hours. But then I realized that it’s actually not me, they are the problem. They don’t understand. So I started to make an effort to explain it to them, for example like ‘Okay, so you think I’m a man because I sound like a man. But if I had a name that sounds very foreign, but I would speak fluent Swedish, would you then assume that I am a lawyer and calling for this person with the foreign name?’, ‘No that would be racist!’ ‘So it is okay to discriminate a trans person, but it is not okay to discriminate someone based on their race? Is that what you’re saying?’ ‘No when you put it that way, I can see what you mean.’ You have to have the discussion, and you have to find points that can really enlighten the other person. Nowadays when I call somewhere, like the hospital or so, they already know who I am, so this discussion doesn’t even come up anymore. But when I call somewhere new, I take the time for this conversation. Because I think this is a very easy way to make it easier for other people to understand our point of view. If I don’t say something, then I am just as bad as a bully who just stands by, watching the other bully hit the victim.
It is getting better though. Millennials have a totally different way of approaching you.
ME: I can really commend your efforts to making other people understand. But it must be so much work for you to have this discussion every time, right?
EMILIA: Yes, it is. It is getting better though, because the people today (millennials) have a totally different way of approaching you. They don’t care who you love, they don’t care which gender you are, which pronouns you use for yourself. They are just like ‘Okay, you are a her and you’re name is Emilia. That’s fine’, and continue with their lives. And these millennials are now becoming older, so they are slowly becoming the people answering the phone when I call somewhere. This really helps the community, because they are not so strict on all those narrow minded norms. They are actually doing a lot of work for us just by being like this.
ME: I think it is so great that positive changes are slowly becoming visible in the society. But still, there are people who are against the LGBTQ community.
As you mentioned earlier, that is very often because people don’t understand the concept and so they become afraid and don’t like it. But do you think this could also be because of something the LGBTQ community is doing? Is there something the community is doing that could make it harder for people from the outside to understand and accept it?
EMILIA: I understand what you mean. It’s hard to say. I mean it’s only a small part of the society that is strictly against the LGBTQ community. The Pride movement for example, goes for a whole week. I could imagine in the homophobic people’s eyes, this is provoking. You sometimes hear things like ‘You don’t have to put your sexuality so up my face!’, but the thing is: if we don’t do that, people will not see that this is normal. And the pride is not about having fun or making out for a week, it’s actually about activism, lectures and conversations, like the one we are having right now. The Pride is actually a demonstration for the human right to be accepted into the society. I think that if someone thinks we in the community are provocative, then I would say they are the bigger problem. But, I do believe that everyone can change if they try to understand.
Before my transition, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism. But once I started living as a woman, it was like a slap in the face.
ME: For my last question, I want to go back to the topic of feminism. How do you think the feminist movement is linked to your life as a trans woman? And do you think the feminist movement is beneficial for the LGBTQ movement?
EMILIA: As a trans woman, that’s an intriguing question. Most of the people that I have met within the feminist movement are open minded and see you as who you are. I think the feminist movement is mostly including to the LGBTQ movement. But, I also see that there are differences in how other members (other than trans persons) of the LGBTQ members are treated, but that’s not necessarily by the feminist movement, but rather by the society.
For me personally, I rarely see sexual harassment against me as a woman, because when other men see me, they don’t see me as a woman but as a trans woman. That gets me more homophobic comments rather than sexist ones. And if I ever do get sexist comments, then they are very different because the bully carries the perspective of trans woman in his/her comments as well. So it’s difficult for me to know, do I get this bad comment because I am a woman, or because I am a trans person?
Also, before my transition, I didn’t really understand the need for feminism (I did academically understand), but once I started living as a woman, it was like a slap in the face! You think you have a clue, but when you get into it you think ‘Life as a woman is worse than I could ever imagine’. But today, after #MeToo, things have changed for the better. People are actually talking about the bad things happening to women. And conversation is the most important thing. Only when we talk about the topic of women being able to live their lives safely, we can find the courage to say stop, this is wrong. And since I am living as a trans woman, I have also benefited of these positive changes. In other words, you can really see the link between feminist movement for women’s rights and the LGBTQ movement for trans persons’ rights.
It seems to me that we all have to face obstacles in our lives – nobody’s life is perfect. But one of the worst obstacles to face is when you have to struggle with your identity. Emilia’s story shows that even in a country like Sweden, where many people think acceptance is big, people have a problem accepting the LGBTQ-community. This unacceptance can be as small as a weird look at a trans person, or whispering to your friend when you see two women holding hands. But for people like Emilia, who have to go through these looks and whispers everyday, life becomes hard, unbearably hard sometimes. If people have a hard time accepting non-normative sexuality in Sweden, how hard must it be in other parts of the world then?
I myself grew up in an Islamic household where I was only taught about heteronormativity (the belief that heterosexuality is the preferred or ‘normal’ sexual orientation) and being content with your God-given, biological sex. This belief ran so deep in me that I didn’t even question it until I reached late puberty. I am not against the Islamic teachings (in fact, I am still trying to find my personal relationship with religion), but I am against environments in which questioning and discussions are not possible. My environment did not shut me up completely, but I wish I would have grown up in an environment where discussions were encouraged more. That is why now, I seek discussions more than ever before. So much can be learned from talking to people about their personal experiences. For example, no one could have explained the struggles of being in the ‘wrong body’ better than a trans person – like Emilia. Maybe I had an idea before what it would feel like, but hearing Emilia talk about it with all the emotions she felt at the time, that is something I could have never known without her.
My takeaway from this conversation is exactly this: I encourage us all to seek out discussions more. Personal stories are extremely precious: they allow us to see a world that we could have never known about ourselves. I am grateful to Emilia for sharing her beautiful yet difficult story with me, and I hope it enriched you as much as it did me.