I am posting this article a day late because I had a special meeting yesterday that I wanted to write about. October 30th is a very important day in the history of me. On October 30, 2013, I started testosterone injections to begin my medical transition. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I was so excited when I left the doctor’s office that I drove my car really fast on the freeway, which I otherwise avoided, blaring my favorite music with all my windows down. In that moment, I felt the most alive I have ever felt in my life. Every breath was filled with joy. I was so ecstatic that it felt like electricity was running through my veins. I still had to go to class that day. I was so excited I couldn’t sit still. My classmates speculated why I was happy. They tried to figure out what was different. They pinned my joy on my new shoes. Yes, it’s the shoes, I told them. And those “shoes” have fit me perfectly ever since.
Each year I have commemorated this incredible milestone with a photograph and a party. It is better than a birthday. It is a rebirthday and filled with twice as much joy and pride. This year I celebrated a bit differently being in Sweden. I had fika, a Swedish term which means to share a coffee and pastry with someone, with Ann-Christine Ruuth. She is an openly transgender priest in Växjö. There was a huge media storm when she came out in 2010. Now she is a full time lecturer, and she travels around Sweden teaching people about transgender issues. It made me so happy to meet Ann-Christine. It felt comforting to have a little community even if it is just the two of us in Växjö.
My biggest question for her was where is the LGBT community in Växjö? The first thing I did when I arrived in Sweden was email the LGBT group in Växjö and the group on my campus. Both seemed inactive. Neither responded to my emails and their Facebook pages had no recent posts. I naively assumed that the reason why there wasn’t a strong LGBT presence was because Sweden was so progressive and accepting that LGBT people didn’t need to rally and have their own community and safe spaces.
Ann-Christine told me that unfortunately that is not the case. Sweden still has a long way to go, especially in the acknowledgement of trans people. Växjö still has a conservative, small town mentality. As far as she knows, she is the only out transgender person in Växjö.
Sweden has taken many progressive actions for LGBT protections and rights. Sweden decriminalized homosexual activity in 1944, offered gender affirmation surgery in 1972, banned discrimination by businesses and government workers against gay people in 1987 and workplace discrimination against trans people in 2009, and allowed domestic partnerships in 1995 and gay marriage in 2009. This is one of the reasons I chose to study abroad here. I felt that Sweden would be a safe and inviting place for me as a bisexual trans man, and it has been. It is just disappointing to know that the trans community still has to fight many of the same battles I fight at home.
I was incredibly nervous upon arriving in Sweden that my testosterone would be confiscated. It is illegal to bring the amount that I needed for the whole semester. I got an approval letter in English and in Swedish from the Swedish version of the FDA saying they approved me bringing it into the country, a doctor’s letter, and a letter from my school study abroad adviser. A representative from Linnaeus University emailed me before I arrived and said they would assist me if I wasn’t allowed to bring my testosterone into the country even though non-citizens cannot get it prescribed. Their willingness to help me meant a lot to me. I expected this to be the greatest challenge for me as a trans person studying in Sweden. The customs agents examined my letters and approved me without any trouble. They were very respectful. I have had negative experiences with many American government workers during my name change process, so I really appreciated the respect and professional courtesy I received from the customs agents.
The first thing I noticed in Sweden, and my favorite part of Swedish culture, is the gender neutral bathrooms. Everywhere I have been in Sweden, restrooms are single-stall, gender neutral bathrooms. Everywhere: small towns, big cities, universities, museums, churches. The only places I have seen gendered bathrooms were in American establishments, whose owners clearly did not research the local culture before coming here, and in those places, Swedes ignore the door labels anyway. I have no bathroom anxiety in Sweden. In the U.S., I often avoid public restrooms because I am scared of being harassed. This has taken a huge weight off of my shoulders.
In some parts of the world, violence against trans people is more explicit and common. On average, a trans person is murdered every 29 hours throughout the world. Sweden has had no reported murders of trans people in the recent history of the country; whereas, the United States has experienced a staggering 25 homicides of trans people so far this year.
Sweden is one of the only European countries to include gender identity in anti-hate crime laws. Protective laws are just pretty pieces of paper if the general population doesn’t support LGBT people. I have not interacted with many Swedes, so I cannot speak of my own experience. My friend, Anneli says that many Swedes are open minded and accepting of LGBT people except for some conservative religious people. It is still difficult for young people to come out and be accepted by their friends and for Ann-Christine to be accepted at first by her colleagues in the church.
Although the Swedish system for legal name change is simpler than the U.S. and it is easier to obtain hormones, Ann-Christine said the biggest challenge for trans people in Sweden is just showing Swedes that trans people exist. She said many Swedes are completely uninformed or misinformed about trans issues. That’s why she is a full time lecturer now. She is working on the same tedious project of public education that I struggle to do at my home university. She faces the same barrage of invasive questions and outdated medical terminology I do from a misinformed public.
The only way to make any place truly safe for trans people is to educate the public, to demonstrate that we are no different than any cisgender person, to show that we are not a threat to society even if we challenge traditional gender norms. I helped to start the first chartered student organization for trans people at my home university. We have been overwhelmed with the exhausting task of educating a very misinformed society. In May, many of my trans friends will graduate, leaving me in charge of the group. I asked Ann-Christine what direction I should take the group? How can we better educate the community as she has done in Sweden? I told her how we give out informative pamphlets. She said pamphlets can be thrown away what people need is a living example. It’s good if we have lectures and let people ask us questions. They will remember the positive interactions they have had with trans people. They will tell their friends to not believe the stereotypes. I will remember this information and will apply it to my educational efforts at home.