What It's Like to Be A Trans Activist in the Most Liberal Country on Earth
For Ugla Stefanía Jónsdóttir, growing up trans in gay-friendly Iceland still wasn't easy.
Iceland has carved a niche for itself as a pioneering country on the subject of gay rights; it was the first European nation to recognize same-sex unions, the first to support the adoption of children by gay couples, and the first country in the world to elect an openly gay person as head of state in 2009. These are symbols of an approach that values openness and progress, and Iceland has been similarly forward-thinking on the subject of trans issues too. But legislation and infrastructure in this area have been slower to develop.
Ugla Stefanía Jónsdóttir, a native Icelander, has been an important and outspoken figure in the LGBTQ community since her teens. Now 23, she's firmly established herself as a leading political voice for LGBTQ people across Europe. As well as holding a handful of positions for organisations in Iceland and beyond, Jónsdóttir organises events and conferences all over the world, delivers lectures on LGBTQ issues everywhere from schools to parliaments, and actively campaigns for legal reform and better human rights for her peers. She has organised Transgender Day of Remembrance in Iceland for several years and now actively works as a member of the No Hate Speech Movement with the Council of Europe.
Broadly spoke to her about coming out, getting political and the continuing fight for progress.
I'd like to start by talking about your own journey and transition. When did you first realize you were trans, and what happened after that?
I was 11 years old, so really early on. I saw a TV interview with a trans woman and that was when it clicked. I didn't know that trans was even possible before that, and I started thinking that this could be something for me in the future. But in Iceland during the early 2000s, there was no organization to go to for support and nobody to talk to about these feelings. So I turned to the internet; I started playing World of Warcraft online when I was 14, and I decided to present myself as a girl. It wasn't planned, it just sort of happened, but this was the first setting where I could really be myself.
By the time I was 17, I'd made really good online friends through the game and they wanted to meet in person. But I hadn't been presenting myself as a woman in any other part of my life, so things got a lot more complicated. I decided to meet them, and they had no problem accepting me. That encouraged me to come out to some of my closest friends, and after that, to my family too.
How did your family react? Were they surprised when you told them?
I'm from a remote part of Northern Iceland and my family are farmers. Life had always been very traditional, so I was really afraid to tell people, especially my parents. In the end, I wrote my mom and dad a letter. I told them to read it then go take care of the farm and give themselves some time to really digest what I was telling them. They did that, and when my father came back, he had just one question: "So which locker room will you use when you go swimming?" I was so relieved, and his reaction was really quite funny.
Your dad sounds awesome! What were the next steps for you? Can you tell me about your experiences in the healthcare system?
Well, at the time there was only one psychiatrist who handled all trans patients in Iceland, so the first step was to meet with this person and go through a series of tests. No questions or requirements had anything to do with my experiences as a woman. I had to do an IQ test, which I thought was really weird. As if you can be 'intelligent enough' or 'not intelligent enough' to do this—it's a ridiculous idea.
After that was hormone therapy, and then finally the procedure two and a half years later. But Iceland has no doctor specialized enough to perform gender reassignment surgery alone, so once or twice a year, a doctor is borrowed from Sweden. That means that trans people in Iceland often have to wait six to 12 months to have the surgery.
There have been some improvements since then. The psychological tests have been dropped, the process for legal name changes has been simplified, and a 2012 law change on transgender rights reformed the administrative procedures. The government said that they wanted to clarify the legal status of trans people. That's been one of our biggest victories—there aren't a lot of countries who actually have a law for trans people, so in that way we are definitely on a good path here in Iceland.
You've become a prominent voice for the LGBTQ community in Iceland and across Europe too. Was it a conscious decision? Did you set out to become an LGBTQ activist?
No, not at all. I was just this scared, 18-year-old kid taking my first steps at a time when nobody even knew what trans was in Iceland. I began talking with people about my own experiences. Because there were no role models for me at the time, I had to become a role model—even my own, in a way.
You've achieved a huge amount already, but there are still challenges to overcome. What are you working on at the moment, and what needs to happen to improve the rights of trans people further?
In Iceland, the expense of gender reassignment surgery is covered by insurance schemes, but this system only pays for something if it's legally defined as a disease or condition. So Icelandic law says that being trans is a condition called gender identity disorder. Trans people have to accept this diagnosis and that the transition surgery will 'cure' this disorder. That definition is something that needs to change.
People still deny the existence of trans people. At a fundamental level, I think it's a basic right that everyone's existence is recognised by others. We need to work globally on education and raising awareness about what gender identity—and gender itself—actually is. There's been a trans movement in Iceland and in Europe for a long time now, but there's still a lot of important work to do. In a lot of ways, we're still at a starting point because we remain very 'gender binary,' even in the most progressive societies of the world. We only have male and female; everybody has to fall into one of those boxes. Of course, in reality things just don't work like that.