Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Interview with Ugla Stefanía Jónsdóttir

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Ugla Stefanía Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic transgender rights activist. Hello Ugla!
Ugla: Hello Monika! Thank you for contacting me. I’m honored to be a part of this.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Ugla: Well, my name is Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir and I am a young transgender activist from Iceland.
I work for several organizations here in Iceland, including the National LGBTQ organization in Iceland, Q-Association of Queer Students in Iceland and I lead Trans-Iceland, which is the main organization for transpeople in Iceland.
I am very passionate when it comes down to human rights and I am starting my master’s degree in gender studies in January in the University of Iceland.
Monika: You are the champion of many transgender causes and actions. Could you name some of the initiatives that you took part in?
Ugla: I’d hardly consider myself a champion, but I have indeed taken part and or/organized many events and conferences in relation to transgender rights and LGBTQ rights in general. As the chair of Trans-Iceland I have organized Transgender Day of Remembrance in Iceland for several years. I have been a public spokesperson in Iceland for transpeople and I have been very public in the media for the past few years.
Photo by Móa Hjartadóttir.
I have also taken active part in organizations such as IGLYO and ANSO where I have been a participated and in some cases been on prep-teams for different conferences that focus on different aspects, including conferences on transphobic bullying in schools, intersectionality and LGBTQ issues in the legal sphere. I have also taken active part in the No Hatespeech Movement within the Council of Europe, where I have publicly talked about my experience of hate-speech as a transwoman.
I have held many lectures about trans issues in Iceland as a part of my job as the educational officer of Samtökin 78, the National LGBTQ organization of Iceland, as well as gone abroad with expert workshops, lectures and other initiatives on the matter.
Monika: Some time ago you attended a transgender conference in Lithuania. How important is networking for transgender activism?
Ugla: Recently, LGL, the LGBT organization in Lithuania has been hosting actions and campaigns to raise awareness about LGBT rights in their country. A part of this awareness raising was a joint project between Q-Association of Queer Students and LGL, where they invited me to come along with representatives from Transgender Europe, to host workshops and trainings on transgender issues, both for LGL and other organizations.
In relation to that, I was also interviewed by the media I Lithuania and the interview was aired on the national television in Lithuania. We hope that this will underline the importance of giving transpeople access to the healthcare they need and should have. 
The situation of transpeople in Lithuania is extremely bad and access to healthcare is none. It is very important that activists network between themselves to form connections and support systems, both to work together, get ideas, and inspiration.
There is nothing worse than feeling alone, and I think this is a feeling most transpeople have felt at one point or another in their lives. Networking, reaching out and supporting each other is vitally important for all activists and people in general. A feeling of sameness and solidarity is something so valuable.
Monika: There are several organizations and programmers that address the needs of the transgender community in Europe. Which needs can be addressed very soon and which needs may take more time to be tackled? 
Ugla: What I think is the most important thing is to make healthcare inclusive and accessible for transpeople worldwide. This is an ongoing struggle and I believe it will take a lot of time until transpeople will have adequate access to healthcare in most places. Transpeople are an incredibly diverse and vulnerable group with a lot of different needs. And researches have shown that trans people, in particular young trans people, are targets of violence and hate-crimes worldwide. Transpeople are also one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes down to suicide, and especially where they do not have access to the health they need and require.
The Reykjavik Pride annual publication.
Photo by Guðmundur Davíð Terrasaz.
Then there is of course the ongoing fight against prejudice, language and misconceptions about transpeople. There are a lot of misconceptions about transpeople and the media and society in general enforces this. This can easily been seen in the way transpeople are presented, talked about and portrayed in the media. Transpeople are perceived as mentally unstable people in need of some sort of a cure or treatment, and their gender identity is entirely disregarded as a figment of their imagination.
People often refuse to acknowledge their true identities and people are very keen on saying that transpeople will always be the sex they were assigned at birth. This results in people insistently using wrong pronouns and names and the usage of transphobic slurs. Due to these ideas transpeople are medicalized and marginalized from their society, often leaving them with no other options but to live on the street and having to do sex work. These are issues we, as a society, need to combat, and something society needs to realize. Transpeople are extremely marginalized and their basic human rights are broken and not attended to in so many places around the world.
According to Transgender Europe, over close to 1.400 transpeople have been murdered because of the gender identity (not including numbers from this year). This is excluding all other violent crimes and people who commit suicide. This is something that has to be addressed and stopped. 
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Icelandic society?
Ugla: For transwomen, and transpeople in general, we have been considerate progress in many aspects. We have laws in place which affirm that transpeople can undergo a transition within the healthcare system and transpeople are protected in the penal laws in Iceland against public discrimination. However, the laws currently in place are very binary (only referring to men and women and not other gender identities) and people need to undergo a diagnosis of so called “kynáttunarvandi” which is equivalent to “gender identity disorder” – so transpeople need to be diagnosed and treated by health care staff in order to have gender reassignment and gender recognition.
On a more social level, we are still dealing with a lot of prejudice and even hate crimes. Recently a transperson was attacked at a bar for going to the bathroom, so we are even seeing serious problems. But a lot has happened in the past few years due to extremely strong and outspoken people talking about transgender issues and we are slowly raising more and more awareness. We are still dealing with a lot of wrong usage of language and terms, but even the media has started becoming cooperative and are working more closely with us.
All in all, being in Iceland as a transperson is in many ways easier than in a lot of countries where they have no recognition, legally or socially. But that does not mean that we don’t have problems that we need to deal with.
Photo by Móa Hjartadóttir.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Ugla: I was 18 years old when I began my official transition. I was relatively young and the youngest person in Iceland at the time to start a transition. Since then a lot of young people have stepped forward though.
Like for everyone, it was difficult. But for me, the difficulty was a lot prior my transition. Just taking that step and getting there was the hardest I think. But after I decided to start the transition life become somehow easier, more natural and finally I felt as if I was doing something right with my life. I always had a very clear idea of where I was heading, so for me the process itself was not that hard.
Of course it had its difficulties, emotional moments, hard moments and everything that follows such a huge process, but I believe I am very lucky and very privileged to have had such amazing friends and family who supported me. Without them, I would not be where I am today and I owe them a whole. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Ugla: Not really. I don’t remember having anyone in specific. There were not many people in Iceland who were publicly out as transgender. I only remember one woman, and she was much older than me. I of course met with her and she gave me inspiration, but as a much younger person I sort of had to make my own path.
I decided to become my own role model and sort of find my way in this world. I have to agree with one of my favorite transpeople, Laverne Cox, when she says she does not really like the word “role-model” but rather “possibility-model.” I think that people can definitely inspire you and give you some hope, but I think everyone should strive to be their own person and make their own way, such as I did when I came out.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ugla: There were a lot of things. I guess for me, actually telling my parents and close family was really hard. Not because I thought they’d respond negatively, but it was just hard to say those words. Accepting myself for who I am and being able to say that it was okay to be me.
I didn’t really have the words to explain, and just sort of finding the right way was very hard. I was also worried how people would respond and what they’d think. I was worried people wouldn’t understand and would confuse my gender identity with sexuality (which a lot of people did). So just being able to finally express myself was a step that I found very difficult.
Photo by Móa Hjartadóttir.
Monika: I have come across some information about transgender characters in the Viking myths. Some of the Norse gods were capable of changing gender at will, for example Loki, the trickster god, frequently disguised himself as a woman.☺ What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in Scandinavian films, newspapers or books so far?
Ugla: In the case of Loki, once he changed into female it was always for some sort of a trick or for a short time, so no one really viewed him as anything but just that, a trickster. I also remember reading stories about the thunder god Þór, dressing up as a woman as a disguise. I doubt either of them would be described much as transgender, but it is definitely interesting to read about such genderbending in such old stories.
I think transpeople are often portrayed in very stereotypical ways. When they appear in films or newspaper the focus always seems to be on what genitals they have, rather than what they actually go through on a daily basis. And this is very common everywhere, I think. The focus sort of shifts away from the real problems they face: the discrimination, lack of legislation, access to health care and so on. Of course, I have seen some really good books and stories about transpeople, but the way they often portrayed in the media is often very problematic.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Ugla: There have definitely been some issues with combining these, and even in the last few years there have been letters coming behind the “T”, such as I, A, P and Q. I think that all groups behind LG have had difficult times being included into this movement. Here in Iceland we have made considerate progress in the last few years when it comes town to including more letters, but we definitely have a long way to go.
Personally I think these groups should work together, because so many of the issues we face are based on the same norms, the same values and the same prejudice. It is often difficult, but I think with time, hard work and awareness raising, transpeople can definitely raise their cause within the movements. 


Monika: Is there anyone in the Scandinavian transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for the gay activism?
Ugla: There are definitely a lot of strong characters and people who have made their mark on history for transpeople. I believe that transpeople from the Nordic Countries have long been involved in Transgender Europe for example, who are doing amazing work. I think it is harder to pinpoint just one single person though. I believe it was the work of many strong individuals.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Ugla: I would not say that I am active when it comes down to political parties and things like that, but I am very active when it comes to pushing for legal changes and work for transgender people. I am for example a part of a committee which was established by the ministry of welfare in Iceland, which is to look into and make amendments and new suggestions in relation to laws that have to do with LGBTQ people.
I think that everyone can make a difference in politics, and I think the more diverse group of people we have, the better. So transwomen can definitely make a difference in politics, and I know some already have in many places in the world.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ugla: I don’t often talk about love and I have quite frankly kept these issues very private in media and when during interviews. But of course, love is very important to me as I think it is to most people. I have an amazing partner who supports me and who I am 100%. I have a great family and friends whom I love very much too.
It is definitely harder to find love as a transperson, often due to people’s prejudice and preconceptions. But I have been very lucky and privileged to have someone by my side.


Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Ugla: I actually have. I have actually started writing a bit, and I probably will publish it one day. I just feel like at the age of 23 I am a bit young to do that, no?
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Ugla: I am always working on several projects. I have a lot of international collaboration and we have some things coming up. Currently I am working on making some material about trans issues, changing definitions in the Icelandic dictionaries, an Icelandic queer podcast, some songs with a newly formed band, and many other things! Stay tuned.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Ugla: Oof. There is a lot of things I could say. And I know most of this will probably sound very cheesy or tacky: but just be yourselves. Don’t try too hard to fit into some box or fulfill some ridiculous standard that others make. You’re not doing this for someone else, you’re doing this for you, and you are beautiful as you are. Be you, for you. If that means having hormones, gender reassignment surgeries and other surgeries, go for it. Just strive to be you.
Don’t let others guide you or tell you what to do or what not to do. Find other transpeople who are also struggling. Draw strength from each other. Support each other. Create support groups, create discussion groups. Nothing is as bad as being alone, so find each other. Search for others, and yourself. Be you.
Monika: Ugla, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Ugla Stefanía Jónsdóttir.
Done on 9 December 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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