Friday, 20 December 2013

Interview with Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, a physician, sexologist, and professor of sexology, known as one of Norway's most prominent transpeople. In 2002, her son Even Benestad presented her story in the documentary All About My Father (Alt om min far). In 2007, she participated in the reality TV series Skal vi danse. She was also a political candidate for the Liberal Party, a social liberal political party in Norway. Hello Esther!
Esben Esther: Hello Monica and thanks for including me in your row of interviews! 
Monika: You are the author of several textbooks about transgenderism, including “Kjønn i bevegelse” (2001), Transseksualisme - hvor går vi og hvor står vi? (2002) and Transekjønn og diagnoser (2004), and Sexologi I Praksis (2006). Is it difficult to study and write about the phenomenon that you face yourself in your life?
Esben Esther: An era of therapeutic thinking emphasized the neutrality of the therapist, one should not “over-identify” with the clients. In the wake of this thinking, one came to consider it wrong for homosexually talented people to offer therapy to other homosexuals, and certainly also for the transgifted to offer therapy to their kinds.
There was never, however, a ban on heterosexuals offering therapy to the heterosexually talented. This view is gradually changing, and that change has given me extra support in acknowledging my personal experience as part of my professionality. “The personal IS the professional”.

Elsa and I, how to pose when Christmas
cards need Seasonal illustration.
Our niece Hanne in the middle.

Monika: Which aspects of transgenderism you were particularly interested in?
Esben Esther: I have been interested in all aspects of transgenderism from the “small” everyday challenges to surgical techniques. I have increasingly opposed the “wrong body” and “passing” rhetoric, however in ways that are not rejecting ones’ perception of self. That is: I offer alternatives, but will always see you as you see your self.
Other issues in my focus are matters like for instance sexuality, that transpeople too rarely talk about. 
Monika: And how would you define your own case?
Esben Esther: Absolutely not as a ”case”, but as a lifepath of a transgifted individual who at an early stage came to terms with and found pride in her gendered talents.
Monika: Have you ever considered a full transition?
Esben Esther: Any transition that takes a transgifted to where that individual finds lasting and positive belonging, is in my thinking and in a context of subjectivity, a full transition.
I have considered going further, but the cost concerning other important parts of my life, would be to high, and I honestly I don’t think my personal life would have improved. 
Monika: Even though your local Justice Department refused to issue supplementary identity documents in the name of Esther Pirelli, the police eventually issued some unofficial documents. Quite an amusing situation …
Esther: Yes, it was! The justice department refused, and when I asked why, they replied that it would be too expensive and that it would threaten safety. I asked them: How come? They replied that they had closed the case.
A local policeman certified on a piece of paper with two pictures that both of them depicted the same individual: Me. He received a reprimand, and I got a piece of paper that amongst other accomplishments, got me out of Poland. Bureaucrats possess a very dangerous combination of tons of power with a lack of insights.

Twice I have been seriously catwalking
for Natalia Leikis, this is a charity
show for the Unicef.

Monika: What are the current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda in Norway? 
Esben Esther: The health care offers to transgifted in Norway have been far away from ideal. Only one institution lead by a totally non-empathic psychiatrist rules over the fate of those who experience themselves as transsexuals.
Those who don’t, but nevertheless are in need of hormones and/or surgery, get nothing. Finally, the government officials have realized this unworthy state of affairs. I have been pointed out as one expert to be part of an official multidisciplinary group that is set out to change conditions for the better.
Monika: You cooperated with the Liberal Party of Norway. Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Esben Esther: I think all individuals of difference do make a difference when they find pride in themselves and are open in public life.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books, etc. so far?
Esben Esther: My son made a movie “All about my father” (“Alt om min far”) – a documentary that has earned more prizes than any other Norwegian movie. The film presents a son’s, a daughter’s, and a family’s perspective. I am not sheltered. I like that. I also like movies that depict transpeople as resources, not victims.
Monika: How do you recollect working with your son? Were you satisfied with the film?
Esben Esther: I am proud and happy with it, even though he at times portrays me in non-sympathetic ways. Our relation has always been very good, hence working together was filled with anticipation and pleasure.
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?
Esben Esther: At least in Norway it seems that we are, but we constantly need to educate our fellow queers.

Elsa and I, we travel a lot, ordinarily as part of the job.
10 days in Cape Town did us very well.

Monika: Is there anyone in the Norwegian transgender movement whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the USA in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Esben Esther: Maybe me.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Esben Esther: My fears of being trashed. I believe that honesty and pride silenced those who might have tried.
Monika: In 2007 you took part in the reality TV show titled “Skal vi danse“ (Shall We Dance) and you were voted out after four episodes. You indicated that you had been ousted because of your transgender identity?
Esben Esther: That was the hardest task ever! To face a great audience when I was dancing in heels with a woman. Never ever was I more helplessly on display. It was truly hard but had it not been for the judges who named me number one out of the contest, the whole ordeal would have been a pleasure. The support from the Norwegian audience was remarkable.

Dancegirl and transgirl – for my
daughter Elisabeth's annual "Glamour night"
- open for all kinds of glamour.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Esben Esther: I have been married for 25 years to Elsa the great love of my life! Before that I was married 16 years with the mother of my two children: Elisabeth and Even, Tomas, Elsa’s son has entered my life as a third child. Together we have 4 grandchildren. The two oldest turned seven in 2013.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Esben Esther: I love the female body lines, and I am happy to see myself displaying lines like that. I have had many dresses, skirts, and blouses made for me. My favorite designer is Natalia Leikis, who has her studio in Oslo. People describe me as discretely elegant with some flamboyant inclinations.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Esben Esther: Yes!
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Esben Esther: I am not a man, not a woman, but a very happy transperson!
Monika: Esther, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska

Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Search This Blog