Sunday, 6 July 2014

Interview with Tiina Miettinen

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Tiina Miettinen, a transgender woman from Finland, one of the main characters of the documentary titled “Sukupuoli X” (1996). Hello Tiina!
Tiina: Hello Monika. I find this project of yours really delightful and appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts about these important issues.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Tiina: Well, to begin at the obvious. This, the trans thing, has naturally been the most characteristic feature of my life. It's been present as long as I can remember, and before my tenth birthday, 1974, I secretly decided I must do something to... to enable it. Namely if by that date, regardless of all my wishes and prayers, God or fate or anything had not agreed to change circumstances for my favor.
So I made a conscious decision to begin secretly cross-dressing. I also found the word transvestite in an encyclopedia. Sensationalizing magazines sometimes reported, in a scandalous tone, about hormones prescribed, breast implants applied and genital surgery performed to some magical creatures living apparently nearby Hamburg's Reeperbahn in West Germany.
Later I read somewhere about Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen, and after I contacted Helsinki's local trans group at age 17, I heard about Cybele's priest(esse)s of the Roman Empire, the Native Americans' berdache, and hijras of India.
As I came out of the closet that time, my parents strongly disapproved. After a while, when I had moved out to live on my own, we gradually quit having contact with each other. Being artistically relatively talented, and still largely influenced by the firm sort of advice from my father, an engineer, I tried to study architecture at university. But I couldn't find motivation or willpower or – I don't know what exactly I lacked - to graduate. Proper mental attitude as well as interest to that particular profession, I suppose.
Then, a couple of years after having begun my physical transition, I was employed as a secretary at Seta, our national LGBTIQ organization. And one day the Seta office was contacted by two young filmmakers wishing to create a documentary concerning transsexualism. That film was eventually to be named Sukupuoli X.
Monika: It has been 18 years since your participation in the documentary Sukupuoli X (Gender X). How has your life changed since then?
Tiina: 19 years to be precise; the film came out in 1996 but the events took place in 1995. For most years of the nineties, I was active in gay and trans organizations. I kept in contact with the European TG field, took part in launching Seta's Trans Support Centre, and was for a short while the chair of Trasek, a national organization mainly for transsexuals. I didn't plan to “move on to normal life” like some see recommendable for transsexuals, but it sort of happened nevertheless. Most of my friends are still queer though, which of course is most fabulous.
After my Seta years, I got employed at the National Board of Antiquities: the authority protecting and preserving the Finnish cultural heritage, organizing excavations, governing museums, and such. My main task was to make very detailed drawings of (mostly) prehistoric artifacts. Perhaps as a result of doing that for a decade and a half, or who knows, possibly just because of getting older, I've begun to really ponder how civilized it actually was at the southern coast of our good old Europe, when Magna Mater aka goddess Cybele was worshiped in the Roman Empire.
Even though for some Roman citizens, and later especially for a certain new cult of a crucified man, it seemed like Cybele drove her followers into madness. Sadly the thought of “sacrificing” one's masculinity can be very scary to those who don't understand it is plain gain to people like us. So that beautiful faith, that state-institutionalized way to serve holiness by leading a transgender life, was demonized and suffocated. I can't help wondering if could rise again, like Phoenix. Of any attempts to revive the religion of Cybele in Europe, I'd be very interested to hear.
Monika: Showing your journey to womanhood, I guess that the film was a pioneer project in Finland…
Tiina: A few documents on the subject were produced in Finland before Sukupuoli X. But their style was... I must say I found it depressing. A lonely character in shadows, voice altered, complaining of life's cruelty. When the filmmakers asked me to participate in a documentary they wanted to create, I agreed on the condition this one would be done differently. It should present a multitude of trans persons openly leading a happy life, or at least an ordinary one. To demonstrate we are neither rarities nor oddities.
Whether it's a journey to womanhood, well, that might not be my first choice of words. I mean, I'm not that insulted if someone tells me I'm not a woman in a sense they consider authentic. I say it's a matter of opinion then. But, if they claim I'm in reality a man – that absolutely bugs me. Because what more can one even do to prove otherwise, than discard that silly piece of meat, bloom a bosom, and be happy with the result? So when it comes to defining my identity... a “cis” lesbian friend once stated she doesn't know how to specify her personal gender except by saying male it is not. That's how I'd also express it. 
Now some alert Finnish-understanding viewers may point out that in Sukupuoli X, at the hospital, I do define myself as a woman. Yes. But at that time I believed it was the smartest policy to simplify the educational message. Not to mention satisfying the sorry-ass gatekeeper shrinks who require the flawless Harry Benjamin storyline.
To be perfectly honest though, there are also times when I ask myself if I'm needlessly overcomplicating the issue by this habit of avoiding calling myself a woman. Because after all the shoe does fit... like a glove. This indeed isn't black and white, but hey, why the heck would it even need to be? Besides, I bet a typical cisgender experience is not constant by its intensity either.

Visiting Stockholm in 2009.

Monika: In the documentary, you were supported by Jiri Taleva, a transgender man. Do you still keep in touch with him?
Tiina: We are in friendly relations but don't have more than occasional contact. Jiri moved to the countryside several years ago, I live still in Helsinki.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Tiina: Well, Lili Elbe and Christine Jorgensen I already mentioned. But maybe I've all along appreciated them more as honorable pioneers than actual role models. So I guess the answer is no, not exactly. Still, the more I've come to realize being trans, in general, is a phenomenon ancient, frequent, and often even status-elevating (unlike the cis establishment tends to claim), the better I've felt.
Naturally, because it means that explanations of physiological or psychological dysfunction are biased crap, and this is quite simply about people being of different sorts and nothing else. So I'd say that, rather than any single individual, my role models are the numerous generations of transpeople who have already left their mark in history. (Not to mention those whose mark has been deliberately erased by insecure, hostile, or ignorant cis rulers, or even researchers.) 
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Tiina: The prediction that my parents wouldn't accept me and I wasn't going to have many friends for a while, if ever. Which turned out to be quite an accurate estimation, except for the friends. But if your family loathes you unless you pretend to be someone you simply are not, they hardly were that excellent company in the first place, were they? Mine also warned I was going to face lots of bigotry, but so far has no one treated me more judgmentally than they themselves did.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Finnish society?
Tiina: It's not great compared to our western neighbors, but at least the public atmosphere seems to be steadily improving. The law we have about gender reassignment was advanced at its time, nowadays it's obsolete. The UN Human Rights Council is pressuring Finland to stop requiring gender reassignment seekers to become sterile and unmarried. Some insecure politicians have quite obviously on purpose procrastinated with handling the matter, but certainly, it can't be delayed infinitely.
I don't know how to specify my answer genderwise though. The ratio of MtFs and FtMs seeking hormones and surgery is very much in balance here, so the situation is by large the same to the transmasculine as well as the transfeminine. Which, I believe, tells something positive about equality - at least about equality between the two genders recognized by the mainstream society. But of course, the usual unfortunate misogyny still prevails to a degree, causing transitioning to the feminine direction to be regarded somehow more foolish by, well, by the less civilized part of the population I must put it.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in Finnish films, newspapers, or books so far?
Tiina: This is a bit awkward, but I can't recall a single fictional trans character in the Finnish literature or movies. A recent film Kerron sinulle kaiken (I'll tell you everything) is a story of a TS, and I've heard it's pretty good. Unfortunately, I just haven't seen it myself yet.
So - I can only answer your question by saying there's definitely room for more, and the less bizarre the persons are written, usually the better. Even though I must admit my favorite fictional ever is Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the desert, in spite of her slightly caricatured ways.
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?
Tiina: But the T is still always there, unlike I and Q. Not to mention A. Over the years, I've had several more or less heated discussions about whether it's a good idea to combine gay and trans (as well as TS and TV) agendas, since their goals seem different. Well, they don't seem different to me. When the society sets unreasonable and inflexible sex role-based demands to its citizens' appearance and behavior, it oppresses all these groups alike, and that's where our firm common ground lies.
Interestingly enough, there has not been a phase in Finnish queer history, where T would have been excluded from the agendas of our gay organizations. While that's apparently a necessity of our population being small, I think it's still something we have a reason to be proud of.

Enjoying a campfire place I built at
an ex's summer cabin around 2000.

Monika: Is there anyone in the Finnish transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism in the USA?
Tiina: There are names I could mention, but none of those individuals have alone made an impact comparable to Milk. Rather there's been a chain of team efforts in one generation after another. I'm glad to have had a chance to modestly contributing to that work.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Tiina: In my opinion transgender individuals would have very much to contribute in politics, but it still takes time before any LGBTIQ statespersons' rainbow colors are generally seen as a possible asset rather than a disadvantage.
Our gay president candidate finalist in the last election, Pekka Haavisto, is a fine example of that time not being very far though. In this context, I'm also compelled to mention Tarja Halonen, our former president, who acted as the chair of Seta in the early '80s.
When it comes specifically to transgender women, I personally know, or know about, a few such local politicians– some of them openly trans, some apparently more in the closet. They all seem pretty effective in their actions as far as I can tell. But personally, I'm too much of a hermit to imagine myself in those fields. As mentioned, my little heyday of activism was in the nineties, and my lobbying input is now limited to participating in the annual Pride parade.
Politics isn't the only way of affecting society though. I've lately had thoughts of creating such art about Magna Mater Cybele that could draw at least some attention to the trans people's historical inseparability of the rest of humankind. I know the task would be demanding to say the least, and chances of considerable influence quite slim, so it's best not to state anything hasty about that for now.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Tiina: I believe it is a common conception that love is crucially important to everyone. Obviously, some of us are luckier than others to experience it in childhood and thus learn how to pass it on in life. Even receiving love can be difficult if you're not used to it. I suspect I'm somewhere in that less fortunate end.
My childhood upbringing was rather old-fashioned even for that time's standards. Discipline was highly valued, and pampering children was considered harmful for their personality development. Both my parents, due to their own backgrounds no doubt, seemed to have a somewhat limited capability for genuine empathy.
These things have a tendency of inheritance, and even though it's impossible to be objective about oneself, I see some evidence of such problems in my past relationships. Whatever the reason, they simply seem not to last. Fairytale-type all-conquering eternal True Love may be an illusion, but I'm afraid that even the mundane real-life version of love is something I still need to learn a whole lot about.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Tiina: I have to say I'm not particularly interested in fashion. Only slightly at best; primarily I dress for comfort and practicality nowadays. This must be a rather dull answer, sorry.
Strangely, part of me wants to give all kinds of explanations as to how come I don't dream about catwalks, while it certainly is acceptable to simply state that it just doesn't happen to be so in my case.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Tiina: In the past, I read quite a few of those, and I admit the thought has crossed my mind. But while I might be capable enough to express myself in writing, I'm terribly slow at producing text. It's not out of question though, that by the time I retire, there would be enough material for some kind of illustration-oriented release. Remains to be seen.

“Sukupuoli X” (1996). Source: YouTube.

Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Tiina: Uh, I dunno. To keep on chilling I guess. But seriously and no offense, that kind of approach makes me a bit uncomfortable. Managing life like a project, thinking in steps of achievement and envisioning years ahead, is a style I have almost desperately tried to learn, repeatedly failed, and for a long time felt like a loser, therefore.
In the western world, there is this tiresome tradition of excepting endless progress in just about everything, while I'm more like, you know, for downshifting and finding harmony and valuing simple life myself. By steadily following the direction I took at age ten was enough that I accomplished what was personally necessary, and more. So, I'm quite content here and now, thank you :)
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Tiina: Some people cherish memories of their childhood, but others indeed have good reasons to be happy it's finally over. To anyone who finds their spirit in contradiction with personality restraining conservative demands of their surroundings: I, first of all, wish you endurance to bear that life situation until you can change it. Then I'm afraid you have to escape if there simply is no room for acceptance.
I assure you that regardless of a young age you do quite well know your own good, and basically, all is right as long as you're not harming anyone. They have no grounds to say you're causing them damage by your gender expression or by your sexual orientation. They are annoyed, not injured, and unable to understand that you simply can not become like them, however much you try or however threatening they behave.
Besides, they in the first place have no right to require others to be like them - as we don't have such right either. Feels ridiculous to even say that, but as strange as it is, that's exactly what they fail to grasp. Telling us to change is as foolish as if we instructed them to turn queer. For instance, my father literally complained I was a bigot towards him by not being straight. Go figure.
And do not believe if they say it's a phase that will pass, in case you just know it's an essential part of you. In this aspect believe solely yourself, because no authority can see inside your head, no matter what they imagine about their capabilities. Search information, go where you get understanding and help, and never let them make you become ashamed of your worthy self. Keep your head high in the spirit of the encouraging words recently heard from a great artist: We are unity and we are unstoppable.
Monika: Tiina, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Tiina Miettinen.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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