Friday, 3 October 2014

Interview with Heli Hämäläinen

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Heli Hämäläinen, a married woman from Helsinki, Finland, Senior Customs Officer in Finnish Customs, and a father. Hello Heli!
Heli: Hello Monika, it is my pleasure to meet you.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Heli: I am soon 51 years old. I have worked the most of my career as a public servant. I graduated in 1991 from Helsinki School of Economics which is nowadays a part of Aalto University. I got married in 1996 in Keuruu Church that was built in 1892. I am Evangelical Lutheran. My daughter was born in 2002.
In Autumn 2004 I felt that I could no longer suppress my female identity. My life was awful because even the advertisements in bus stops reminded me about my gender. I couldn’t read women’s magazines.
My wife gave me advice to seek professional help and I did. A referral was written to official transsexuality investigations in November 2004 and I met the psychiatrist in February 2005. I was diagnosed transsexual in April 2006 and I changed my forenames in June 2006.
In July 2007 I had the mandatory letter of infertility and 2 letters for genital surgery as well as for the gender recognition. I could not have my gender recognized because of my religious marriage.

Helsinki Pride 2008.

Monika: You are one of the most courageous transgender women in Finland, trying to set a legal precedent for the sake of the whole transgender community there. You are married to your wife but the Finnish law does not permit same-sex marriages. There were two options to solve it, either to get divorced or convert the marriage into a civil union, but you ruled out both options…
Heli: Yes I did. I thought that this is a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights article 8, right to respect for private and family life.
Monika: You appealed through the Finnish court system, and then to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) complaining about breaches of her rights. What was the ruling? 
Heli: In fourth section, no violation, in grand chamber no violation but with a dissenting opinion.
Monika: I guess that all the appeals required professional legal advice. Did you get any legal support from the Finnish transgender organizations?
Heli: I got support for the grand chamber, it was a pro bono agreement so I got a lawyer for free but paid my own expenses in Strasbourg France.
Monika: How does the lack of the legal confirmation of your female gender influence your everyday life?
Heli: At the moment I use my car to commute to work. But when I had a travel card I had problems with ticket inspectors who wanted to confiscate my travel card. As a resident of the City of Helsinki I am entitled to discount prices but I have to have my personal identity number encoded in the chip. As there is no name or other identification that card has information that it belongs to a male person born in 1963. There are also other inconveniences as a passport with a male marker. That is a risk while travelling abroad. I have not travelled in ten years as a customs officer.

Church Council candidate in 2010.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Finnish society?
Heli: I quote the webpage of the Ombudsman for Equality: “The Finnish Equality Act and gender minorities The Finnish Equality Act and the Finnish Non-Discrimination Act currently include no anti-discrimination provisions regarding gender minorities.
In its report issued in connection with amending the Finnish Equality Act in 2005, the Employment and Equality Committee of the Finnish Parliament stated that according to a decision of the European Court of Justice, discrimination on the basis of sex or gender covers discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment as well as discrimination on the basis of a person being male or female.
Other ways of protecting gender minorities from discrimination were left open. The Employment and Equality Committee of the Finnish Parliament nevertheless stated that reinforcing the protection of gender minorities from discrimination and determining whether the issue should be covered by the Finnish Equality Act or the Finnish Non-Discrimination Act are amongst future priorities.
The anti-discrimination provisions of the Constitution of Finland also cover cases where persons are being discriminated against because they belong to a gender minority. The guidelines of the Finnish Ombudsman for Equality are based on the premise that at least until the anti-discrimination protection of gender minorities is clearly established by law, the Finnish Equality Act should be interpreted so as to also apply more broadly to gender minorities and not just to persons who have undergone gender reassignment surgery. The Finnish Ombudsman for Equality has stated that the Finnish Equality Act should be amended as soon as possible to also cover gender minorities.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Heli: I was 41 in 2005 and 45 in 2009 when I had my bottom surgery.

The day she was diagnosed.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Heli: I read Jenny Boylan’s "She’s not There". It was quite inspiring in the middle of a marriage crisis. For me personally, it was very important to keep my family together in transition. I have made compromises too. The marriage is one that is important to both of us but also it seemed clear that my daughter needed a father that is a father also socially.
So I decided to take part in all fathers’ day events in day care. We have fathers’ day in Finland the second Sunday of November. That is important for my daughter that we have fathers’ day lunch and she can bake me a cake. At school she prepares fathers’ day gifts and she was bullied that she does not have a father. I told her and the boy who bullied her that she definitely has a father who is alive and kicking!
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Heli: Telling my wife, definitely. At work it was an issue but a medical one.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in Finnish films, newspapers or books so far?
Heli: I do not see there anything extraordinary, should I? 
Monika: Have you recently read or watched any interesting Finnish book or event/film about transgenderism?
Heli: As this shit is behind me I do not pick especially a book or a program about transgender persons. But I do not have anything against transgender persons.

Heli's family seen by her daughter,

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?
Heli: I support full independence. This is a matter of gender identity, not a matter of sexual orientation. But unfortunately the European Court of Human Rights did not see this difference. We are the last cabin of a homosexual train. We get our load of shit because we are transgendered but also get restrictions because we are mixed with sexual orientation minorities.
Debates have raged over whether we should hitch up to the LGBs or not. The main reason at that time was we were so small, closeted and unknown that we needed the critical mass of the established movement to get any hearing. Some believe that was a huge strategic mistake, others do not. However, the fact that our personal issues are often quite dissimilar makes common ground difficult as long as we focus on those differences rather than the basic human rights aspects. Pointing out our differences will only lead to divisions. However, we are not the same and we do not have the same needs.
For sure I understand that concept of 'critical mass' but it has a side effect of being treated as mass. For example, here in Finland where I live, the legislator has taken as a prerequisite for a gender recognition that you are not married. And if you are, your spouse should consent with you that you will terminate your holy marriage between a man and a woman into a civil partnership. Why? Because first we are taken as homosexuals, and we are a subtype of homosexuals that has gender issues.

Transgender revolutionary.

Monika: Is there anyone in the Finnish 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?
Heli: Yes, we have our gay activist history. Our former president Tarja Halonen was in 1980-1981 a chair of Seta, the sexual equality organization in Finland.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Heli: I tried my wings in municipal elections but I have given up that idea. Partly because I found that in spite of having more votes than a male candidate I could not have a confidential post. It was a crisis in the party that I still had my male identity number. We have quotas for men and women in city council confidential posts. I thought this was the last time. I am not satisfied with the stance towards equal marriage in that party so I have resigned.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Heli: It is very important to me.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Heli: I think it would be labelled as “social porn”. So many transgender ladies have written their memoirs with the same manuscript. I have nothing to add to the public.

At 50 years.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Heli: My garden project in Keuruu. Last summer I planted 22 berry bushes, though the summer was awfully hot. But I need to sweat because I have a creeping second type of diabetes and I need to lose weight. I did not go to Strasbourg, France for the hearing of the judgement because I had my garden project. Next summer I will expand my garden further to the waterfront of our second home in Keuruu.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Heli: Seek professional help. Have your gender dysphoria treated. But remember to put first things first. Sometimes the straightforward, oversimplified strategy does not have as good results as you communicate with your beloved ones.
You may have to give up the official part of the transition, the gender recognition but you may win back your life. And remember that each transition is unique as each individual is unique. And God loves all of us. Even those who do not know him. Because God is love.
Monika: Heli, thank you for the interview!
Heli: Thank you, Monika!

All the photos: courtesy of Heli Hämäläinen.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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