Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Interview with Petra De Sutter

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Petra De Sutter, a Belgian gynecologist, academic, senator, Professor and Head of the Reproductive Medicine Department at Ghent University, Executive of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), a member of the Royal Belgian Academy of Medicine, a former member of the Belgian High Health Council and of the French Biomedical Agency, author of over 300 journal articles. Hello Petra!
Petra: Hi Monika!
Monika: What did you feel when in July 2014 it was announced that you were appointed to the Belgian Senate as a Green Party nomination?
Petra: I was very happy and proud. I hope I can contribute to a more equal and just society, and although the Green Party is a small party (just under 10%), we can influence things and make our world greener, more sustainable and also more equitable.

On the poster for the European Parliament

Monika: It was not your political debut. In 2014 you were placed second on the Green Party list for the European Parliament elections…
Petra: Yes, because I strongly believe that the European level is the level of policy that really matters. All member states depend on each other, we have a common history and a common future. I am in favour of a strong, united Europe, not only an economic union, but also a more social Europe. The latter however is still far away…
Monika: What are the most important elements of your political agenda?
Petra: I am a doctor and a scientist. So public health, health care organization, science and education are my topics. We need to invest more in innovation towards a sustainable world, renewable energy, smart cities and make sure that everyone has access to good quality health care.
Green issues such as the influence of the environment and food safety on public health also need much more attention. On top of that I am also fighting for more rights for the LGBTI and against discrimination. Finally, because I am a specialist in reproductive medicine, all bioethical issues regarding gamete donation and surrogacy, oocyte freezing, uterus transplantation and artificial gametes are of great interest to me.
Monika: With the exception of Georginia Beyer of New Zealand, Vladimir Luxuria of Italy and Anna Grodzka of Poland and yourself, there have not been any other transgender women holding parliamentary seats. Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Petra: Of course they can. In most countries they are still subject of some degree of discrimination, so they know what it is to belong to a minority. Minorities must be protected, this is a sacred duty of all politicians.
Also, having travelled an often painful personal journey makes you strong and gives you the abilities to be smart and strategic in obtaining your goals. It simply gives you a lot of perseverance. Finally, transgender women understand as no one else the sensitivities of both genders and can therefore be good diplomats and hence politicians. 

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?
Petra: I have never experienced any problem whatsoever in being associated with LGB people. You forgot the I, which usually comes even after us. :) Of course there are differences, but also similarities. I used to be transgender, but since ten years now I am a lesbian, so I changed from a T into an L. :)
Monika: Is there anyone in the Belgian 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?
Petra: I don’t think so. Many transgender men and women have come out in the last ten years, and have shown how to be successful, but we do not have “icons”. Maybe it also is not necessary anymore to be an activist, since we have very good laws in Belgium, protecting us against discrimination.
Also, Harvey Milk was assassinated in the end, I hope we would not have to see that happen in Belgium in 2014… on the other hand, we are still far from where we would like to be. For instance, we are still under a law forcing sterilization before legal gender change, but we are working on this…

Swearing-in in the Belgian Senate.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the Belgian society?
Petra: At a general level, transgender people are well accepted. They are protected by law, can live normal lives and have ample access to health care. However, there is still a lot of transphobia (and homophobia) in the streets. So, even if our government protects us, our environment may not…
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Petra: I knew I was “different” from the age of 8, and for sure during adolescence. I tried to hide and correct things until I was 30. Then I started talking to people, met others (it was the beginning of the internet) and it took me another ten years to fully understand I was transsexual and needed to move on. I was 40 by then, this was ten years ago. 
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Petra: When I was an adolescent, I only had the biographies of Christine Jorgensen and a few others to read. You can imagine… Later in life, I was impressed by the people I met, who were active at the Harry Benjamin society (now WPATH), I started to go to scientific meetings, I started publishing myself etc… If you need a name, one of the people I admire is Lynn Conway.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Petra: Losing my partner and her children. It was not possible to stay together, and this has caused me a lot of grief. Fortunately ten years ago I found a new partner and am now happily married.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Petra: Probably yes, it would for sure serve as a good case. Looking at how transgender people are treated in most countries in the world, there still is a long way to go.

During a LGBT pride.

Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in Belgian films, newspapers or books so far?
Petra: Only recently transgender people are portrayed as “normal”, as it has been for gay people since twenty years almost. We are twenty years behind…
Before transpeople were always shown as freaks, as abnormal or at least as curiosities. This is now changing. But what happens on television or in the media, does not translate in the streets yet…
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Petra: Love is very important. What can I say? I love my partner, my friends, my animals, nature… but I also try to live a little bit as a Buddhist, and love everybody and everything. Only in this way the world can become a better place, for all of us.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Petra: It is already written. :) I am just hesitant to publish it, because I hope to live many more years, and so I keep rewriting it all the time…
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Petra: Continuously. Right now, we are working on a legal frame for surrogacy in our country, because we don’t have one. Also in my research group, we are preparing a project on stem cell derived (artificial) gametes. For the rest, I see a lot of infertility patients and keep travelling to Brussels for the political work. I am a 7/7 working person, but happy about it. 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Petra: Do not hesitate and go for it. A better life is waiting!
Monika: Petra, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Petra De Sutter.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

On 1 October 2020, Petra De Sutter was appointed Belgium's new Deputy Prime Minister, making her the highest-ranking transgender politician in the world. What a day! Congratulations Petra!!!!

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