Sunday 14 June 2020

Interview with Tanja von Knorring

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Tanja von Knorring, a Finnish businesswoman and human rights and transgender activist, co-chair of the 2019-2020 Board of Transgender Europe (TGEU), the roof-top organization of transgender organizations of Europe and Central Asia, fighting against discrimination and supporting trans people rights. She is also the Chairperson of the NGO Transfeminines of Finland, ex-chair of Transgender political committee of SETA – LGBTI Finland, board member in Trasek, and an array of other LGBTI associations. 
Hello Tanja!
Tanja: Hello, and nice to meet you, Monika, in these very special times we are living currently. I'm happy to have an interview with you.
Monika: Before we focus on your activism, I would like to touch upon your managerial career. You can boast a solid portfolio of managerial positions within the Finnish corporate community.
Tanja: Yes, I have had many both demanding and rewarding opportunities in my work life, first as a high ranked civil servant in civil aviation, then leading an airline for 8 years, and finally before giving more time to myself and the activism, as CEO in the transportation field for another eight years.
Monika: So what inspired you to become a transgender activist?
Tanja: I became involved with human rights questions thirty years ago when I was appointed as employer's representative to the refugee receiving committee at Helsinki airport. It was obvious that those in charge of such operations were not up to date with the human rights requirements.

Transgender Europe is a network of different
organizations working to combat discrimination
against trans people and support trans
people's rights. Website:

I continued after those three years with the refugees, defending many other minorities in various circumstances. Mentioned should be the language minority I'm myself a part of, and defending it, the Swedish population of Finland.
We are struggling for such an elementary right, as the right to use our own language with authorities, Swedish being the second official language of the country.
Unfortunately, it is an issue that is all the time under attack by the right-wing movement. That was one of the reasons that I also became the first transgender candidate to the Parliament of the Swedish People's Party (liberal) last year. 
As the Finnish transgender legislation still requires sterilization and one to two years of psychiatric research, along with a one-year-long real-life test, it was natural for me, after I came out in public with my gender, to be involved in transgender movements. I have finally time, have enough life experience, and wish that the following generation should have easier to do their transition.
So I started to devote all my time to the movements, first in Finland, then internationally. Our challenge is a completely new transgender legislation, instead of the current one, which has been condemned internationally, even by the European Human Rights Court.
Monika: I could never understand why the liberal Scandinavian countries are so tough on the trans community. In Sweden, they were sterilizing unwanted people in the name of eugenics, and although forced sterilization became illegal in 1975 for everyone, it did not apply to transgender people applying for gender recognition. It lasted until July 2013 when they stopped it! And I am even more surprised that Finland has not changed this law yet.
Tanja: Finland got its first transgender law in 2002, valid from 1st January 2003. It has been very discriminating and not up to any human rights standards. Before that, there was almost nothing in the legislation, making possible a legal gender correction. In the 1980s if you wanted to transition, you had to stay for weeks in a mental hospital, before you could get permission from the castration committee for surgeries.
In the 1990s, if you knew the correct person at the citizens' register, you could have the gender marker changed with a law that existed for a while stipulating that if you have a "wrong" ID number, it can be corrected. And yes, we have still that law of 2002, even Finland has got remarks for that. The previous government included both Real-Finns (a right-wing nationalist movement) and the Christians; they didn't even bother to answer the EU on the issue.

Rallying for transgender rights.

The current leftist-liberal government has promised new legislation, but the program was undermined already during government negotiations by the Center Party (Agrar movement) thus that only aged above 18 will be able to undergo a gender correction and also that first after having a waiting time of half a year. Both requests have been condemned by the trans and rainbow movement. And now due to the Covid-19, everything is postponed to the future, even if it shouldn't be.
Monika: Being the first transgender candidate to the parliament of the Swedish People's Party, did you have any challenges about building your manifesto? I assume you had to combine transgender rights with non-trans slogans in order to widen the potential circle of your voters.
Tanja: Definitely I had challenges. The hardest was that I was invited to become a candidate when the election had started already, so to form a campaign suddenly was a challenge.
Apart from trans rights, my slogans included other humans rights questions, i.e. better rights for elderly people in their care, which was actual then, due to large investments by some multinational companies in buying hundreds of traditional small old people's homes with unwanted effects for the patients.
In addition, I had also some slogans related to my profession, transportation. In general, the campaign went well and was welcomed by the party and its leaders. But for the voters, a transperson was in some way still an odd bird. This fact and the late start of the campaign resulted in my lack of success. There were two other trans-candidates from two other parties, but none of us has so far become elected to the Parliament, while many of us, including myself, hold city-level responsible positions in committees or boards (I'm on the technical board of the second largest city of Finland).
Monika: Being a co-chair of the 2019-2020 Board of Transgender Europe (TGEU), you must have a "helicopter" view of what is going on in the other European countries. What is the situation of the trans community there?
Tanja: Yes, indeed, it gives a good point of view for all 44 states where we have membership in Europe and Central Asia. If we look at the official legal situation per country, only Finland, Bulgaria, and Romania have sterilization requirements in force. But the situation in many other countries is a different thing. Especially Hungary, and its new law that states a "birth gender" obligatory for everyone and not subject to any changes, which is a direct violation of international human rights. Also, the situation in Poland with LGBTI-free zones is a worrying situation.
Monika: Does the European Union support transgender rights? Does it have any initiatives or instruments for this?
Tanja: Yes it does, and well through its legislation. The EU Parliament has an LGBTI network, that is currently preparing an Agenda for common requirements concerning LGBT issues, also for trans rights. During the Finnish presidency, last autumn a High-Level conference on LGBTI rights for the Union for 2020 and beyond was held, and I'm happy that I contributed to the resolution where I had the possibility to do a personal input, namely that the Union should create an agenda of transgender legal rights, which was eventually adopted in the conference resolution, and as such is currently under work in the Commission.

Tanja at home.

Also, we have to note the strong input of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency into our questions, not to forget the role of the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding for the EU member countries and their officials.
Monika: The transgender agenda is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within such a diversified group?
Tanja: Yes, we can promote to a certain extent. However, the cooperation between trans rights and other rainbow rights organizations is vital, to get enough visibility for our rights among decision-makers.
It is also important that we have both national and international trans rights movements and organizations, advocating our trans-specific questions related to gender correction processes including both legal, social, and specific health care issues, which we are doing policy for.
Monika: When you started the transition, did you have any transgender role models in Finland that you followed?
Tanja: I must say I cannot understand why I should have had a role model, there was none thirty-six years ago, and since then I have been my own role model. I knew at the age of 8 that I was a girl, and at the age of 24 in 1984 I came out of the closet for the first time with success. It was a time when the Nordic countries started to adopt international winds, with ethnic restaurants, the first Satellite-TV channels, and new fashion winds. 
They were the mirror of the world, and you couldn't get much or any information about gender correction possibilities. I had to, unfortunately, return to the closet partially, several times, before I finally did the decision to come out public three years ago.
Monika: I wish I could have transitioned earlier myself. Do you have the same regrets? 
Tanja: Of course, I came out of the closet in 1984, so a transition was my biggest wish, from the day I learned it is possible, which was first some years later. At the time, there was no internet, limited TV and radio, and even less info in the library about us, so it's a miracle, that those of us who dared to come out, did that. I must admit that from time to time, I wish I would have been born 30 or 40 years later than I was.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many trans women lose their families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Tanja: We pay a high price definitely, might it be family or friends in our social frame, work as the economic living frame, or something in our health frame.
For me, after having worked in a good position, around the clock every day for 16 years, but unfortunately not economic benefiting much of it, it was actually a relief when I left my position as CEO in a transport company nearly a year later after coming out in the public. I was free finally to do smaller-scale things that I want.
But yes, the transition has also led to a situation, when it's not easy to get well-paid work anymore even for me, as obviously there is still a reluctance to hire trans people.

Trasek is a Finnish association for transgender and
intersex rights. More information available at

Although I have been involved with the Finnish Business network (FIBS) in a project that emphasizes the benefits of having a versatile working environment, it does not put me in any better situation. 
And unfortunately from my one parent's side, the cousins do not want to have any kind of contact with me anymore. Noteworthy is that when I came out, it was very easy in the office which was all female, but at the garage, it was not so easy, especially with workers with a Baltic or Russian background, but my position as their boss was of course a benefit for me.
Otherwise, it has been a very positive welcome practically everywhere, much more than I thought. Although some friends warned me against becoming a public figure, it was the best decision of my life. That is what I want to say to encourage anyone, who is still in the closet, come out - it will be the best decision of your life. 
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of HRT?
Tanja: No, I'm not completely personally, but on the general level the hormone treatment seems to work. One thing that is currently under discussion is the amount of cyproterone given to patients. The European Medical Agency has limited in its recommendation, due to meningioma risk, the amount to max 10 mg per day, but at least in Finland we the transgender women still get 25 mg per day until 3 weeks prior to genital reassignment surgeries, let it be either orchiectomy or vaginoplasty.
Monika: Is the Finnish Health Service prepared to provide services to the trans community? Are GRS and FFS available for those who wish to undergo them?
Tanja: In our current system, after one to two years since you enter the Transgender polyclinic services either at Helsinki or Tampere University hospitals (the only authorized transgender treatment units) you can get your diagnosis, During the first year you have to undergo different psychiatric tests. After that ICD 64.0 diagnosis will be established, and after that, there is a one-year real life test including hormone treatment during which you are required to live according to the new gender, but with the legal gender still being the old one. That is, as such, a human rights violation.
After the period, the Chief Surgeon of the Transgender polyclinic will give a referral to such surgeries that the Chief surgeon considers you need. Those can be breast augmentation (only those at Tampere hospital) for transfemales, Breast removal (for transmales), Thyroid planing, Phoniatry, Orchiectomy, Penectomy, Vaginoplasty, for transfeminies, and others that might be considered also for transmales.
The patient pays an own-risk part of about 90 euros per hospital day, a bit more if overnight service is required. The vaginoplasty requires at least seven days and is done with penile infusion technique, and only at Helsinki hospital where you have to queue for 12-24 months to undergo it.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Tanja: Everyone has the right of course to participate in any events they want. I was myself the second runner-up in Miss Gay Finland 2019, which is not in itself a beauty contest, but more an occasion to choose an ambassador for the Pride of Finland, but the fact is that also looks are important there, especially in the case of Mr. Gay, which is simultaneously held.

Miss Gay Finland 2019.

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Tanja: Actually yes, although many newspapers, radio, and television have already made many publications about me, like this blog, or at the same time a common Sunday-part for eleven provincial newspapers in Finland, reaching some million readers. But I wish I can do it one day, and tell all kinds of secrets there!
Monika: What would you recommend to all trans women struggling with gender dysphoria?
Tanja: Be yourself, believe in yourself, try to convince yourself that the surrounding society is not so evil as you think.
I would like to say, be brave, but it might be a too hard request, though I wish we all would be like that. And believe in the future even if it doesn't always look so sunny.
Monika: Tanja, thank you very much for sharing your story.

All the photos: courtesy of Tanja von Knorring.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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