Tuesday 20 April 2021

Interview with Johanna

Monika: Today I am going to interview Johanna, a Swedish businesswoman and Managing Director in one of the biggest Swedish high-tech companies, and a happy parent. Hello Johanna!
Johanna: Hi there Monika! It’s a pleasure to meet you like this. And how fitting in these strange times of social distancing.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Johanna: I’m a 47 years old transgender woman living in Sweden. It took me a long time to come to terms with who I am – a woman – I needed 45 years of my life for that. Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long and what life would have been like, had I transitioned earlier. I have no clear answer, only that I needed that time to develop into who I am today. But once I had accepted my gender identity, there was no turning back, never any choice really; I simply had to live as myself. And today I can love myself for who I am. I no longer define my value solely by what I accomplish. My self-esteem has increased a lot since I started living as a woman.
Monika: I am so happy to see a transgender woman leading a high-tech company! Your professional career is amazing! Let's impress the readers and share some of the highlights of your professional life.
Johanna: Well, I’m not sure if it’s THAT extraordinary. I have a Master of Science degree in theoretical physics and I started my professional career as a specialist programming supercomputers to solve Maxwell’s equations. I was a nerd. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure to work and live, not only in Sweden, but also in Cambridge, UK, and Paris, France. With personal growth, came the realization that I was more of a generalist, and I moved into project management and eventually more commercial roles.

"It is like exploring life for the first time and finding
out what it’s really all about."

My personal interest gradually shifted from technology to people. I took on different managerial positions as Head of Marketing & Sales and Head of Business Development. Today I am leading a business with some 50 employees. We are market-leading in our field, developing and selling maritime products for professional use all over the world. I see my own role as a leader, primarily as a facilitator for the team. You don’t have to be the best at anything really, as long as you surround yourself with the right people. That is quite a relief to realize, actually. There is no need to be right all the time. It is more important to listen to what others have to say. 
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Johanna: I feel very fortunate to live in such an open and inclusive country like Sweden. Having said that, transgender persons are indeed quite unusual and most people I meet probably never met a transgender woman before. In fact, I had not met a transgender person before I realized that I am one myself. I suppose that I have also been lucky in that most of the people around me have been very supportive during my transition and willing to embrace the unknown, expanding their own frame of reference in the process. But of course, there were some people who couldn’t accept me for who I am, both close family and friends. That is their choice – their loss. I honestly don’t lose any sleep over that. I focus on the people who love me for who I am. Those are the only ones that matter to me.
Monika: How about your workplace?
Johanna: In the workplace, things also worked out pretty well. For a start, it is against the law to discriminate against anyone because of gender, gender identity, or gender expression in Sweden. So there is solid legal support. In the summer of 2018, I came out to friends and relatives. At the time I did not have the vocabulary and insight to explain very well to them what I was going through. It was more of an in-your-face coming out – this is who I am – and I wish I would have been able to make it easier for them to understand. For me the hardest thing was actually coming out to myself, to realize who I am and accept and embrace that. That forced me to face my own prejudice. Once I had come that far, it was virtually impossible to live in any other way than as myself. To continue playing the part of a middle-aged white cis male was not an option.

"Today I feel proud of who I am and
I can love myself for who I am."

Returning to work after the 2018 summer holiday, I felt that I couldn’t put my colleagues through the same shock treatment I had given my friends and relatives. So I removed the make-up and wiped my painted fingernails clean, I donned my male business outfit once again and dressed for the part I was playing. Friday nights, coming home from work, I would paint my fingernails and live as the woman I am during the weekend, only to remove everything again late Sunday evening. That lasted a month or two, until one Sunday I just thought: fuck it! I cannot keep pretending to be someone I'm not. So I kept the painted fingernails and went to work on Monday. And yes that caused a few raised eyebrows. Many positive reactions, in fact, open-minded people who saw the unusual and the unknown as something enlightening and interesting. The I-like-your-nails kind of reaction. But also a few people questioning why I would have painted fingernails? And why do they have to be RED? I didn’t have any other explanation to give at the time other than I like painted fingernails and I think it looks good.
Around the same time, I realized that this is something I cannot manage by myself. I needed help. So I started the long medical process of transitioning by calling public health care, asking for help. I told the nurse over the phone I was transgender, and she obviously could hear my voice trembling. Is this the first time you say that to anyone? - she asked. And it was. Towards the end of 2018, I had come far enough to be able to explain what I was going through.
Monika: How did you come out at work?
Johanna: I first gathered my management team, told them about LGBTQ, how this gender thing really works, and what kind of process I had just started. Then I did the same for all the teams under my responsibility. I met with all of them personally and shared my story. And I was met exclusively with love and positive reactions. ‘Ok, then we understand about the painted fingernails. Now we can continue working as we always did.’ Not much drama really, which is what I wish for anyone brave enough to show their true self to the world.
In my whole coming out process, the reactions I got was actually quite overwhelming and something I really hadn’t expected. I was met with so much love and understanding and amazingly nice people. My experience is that by sharing my own vulnerability, I get so much more back in return. People open up and share their own experiences and secrets they don’t normally dare to talk about. That is truly heartwarming.
Also as a manager, I find that my leadership is more authentic now that I can be myself. And by showing that I am vulnerable, my employees get to know the real me, which gives them more confidence in me as a leader. Perhaps it was easier for me to come out at work since I am the boss. In some sense, I am the one setting the culture by my example. I hope that by being open with who I am and showing that it is perfectly fine to be yourself in our workplace, whoever you are, someone else may also find the strength to do so.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Johanna: I started HRT on December 27, 2019, and I had quite a roller-coaster year, the first 12 months on HRT, with serious mood swings and my share of various unwanted side effects. But most of all I was just feeling sad. At one point I even felt I’d lost that profound feeling of happiness originating from the fact that I am a woman. All that was something I was completely unprepared for. Fortunately, my mood is much more stable now. I believe my doctor has finally found the right dosages for me. But it was a difficult year, I cannot say otherwise.
This year has also been about getting to know myself as a woman, who I am, and what I like. It is like exploring life for the first time and finding out what it’s really all about. I’m thrilled with the changes my body is going through, even though they are probably more limited than if I had started HRT in my twenties. But for every day which passes, I become more and more myself. That is a fantastic feeling, which makes me love getting older. Because getting older also means becoming me.

"I hope that by sharing my own story, maybe
someone, somewhere will also feel comforted
and less lonely."

Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Johanna: I am very tall. That is something I cannot do anything about. I also started transitioning rather late in life. So I realize that the dream of passing is beyond my reach. I have been forced to accept that I am the way I am, and to be honest that is something that I have come to terms with. Today I feel proud of who I am and I can love myself for who I am. I am more confident walking around town today as a woman than I ever was when I was living as a man, even though I'm not passing. Sure, the attention I raise being a very tall transgender woman is not something I desire, but most days it doesn’t bother me. In fact, it can be a bit amusing to watch people’s reactions.
In Sweden, no one ever says anything and I’ve been fortunate enough not to be faced with any harassment. But what people think is so obvious. It is written all over their foreheads. It makes me so happy to encounter people who smile and I can see in their eyes that they have an open mind and think it is great to encounter someone like me on the street, just because I happen to be the way I am.
I haven’t undergone any cosmetic surgeries as part of my transition and I am not sure if I ever will. But I think all that is highly individual and I don’t have any good advice to give really. I fully respect those who chose to do cosmetic surgeries because it is the right thing to do for them. 
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Johanna: In particular during the early stages of my transition, role models were indeed very important to me. There were a number of extremely beautiful transgender girls in the US whom I followed on Instagram, like @suddenlysamantha, @meganbound, and @ericaforeverafter. Looking at their before and after shots was really comforting when I was struggling with my own gender dysphoria. Seeing how pretty they were, gave me hope that maybe one day, someday, I too would no longer be forced to live with that male figure who needed a shave I saw staring back at me in the bathroom mirror in the morning.
That is also one of the main reasons why I started my own @jag_johanna (Swedish for 'I Johanna’) Instagram account. I like to contribute as much as I can to spreading information and knowledge about transgender people by sharing my own experience. Visibility is important for all of us and at the time I couldn’t really find any similar transgender girls from Sweden, writing in Swedish on Instagram. So I felt there was a gap to fill there.
Monika: How about Swedish trans women?
Johanna: There are, however, several Swedish role models who have been important to me too. Perhaps the most prominent would be Caroline Farberger, who is the CEO of a Swedish insurance company and came out with a bang in the fall of 2018. That was precisely at the time when I myself had come out to my family and friends but was still not open at work. 
And then one day out of the blue, there was a huge weekend special in the major Swedish financial newspaper Dagens Industri about this CEO transitioning to a woman. She was my age and had a somewhat similar position in the business as I had. For me reading that special gave me a lot of strength. I felt that I was not alone. And I hope that by sharing my own story, maybe someone, somewhere will also feel comforted and less lonely.


All the photos: courtesy of Johanna.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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