Thursday 1 June 2023

Interview with Nyke Slawik

Monika: There are some moments in the history of the transgender community that could be defined as game changers or landmarks that allow us to measure how successful we have become as a community as well as change the way we are perceived by society. The year 2021 was a special moment in Germany where Nyke Slawik and her fellow politician Tessa Ganserer together became the first openly transgender people elected to the German parliament. Today I have the pleasure of talking to one of them, Nyke Slawik, a German politician and member of the Bundestag representing the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia on the Alliance 90/The Greens list. Hello Nyke!
Nyke: Hello Monika!
Monika: It has been almost two years since you became a member of the German Parliament. I guess you must have had some expectations about the job. Did something surprise you?
Nyke: Yes, how little time there is to get everything done. Time and priorities are of the essence, especially if you don’t wanna burn out. In my first year in the Bundestag, I was a bit overwhelmed by everything.
Now I’m focussing on just a few projects that I can handle. First of all the ‘Selbstbestimmungsgesetz’ (self-id law) for trans people in Germany, the national action plan ‘Queer Leben’ (Queer Life) that is aimed at improving the lives of LGBTIQ people in Germany and making public transport more accessible to everyone.
Monika: Most young people are not really interested in politics whereas you were just 15 when you joined the Green Youth, the Green party's youth association.
Nyke: I went to a Catholic school and was quite the lonely teenager at my school. There were not any other queer kids I could team up with. It was hard going through transition without much support.
Also, I remember how much paperwork and appointments it took to get medical help like hormone replacement therapy and to get my name changed. It took years and almost made me lose my mind. I felt it was very unfair to go through such a complicated process. I was ready to start my new life! Instead, I had to go to so many doctors and psychiatrists to get permission for transition. So I had this longing for rebellion and changing things.
In addition, I became interested in climate change and environmental protection when I was that age. The Greens appealed to me because they were demanding climate action as well as more LGBTIQ rights.
Monika: Is this the reason why you support a possible decrease in the voting age to 16 to facilitate increased youth involvement in government?
Nyke: Interests of younger people are mostly disregarded by politics at the moment. There‘s a housing crisis in many countries. More young people live at home these days as in previous generations. The effects of climate change will hit young people in their lifetime, it has started already. My hometown was flooded two years ago, something that was never expected to happen in that region, they called "a once in a thousand years".
"Interests of younger people are mostly
disregarded by politics at the moment."
Furthermore, more young people identify as LGBTIQ these days! I guess because we are one of the first generations that was not a victim of massive state-led prosecution. In Germany, the Nazis killed thousands of homosexuals, and trans people, and even after WW II homosexuality remained partially illegal until 1994, the year of my birth. In the 80s and early 90s, the AIDS crisis killed many queer people.
It’s better these days. We have functioning queer-led institutions, openly queer politicians, queer people can get married and there’s a certain level of protection from discrimination. However, at the same time, conservative politicians are trying to take our newly won rights away. We see it in the US and in Europe as well. And young people are very much affected by all of that!
So, I think, they should get the right to vote from a younger age, like 16 or even younger. Young people are way more interested in politics these days because they feel how existential some of the political threats are to their lives. I have seen climate protests and pride events in Europe with hundreds of thousands of young people participating in the last couple of years. Young people these days wanna be involved in decision making and we should let them.
Monika: You studied at Heinrich Heine University in the German city of Düsseldorf, choosing as your major studies: English and American studies alongside Media and Communication studies. You also studied abroad in the city of Leicester, England, and interned at the European Parliament in Brussels. Was there any special moment that made you decide to become a professional politician?
Nyke: There wasn't a single experience that made me want to run for Parliament. But doing the internship in the European Parliament had a lasting effect on me. I was an intern at Terry Reintke‘s office, she‘s the spokesperson of the Greens in the European Parliament now. Back then, in 2016, she was still very new in Parliament. I was her first intern. She was fighting for LGBTIQ rights and against the backlash in Europe that was very visible in the 2010s. I remember her supporting the LGBTIQ community in Poland and in Eastern Europe, people that were trying to defend their civic rights against an increasing number of queerphobes and nationalist far-right politicians. Terry did all of that, being visible as a young bisexual woman as well. Terry wasn't even 30 back then. She was very inspiring to me. I remember thinking, I wanna do what she does.
And I felt the need for young trans people to be represented in our Parliaments. So after the internship, I started to run in the elections after that. First, the regional elections and European elections, which weren't very promising. But then in 2019, many people in my party started supporting me to run for the general election on the national level in 2021 and we started preparing this campaign all the way in 2019.
In the end, we were successful! When I was elected, we made history. We had a wave of young people under 30, and many young women that were elected into the Bundestag. I was one of them. And together with Tessa we were the first two openly trans women in Parliament.
Monika: You must be one of the youngest members of the German parliament. Does it help you in everyday discussions with other politicians or on the contrary it is a challenge?
Nyke: I remember one night, after a debate, one of the hosts came to me and said: „Ms. Slawik, I underestimated you. I thought, a young woman, what will she bring to the table? In the end, you were more convincing than some of the men who have come here for years.“ I felt insulted and flattered at the same time. This experience is a prime example of what it‘s like.

"I felt the need for young trans people to be represented
in our Parliaments."

Monika: Your 2021 victory was preceded by the unsuccessful 2019 European Parliament campaign, which did not discourage you from active participation in politics.
Nyke: ​​Our election system is very different from the one in the US. Your most important vote is the one for a party list. It‘s quite common for newer and younger party members to be on the party list, but on a spot that is not likely to secure a place in Parliament. In the regional elections and the European elections, I was one of those people rather on the end of the list that wasn't likely to get in. It was a good way to practice campaigning, though.
In 2021 for the general election, I was number 11 on the list, that was a very good spot. We got 27 Greens in from my region. So number 11 was almost a safe deal. I felt very honoured by my party to nominate me for such a prominent starting spot on the list. Even though I was only 27 years old back then, I had devoted over 10 years to campaigning for LGBTIQ rights and to the Greens, so probably it was a fair choice. But I did live through a lot of pushback. Politics is like that.
I ran for the spokesperson of the Green Youth once and wasn't elected, that was hard. Sometimes you lose. And it‘s still like that in Parliament, there are battles you lose. Or now that my party is part of the coalition government, compromises you need to make. Often you have to take tiny steps. Sometimes a step forward is followed by two steps back. You need to have long-term devotion and it‘s important to keep fighting for what you believe in. Real successes often come after years, not days.
Monika: Some transgender candidates fall prey to the unbalanced political agenda in which they focus primarily on LGBT rights, thus limiting their outreach as some voters may regard it as not the most important issue that politicians need to address. You have managed to avoid this mistake. 
Nyke: A lot of people know me because I‘m trans. And I’m happy to be visible because some people write me and tell me they feel comforted by seeing someone like me being in public. I try to live by the motto "Be the change you wanna see in the world." And wanting to see more representation of LGBTIQ people and improving the lives of LGBTIQ people has been a major motivation for my candidacy. However, I always worked on other topics as well. I never wanted to be limited to „being trans“. I became involved in politics before starting my transition.
One of my key memories is seeing Al Gore‘s „An Inconvenient Truth“ about the climate crisis when I was a young teenager. I remember educating myself about what was happening in my neighbourhood. The biggest coal mines in Europe are close to where I grew up. In my hometown, they are trying to extend three existing motorways, which I think is just insane in the midst of the climate crisis. I also come from a working-class background. My political activism was always very broad and about environmental and social justice as well as human rights.

"Be the change you wanna see in the world."

Monika: We pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many transgender 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?
Nyke: The hardest thing was losing one of my best friends in high school. She told me, I would never be a „real woman“. She was very critical about me wanting to transition. I cut off contact. She never came around. For a long time I was haunted by this. Thinking people would never really accept me for what and who I am. Even years into transitioning and having changed my name, it was hard building lasting relationships. You can rush through some of the physical aspects of transitioning and I was always strong on the outside, busy with activism and working on stuff.
But some of the emotional scars took a long time to heal. I had to grow up very quickly because of transitioning, organising health care and changing my name. It took a lot of energy and time and I didn‘t have time for doing things normal teenagers would do. I carried much of this earnestness throughout my twenties. I have become a bit more playful recently and more accepting in general. Some things can get better over time.
Monika: When I talked to transgender girls and women in Germany, some of them indicated that there are still many challenges that transgender people have to face. Let’s start with changing a name. In my interview with Felicia Rolletschke, she said that the change of her name took her three years and cost several thousand euros.
Nyke: Three years is very long. On average it takes 1,5 years. You have to consult two psychiatrists who have to write a detailed examination. You have to answer partially degrading and insulting questions about masturbation, what underwear you like, and so on. Then you have to go to court. You have to pay for everything yourself.
Until 2008 you had to be unmarrried, until 2011 you had to undergo sterilisation. Currently, we are working on a self-id law to replace these outdated practices. And we want to introduce compensation found for those who were forced to have a divorce or being sterilized in order to change their names. The German government has it in its working programme. I really hope both pieces of legislation will get through because we are experiencing a lot of transphobic backlash in the media right now.

"I sometimes think and feel I could have
transitioned earlier, even though I started
hormones when I was 16."

Monika: In addition, many women complain about the infamous “Alltagstest” (a period of time, usually one year, in which transgender people are supposed to “practice” and “experience” life in the gender they are), which reinforces gender stereotypes by demanding gender-conforming behavior from transgender people.
Nyke: Yes, the Alltagstest is meant to „try out“ the gender role before medical treatment is available. In the new medical guidelines they have become less strict about the „Alltagstest“. I think the Alltagstest is unnecessary and just an additional burden for many trans people. 
Monika: Did the recent Grammy Award for Kim Petras spark any discussion in Germany about the benefits of puberty blockers for transgender children?
Nyke: Kim Petras was one of the first trans women I was exposed to! Way before she went to the US and started recording music, she was on German TV as a trans child and teenager, regularly being interviewed. She was definitely an inspiration that it was possible to transition early on. Everyone can clearly see the advantages of an early transition. I sometimes think and feel I could have transitioned earlier, even though I started hormones when I was 16 (a couple of years lost to male puberty though! And I really regret that). 
Unfortunately, we have the same debates in Germany as well, where people are trying to “protect the children” by wanting to ban puberty blockers and hormones for teenagers. A conservative politician recently twittered the German government would try to hand out hormones to teenagers like smarties. Statements like these are obviously not only a blatant lie but also dangerous. However, they are representative of the public debate.
Monika: I guess the success of Tessa Ganserer and yours must have raised many hopes and expectations in the German transgender community. Do you feel this pressure yourself? Both of you might be judged on the basis of whether you have managed to improve the situation of transgender people in Germany.
Nyke: We feel the expectations very much. At the moment we are debating some new legislation. The first drafts for the self-id law are not as progressive as we hoped for. There’s a paragraph stating in case of war, it won’t be possible to change the male gender marker to a female one, because the government does not want anyone to flee the military service. In another paragraph, they are stating that owners of saunas, bars, and homes (anything really) can decide whether to let trans people in or not, which is just an invitation to discrimination. Many people in the trans and queer communities are disappointed. Some of the TERF debates have already influenced the lawmakers in the German government.
"We are trying our best to achieve
as much as possible."
At the same time, I still see progress in many parts of the proposed legislation (no psychiatric evaluation, no courts for changing your name anymore!). And my fear is when this term is over, the conservatives might be back in power, which might shut the door to reform our backward laws completely. It’s a complicated process of weighing the goods and bads. Most of the hope and anger is brought to me and Tessa even though we are also just a minority in the Parliament. We are trying our best to achieve as much as possible.
Monika: I have seen some photos from your meeting with Sarah McBride, the first openly transgender state senator in the USA and the highest-ranking transgender elected official in United States history. How did you connect with her?
Nyke: Someone in her delegation, when she was travelling Europe, contacted me. A professor, she works with, I don’t remember his name right now. (I hope he doesn’t read this! Oops!). It was really nice meeting her. She’s been a huge inspiration! It comforts you seeing other trans people working on the same stuff across the globe. You feel less lonely.
Monika: When you talked to Sarah, did you find any similarities in terms of challenges faced by transgender women in politics?
Nyke: I think our biggest challenge is many see us as “trans politicians” only and then forget that our personality or our lives may consist of other aspects as well, romantically or in terms of hobbies, interests, or political topics that we advocate for. To be seen as the levelled individuals we are is a struggle.
Monika: You know that Sarah published her book? Have you ever thought about doing the same?
Nyke: I haven’t read her book yet, but it’s on my reading list. I have thought about writing a book and the thought is still growing in me. I think I will now when the time’s right.
Monika: Is there any chance for more frequent interactions between transgender politicians in Europe to create a united force at the EU level? I can think of at least 5 high-rank politicians: you, Tessa Ganserer, Lina Axelsson Kihlblom - the Swedish Minister for Schooling, Petra De Sutter - the Belgian Minister for Civil Servants and Government Institutions - 2020, and Lisa van Ginneken - a Member of the Dutch House of Representatives.
Nyke: Not that I know of. Some of us have met. But we have never been in the same room, I mean all of us at the same time. It would be great to change that.
Monika: The Bundestag was established in 1949, so let me count, it took 56 years for the first ciswoman (Angela Merkel) to be the Chancellor of Germany and 72 years to see the first transgender women elected to the Bundestag (you and Tessa Ganserer). How long will we have to wait for a transgender woman to hold the position of the German Chancellor?
Nyke: Good question! I hope that Tessa’s and my presence are simply door openers. Many more have to follow, we have so many “first times” ahead of us. I hope to be able to live through many of them. At the moment, both Tessa and I are happy to be Parliamentarians.
Monika: Nyke, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Nyke: Thank you for your wonderful questions and your blog!

All the photos: courtesy of Nyke Slawik.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

1 comment:

  1. These interviews are Awesome! Thank you so much! I am a Gender Creative male, so while I am not intending to do MTF transition, I am going through my own non-binary transition and these interviews really help me to see in tangible terms how we can face adversity and make authentic positive changes in our lives from those who have done so ahead of us and achieve great things for ourselves in living sovereign “power with” lives. While I think it is important to talk about the challenges and poor treatment I have yearned mostly to understand the uniquely positive powers, abilities, capacities, talents, and gifts Trans and others bring to the table and how they/we can lead from the front starting with our own lives. This is very important and inspirational work you do, and I Thank you kindly for sharing it openly!


Search This Blog