Published August 8, 2012
On June 27, the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a landmark occasion for human rights took place in Iceland as a bill protecting the rights of transgender people came into effect. Already commanding a reputation of being a leader in social equality, the country joined a growing community of nations that are enacting laws to improve the quality of life for transfolk, including the UK, Spain, and most famously Argentina, whose law passed last May has been heralded as the most progessive to date. The new Icelandic law puts in place a simpler process for people to go through gender transition medically, change their official documents, keep their families intact and reinforces their right to equal treatment under the human rights act.
One person who this bill directly affects is Alison MacNeil, who moved to Iceland from Halifax, Canada, thirteen years ago and is known within the musical community as the CEO of Gogoyoko and a member of the band kimono. Born biologically male and formerly known as Alex, she has been outwardly living as a woman for a year and a half and undergoing medical transition for the past nine months, after living with the knowledge and sense of her own womanhood in near secrecy for 30 years.
Do it for the kids
“I’m a father of two girls,” Alison explains as the impetus for becoming more open about her situation. “I’ve been with my girlfriend for thirteen years now and we spoke about it quite early after we got together so she’s been kind of the only person who’s known about this for quite a long time. My oldest was turning three and I didn’t want her growing up in a house where she felt she had to keep some sort of secret. I think that would be very unhealthy for her. For both my daughters.” With this conclusion reached, she and her girlfriend began telling their family, friends, and Alison’s colleagues in a gradually evolving process.
Telling her family had an immediate unexpected outcome. “You hear a lot of stories, especially from older people—broken up marriages, parents not speaking to their children, this kind of thing,” she tells me. “I have to admit that’s what I thought was going to be the case with my parents and then they were totally open. I felt badly afterwards that I didn’t give them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve always been loving and caring. It’s just a shame that I didn’t tell them earlier, that’s all I was thinking. It’s been a really eye-opening experience.”
Alison’s coming out continued smoothly as she was overwhelmingly met by acceptance and appropriate curiosity within her work environment and social circle. “You can’t just be out to a small group of people, in my position, you have to be open,” she says. “I had to speak to the staff but I also had to speak to the board of directors and to all the people that are connected to Gogoyoko in the investment funds here in Iceland. Our chairman of the board is a really sweet guy and he and all the people that work with him were super accepting. It’s maybe new for them, but I didn’t notice any pushback whatsoever.”
It was at this stage too that she adopted her new moniker. “Changing my name was an important catalyst for everything else that’s happened in the last nine months,” she says. “Alex wasn’t clear or challenging enough. It would be too easy for people, including me, to ignore the change and the transition if I stuck with Alex, and so I chose something unambiguously female.” The change has also been a way for her to keep track of who is aware of her transition and who is not. Out of a selection of several names she liked, she went with the one suggested by her mother. “I like that she was involved in the process like she was in the beginning,” says Alison. “And starting my new life with my name in songs by Elvis Costello, Slowdive and The Lemonheads isn’t too shabby. None of the other names matched as many song titles in my music collection.”
Down to the details
Aside from the elements of social readjustment, Alison is well into the physical process of transitioning, which will most likely be surgically completed within the next two years, although there is no real finish line. The process of transitioning genders begins on the mental and emotional level by consulting with psychiatric professionals to diagnose the official condition known as Gender Identity Disorder (GID). “I’ve been seeing [a psychiatric professional] about it since 2003 or 2004,” she explains. “It’s difficult to test for this kind of thing. There’s talk about genetic markers and stuff like that, but they don’t know how to do it, so it’s a lot of talking about one’s history and whatnot. I assume I filled out at least some of their boxes.”
The hormonal treatments begin two years prior to any surgical procedures and continue for the rest of one’s life, as hormonal production is related to internal sex organs which, as of yet, are not transplanted. These hormonal treatments are mostly covered by insurance and Alison only pays a small portion out of pocket. In addition, she intends to have full operative reassignment, which is now covered in full by insurance. In Iceland there are three main doctors responsible for gender transition, most notably Óttar Guðmundsson, who has been most publicly prominent for championing the rights of transpeople. A Swedish specialist has flown over every couple of years to lead the reassignment surgeries, although this is likely to change over the course of the next year as a local team of professionals will soon be established according to the new bill of rights.
The psychiatric element of the transition process takes an important step up under the new bill, as well. Prior to the investigation of transgender issues by the Parliamentary Ombudsman in 2009, which led to the law’s drafting, one had to wait until surgery had been completed in order to change one’s name and gender in the National Registry. This step can now be fast-tracked.
“Two sets of committees are being established,” says Minister of Welfare Guðbjartur Hannesson, who brought forth the law, known as Act on the Legal Status of Transsexuals, No 57/2012. “Firstly, a team of specialists at the National Hospital who supervise the diagnosis. Secondly, a committee headed by the Surgeon General which has the task of confirming that a person belongs to the other gender and that, if applied for, the person is qualified for reassignment surgery.” Once a person has the latter confirmed, he or she is legally recognised as their registered gender and enjoys the same rights as others granted by law. Additionally, if one does undergo full operative reassignment, the National Registry will now have the authority to contact individuals to change their name and gender on their official documents.
The element of the medical, particularly psychiatric, diagnosis of GID remains a tenuous topic among the transgender community and advocacy groups. “It is categorised in the DSM IV and it is a controversial thing,” says Alison. “On the one hand, I suppose you don’t want to be stigmatised by having a mental illness but at the same time, society’s view of mental illness is evolving as well. I think that’s how we grow up as a society is to start looking at mental illness as something that doesn’t need to have that stigma.”
Although Alison herself does not think the condition itself is an illness—“I don’t think anyone with a feminist slant would say that it’s an illness to be female,” she laughs—she does contend that there is a logical flipside to the treatment of it as a medical condition. “If somebody’s been hiding this their whole life, it can cause mental illness,” she says. “It can cause a lot of anxiety or destroy your family or your friends might not want to have anything to do with you anymore. That hasn’t been my experience, but that would cause you mental distress. So classifying it and treating it is not, in my opinion, a bad thing. It doesn’t bother me that it’s in the DSM IV.”
Guðbjartur adds that the committee that drafted the new bill—which consisted of five people from the Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of the Interior, the Directorate of Health, the Icelandic Human Rights Centre and local transgender organization Trans Ísland—were most concerned with putting medical rights and anti-discrimination amendments at the forefront. “This is a delicate matter which is debated among specialists in transgender issues,” he says. “The working group considered it was not timely to take a stand on the revision of the condition of medical diagnosis, that being the foundation for them to receive necessary treatment.” By comparison, Argentina’s lauded bill of transgender rights passed on May 9 allows individuals even under the age of 18 to change their documents prior to an official diagnosis and receive free hormonal and surgical treatment.
Substance over appearance
However, the most important aspect of the process to Alison is far from the transition she is undergoing physically. “I think the thing that people jump to most often is the surgery, but the difference that I am most fascinated with this is, for instance, the emotional side of it,” she says. “I’ve really noticed in the last six months that my emotions are much closer to the surface, much more so than they’ve ever been in my life, and I can say for a fact that that’s something that’s always been missing from my life. It’s also just fascinating to see that there are these differences. What your brain chemistry does. To be on one side of it and then to slowly move onto another side is just like, ‘what!?’ It’s amazing.”
Her own concept of what gender is and what gender feels like in her body also shifts throughout the process, bringing to the surface the epistemological aspects. “It changes for me, as this goes on and through my life,” says Alison. “It’s not your clothes or your job or all this other stuff. I think that is what’s so exciting about [transgender people] being so much more open in society. What society can learn from this is that so much of what we attribute to gender, in terms of what our privileges or disadvantages are, is so much bullshit. You can’t write that any more clearly for someone than to go through this and see.”
“Right now [gender] has a lot to do with my emotional response,” she continues. “There are other aspects to it, but none of these traits are exclusive to male or female either. I’m in a period of moving through an in-between thing.” She adds that many trans people prefer this state of ambiguity, citing the transgender writer Kate Bornstein who often discusses a state of being in an in-between place and having little interest in being defined on either end of the gender binary. Some have created a new vocabulary of pronouns for transgender as well, such as ‘se’ and ‘hir,’ combinations of the words ‘she’/‘he’ and ‘him’/‘her.’
Alison prefers to be called by female normative pronouns, but understands that this too is part of the transition period for those around her. “I’m trying to encourage people to use ‘she’ and my new name, but I also recognise that it also takes people time to adapt,” she says. “I don’t think it’s right for me to jump down somebody’s throat if they say something that fits what they see. It’s a different case if someone’s being malicious with what they’re saying. I haven’t run into that, but I would take issue with that if it were the case. I think if people mean well it’s not something to get too upset about.”
Knowledge is power
Although some transpeople here have been the target discrimination or subjected to violence—there was a recent incident at a downtown club where a transgender person was attacked for use of the washroom—Alison has not been subjected to such treatment nor actively feels any threat. “The reaction to transgendered people in Iceland, if it’s negative, tends to be along the lines of snickering or laughing behind somebody’s back,” she says. “That’s damaging, to have to deal with that. I guess it bothers me. That’s kind of the way that it’s been since Monty Python; a guy dressed in women’s clothing is supposed to be the pinnacle of humour. That’s part of feminist theory as well, is the concept of dressing up and dressing down. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently: is the violence there to discourage someone from dressing up and to be part of some male control? It’s probably more rooted in homophobic or transphobic attitudes.”
On the whole, she feels that Icelandic people want to learn about her more than they want to make assumptions. Increasingly widespread awareness of trans people has also given rise to their visibility and diversity on an everyday level. “There was a period there where you would only see it in a sensational way, which is not something that’s ever really appealed to me particularly,” says Alison. “There’s such a wide range of people and what they’re interested in. There’s very little that ties trans people together aside from being trans.”
However increased visibility and awareness does not always translate into knowledge. “People who have been living with this their whole lives have spent a lot of time reading about it in books or on the internet, so they have all this information,” she says. “It can kind of give a distorted view of the world, especially if you have any tendency towards solipsism, to think that other people have the information that you do, whereas they don’t. At all. I learned this pretty quickly with my mother because she’s somebody that ingests facts. I immediately gave her a book and she had it read in two days. She wanted to know everything about this.”
“Because my girlfriend and I are still together, the feeling people often have when they’re finding out about this for the first time is how amazing she is, because it’s quite a thing for her to go through,” Alison goes on, offering an example of the preconceptions that she encounters from time to time. “Then again, they don’t know that she’s been living with this for most of the time we’ve been together. That would point to a misconception, that it breaks up marriages and relationships and whatever else, but we decided to have kids after knowing about this for a long time.”
She’s my dad
Although many people assume that revealing this to one’s family can cause a severe rift—and in many cases it does—having children and maintaining custody of one’s children has also been specifically protected under the new bill of transgender rights (Article 10). Indeed, Alison’s family life and her role as a parent seem to the most important aspects of her person and, having taken her parenting principles as the launch-point for her coming out, are an integral part of the shift her life is taking. “We’re both really involved parents and we have always tried to keep everything in the house as gender-balanced,” she says. “[my girlfriend] does a lot of maintenance around the house and we both do a lot of cooking, stuff that sounds like it’s been equal for the last thirty years but it really hasn’t. Anyone who’s been in a relationship knows. Nothing has changed really.” Since both their daughters are quite young, the shift in their home seems to have been quite subtle.
“The older one’s the only one who is kind of aware of this,” she continues. “Our youngest is still a one-year old and I’m still ‘baba’ to her, whatever that means! I think in terms of what the kids call you, it’s so much up to them. Actually, [the eldest] just calls me Alison most of the time and she’s done that since she was a baby—called us by our first names—which I’ve always thought is kind of cool. I always kind of wondered if I would have that kind of family or not. We didn’t make it happen but that was what she decided. She’s very headstrong. She was very quick to take up the new name as well.”
Overall, she does not think that the challenges of parenting are any different for her than for heteronormative families. During the process of telling their families and friends, she and her girlfriend also took precautions to create security for their children. “We went to the kindergarten and spoke to the teachers there so that [our daughter] wouldn’t be corrected all the time,” she says. “We’re just trying to keep as many safe places as possible. That was the other driver for speaking to [my girlfriend]’s parents so that our daughters would feel comfortable and open. We’re really playing it by ear.”
In the end, Alison’s life is busy and productive and filled with good people—she sometimes sleeps, apparently. Hence, much of it has remained just as it was before. “My biggest support system has been my family and my friends,” she says. “That’s what I rely on. A lot of people talk about this like your old life is dead and you’re starting a new one, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve got too many things that are [solid]. It’s not like I’m going into the witness protection program. I’m still here.”
She does realise though that some things beyond her control have changed, and will change, permanently. “It’s strange. To have spent my whole life hiding out in the privileged group of white, heterosexual males it’s a little bit odd to think of myself now as being in some sort of minority,” she admits. “There’s another interesting aspect of it which is to be sort of giving up some things. I know some of my male friends had the discussion when they met up of whether I would be invited to the guys’ get-togethers—like where they go out and shoot something and go to the summerhouse. They decided that I would still be invited, but then I started to feel like, why would I be invited and not my girlfriend? She’s just as much their friend. You know, the only tranny in the hot tub.”
Ultimately, Alison says that it is not just her own transition, but that everyone she knows is transitioning along with her too. “I suppose I’m getting my head around this and my friendships will definitely change a lot as this process goes on,” she says. “It can be difficult to get a handle on all the changes since life is happening fast. I’m just glad that I work in music, where the more things change the more they stay the same.”
Grace Under Pressure
— The kimono Story
by Bob Cluness
kimono began in 2001 as a four piece band consisting of Gylfi Blöndal (guitar), Halldór Ragnarsson (bass), Þráinn Óskarsson (drums) and Alex (now Alison) MacNeil (guitar, vocals). Over the following decade, they would become recognised by both music fans and their peers as one of the most influential guitar bands in Iceland, with a reputation for blistering live performances and top notch music.
Mineur Aggressif (2003)
Their debut record, ‘Mineur Aggressif,’ was released by the Smekkleysa label in 2003, which began to define the kimono sound of pounding rhythms, layered guitar lines and Alison’s mournful vocals.
Arctic Death Slip (2005)
This was soon followed in 2005 with ‘Arctic Death Ship,’ an album that continued to expand upon their sound.
Curver + kimono (2007)
The band then took a change in direction in 2007 with a split album with Curver “Ghostigital” Thoroddsen, which saw them embrace electronic sounds and vocal manipulations.
Easy Music For Difficult People (2009)
After losing bassist Halldór, kimono realigned themselves as a guitar based trio, before releasing their third studio album, ‘Easy Music For Difficult People,’ in 2009 on Kimi Records. The album received both critical and commercial praise for the quality of the songs and for its capturing of the energy of their live performances.
kimono are currently working on their fourth long-player, which is eagerly awaited by their dedicated fanbase…
What Is A Gogoyoko?
By Bob Cluness