Published June 3, 2016
One trans Icelander’s experience with sexism and transition.
The past few years have seen an explosion of international media coverage of trans visibility and human rights. One such recent article, in Time magazine, pointed out the invaluable insight into sexism that trans people have post-transition, having essentially experienced life as both male and female. We got in touch with Hans Miniar Jónsson, a trans man living in Akureyri, to ask about his experiences before and after transition. Although he says he hadn’t felt comfortable in his skin since puberty, he began his transition at 26 years old and has been presenting as male for seven years now.
How would you characterize your experiences interacting with men when you were presenting as a woman?
Mostly frustrating, as though men felt entitled to my time and attention when it suited them, or as though my word was rarely, if ever, good enough, when speaking to them.
Did these vary between environments (work, family, dating, etc.)? How?
Yes, of course. My family’s always been pretty good about these things and so I found I was a lot less second-guessed among family than elsewhere and my boundaries were more respected. Outside of the home it varied based upon setting as well.
I used to mostly work retail. In a flower shop or in stores. At work I was usually treated as though my field of knowledge or interest was confined narrowly to what my job was, and even then, when working in a grocery shop, I was treated as though I didn’t really know anything about that.
When it came to dating and going out in general I found that my physical appearance drew the most attention. I am very tall, 6’2 (188cm), and men would cross the bar to approach me to tell me that I am very tall. More than one man informed me of the convenience of having my chest at eye level. They seemed to think they were paying me compliments, and more than once they reacted with hostility when I made it clear I wasn’t interested in continuing a conversation that started basically with “nice tits.”
At the time, did you consider these experiences as sexism?
Some of them, yeah. The blatantly obvious ones, like the aforementioned comments on my chest, but I was oblivious to the whole of the thing, the little things that were a constant hum between the big obvious ones.
How did these interactions change after you had undergone transition?
People don’t approach me on the same terms any more. The big obvious things have obviously all stopped. No man has felt compelled to cross the room to inform me that I’m ridiculously tall in a long while. But I’ve become aware as time’s passed that the hum of little things has disappeared.
When I say things, people listen to me more, they don’t interrupt me quite as often, women almost never and men very little. When I make a request for information I get answers instead of questions back. (This is something I’ve taken advantage of already. I called the RSK for information they had denied to a woman who is on the board of Hinsegin Norðurland with me and got extremely polite and thorough answers, less than two hours after they’d told her they couldn’t give her the information due to unspecified regulations.)
It’s not all good, though. I seem to be less trusted to be fair on certain subjects, especially ones that have to do with gender equality and children, unless people are aware that I’m transgender. And people seem to expect me to know technical and mechanical things like car parts or computer hardware information, which are things I’ve never really been good at. And when people see me crochet they cross the room to tell me how “special” it is to see a man crochet.
There are things that are a little frustrating now, but these are fewer and less pressing than what was.
And what about during transition? Looking back on it, did you notice anything distinct from these experiences as either a woman or man?
I didn’t have a very long period of looking androgynous and there was so much going on internally that there’s no one event or example specifically that sticks out for me.
There just seemed to be a little hesitation, a little uncertainty on how to proceed when an interaction started, a little hesitation. More often than not I think I was considered him though, perhaps mostly because of my height.
Do you think the environment of northern Iceland affected all this? How?
Akureyri is somehow both a city and a small town at the same time. People heard about me without knowing who I was, and so I’ve been approached with questions when I’ve stepped out. I’ve also made the point of not hiding my transition or trans status, which I know not everyone could even consider doing. I expected worse, to be honest.
Truth is, I can’t think of a much better place to transition—for me at least, I cannot speak for anyone else. The questions people have given me, though inappropriate, even rude, are few and far enough between and never asked with outright hostility, but with genuine curiosity. There isn’t any active hostility to trans people up here that I’ve noticed. Lack of understanding, yes, but that’s pretty much to be expected. It’s really difficult to understand what something is like if you’ve never experienced anything like it.
Maybe because it’s not that big a deal, it’s been easily forgotten. A lot of people might know that I’m transgender, or might have heard I’m transgender, but this isn’t something most of them are actively aware of when we talk. Even people who met me before I begun transition have told me they do a double take when my daughter calls me mom, and I answer her, and it can take them a few moments to remember why this is.
So, I think that I have it good as a trans person, that I’m practically without fail perceived as a man without any ifs, ands or buts. That it’s up to me to decide exactly how out I am and that this doesn’t seem to be affecting my life that much—which is an incredibly privileged position to be in as a trans person.
And maybe that’s why it seems so obvious to me that the way I’m treated right now isn’t the same as I was treated before transition, and that the only thing that’s really changed is whether I’m perceived as a him or a her. My interests haven’t changed. My beliefs haven’t changed. My ideas and ideologies haven’t changed. I’m still the same man as I was before transition.