Iceland is known for its liberal attitude towards gay people—it was in fact the first European country to recognise same-sex unions in 1996 and adoption by gay people in 2006, and then it was the first to elect an openly gay head of state in 2009. But how does Icelandic society respond to transgender people? Is it just as supportive?
The transgender community is certainly not as prominent as the gay community. However, transgender people seem to have gained more recognition, and if a bill sent to Alþingi this March becomes law Iceland could become number one in terms of transgender rights in the Nordic countries.
Iceland’s first transgender to undergo SRS
The situation was, however, not all that rosy twenty years back. Anna Kristjánsdóttir was the first Icelander to undergo a sexual reassignment surgery, or SRS, sixteen years ago. She has been divorced for 28 years and has three kids with her ex-wife and six grandchildren.
Although she was in her early forties when she made the transition, Anna had been thinking about it for many years. “I don’t think it happened in such a radical way,” Anna says. “I’d been dreaming about it all the time, since I was a kid, as I was never satisfied with my gender.”
Anna’s search for help from the Icelandic medical community in Iceland, which began in the 1980s, was entirely unsuccessful. “At first, the reactions were negative, from all over Iceland,” she says. “You can say that I was forced to move away in the end, because I didn’t get any help here in Iceland.”
She thus relocated to Sweden in 1989. “Sweden was ahead of all other nations in terms of attitudes toward transgender people in the late ’80s, but at first it was a struggle there as well,” she says. “I was a member of the Swedish Transsexual Society at the time, but it wasn’t until 1992, when I got help from a doctor in Uppsala, that everything became much easier. I went through a SRS in April 1995.”
Acceptance comes slowly
Anna moved back to Iceland in 1996 and began searching for work. “I sent out seventy job applications before I got a job—and it was in some cases clearly because of what I had done,” she says. “I was the only transgender person in Iceland at that time and that’s probably why I got mainly negative attitudes from people. I kept on trying though.”
While it took a long time, Anna says attitudes are changing due to the growth of the transgender community in Iceland, which she estimates at around 50 people today. “I believe that gay legislation in 1996 played a big role in changing points of view for our community as well. In 2007, we founded the society Trans-Iceland, which was part of getting more acceptance from the outside,” she says. “Around 2005/2006 attitudes really seemed to change, partly because more people came out. The healthcare system adopted a much more positive stance on transgender issues, which made it much easier for us.”
Incorporating such a huge change in her personal life given her role as a mother has also been challenging. Anna acknowledges that it was a difficult phase for the kids, but that things have again become better and that at least one of them is very positive about her today. A beautiful anecdote underlines this: for his mother’s sixtieth birthday, her oldest son wrote on his Facebook that he was “very proud of the woman his father has become.”
Seeking transgender rights
While things are looking up in Iceland due to the bill on transgender rights, which would make Iceland number one of the Nordic countries in terms of transgender rights, the situation is far from perfect. “I think that today Iceland is at the same stage as Germany, the Netherlands and the UK when it comes to attitudes,” she says. “In all these countries you can of course still find discrimination.” Last month in Reykjavík, for instance, a transgender person was beaten up in a men’s restroom by three men who did not approve of his use of the toilets.
Anna is nevertheless optimistic. “It’s the attitude that matters, and the Icelandic attitude is good. For single people, for gay people and now it is becoming increasingly better—if slowly—for trans people too,” Anna says, smiling.
What’s in the proposed law on transgender rights?
The proposed law’s objective is to guarantee that transgender people are treated equally before law according to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
If it is passed this June, Landspítali National University Hospital of Iceland will be required to have a team of specialists on Gender Identity Disorder (GID). The team will include psychiatrists, psychologists and endocrinologists, and its role will be to diagnose and treat individuals with GID.
The Minister of Welfare will employ an expert committee on GID, including two doctors and one lawyer, appointed by the minister. The committee will serve a four-year term.
After an individual diagnosed with GID has worked with the team of doctors at Landspítali and confirmed their new gender with the expert committee, the committee will notify The National Registry. The individual will then be permitted to change their name according to their new gender (note: In Iceland, males must take male names and females must take female names as recognised by a special Naming Committee).
An individual who is registered in The National Registry but undergoes a sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) while living abroad can request that the National Registry change their name in their database. The National Register will assesses the application, including whether the name change and/or correction of sex have been authorised by competent authorities or courts.
An individual who has changed genders will be guaranteed the same rights as people of this gender enjoy.
In the case that an individual decides to return to their previous sex, they may seek help from Landspítali’s team of doctors, which will review the application and potentially revoke the gender change (this is very rare).
The proposed law will be voted on this June 27, 2012, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.