Iceland has “fallen behind” when it comes to legal protections for transgender people, according to trans activist Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir. Their comments come just ahead of the seventeenth annual Reykjavík Pride, a week-long festival celebrating Iceland’s LGBTQI communities that begins on August 2.
One of the main issues with the Icelandic law is that it is focused on the gender binary, says Ugla, who is a board member of Trans Iceland and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Youth Organization. On May 28, Ugla spoke at TEDx Reykjavík about this and others issues facing the trans community in Iceland.
Bumping up against the law
“Iceland was one of the most prominent countries for legal rights in 2012, but we’ve fallen swiftly behind today,” Ugla says. In countries such as Sweden, Malta and Argentina, Ugla says trans people have achieved greater legal progress than in Iceland.
According to Ugla, Icelandic law is focused on the medicalization of trans people. “The pretense of you being able to seek health care is that you need to be diagnosed with gender identity disorder,” they say. “And then you can apply for hormones, name changes, and so on.”
In order to receive that diagnosis and be given access to trans-specific health care, a trans person must first convince a team of doctors of their gender identity. “That is one of the biggest problems, that you have to prove to someone else who you are,” Ugla says. “And the questions they ask you and the criteria they use is very outdated. It’s very focused on binary categories.”
“If you’re a woman you have to ‘be a woman,’ and if you’re a man you have to ‘be a man,’ and if you identify outside of these categories you’re going to have a harder time,” Ugla says. “So a lot of trans people just play along.” They also add that there is no reference to trans youth in Icelandic law, meaning the healthcare they receive is inconsistent and unregulated.
Today, Ugla is well-known as a spokesperson for Iceland’s trans community, but they say that wasn’t always the plan: “I actually wanted to be a private person, but there was such a need for someone to step up,” they say. When they came out, Ugla was the first openly trans person in northern Iceland, and they didn’t have many role models to look up to. “I wanted people to know there is someone out there and that they could seek support,” they say.
But being the face of trans people in Iceland comes with its own difficulties, including being asked questions that are often personal or degrading. Since July 1, Ugla has been blogging for the Huffington Post, and in a recent post they discussed the range of questions they receive as a trans person, including whether or not they’ve had genital surgery or how trans people have sex.
“At the start, I was very naive and just answered everything they asked me. But some of those questions aren’t really anyone’s business,” they say. “And maybe they aren’t relevant! It doesn’t change anything for trans people whether people know if I’ve had genital surgery or not. What would change things is if I describe my experience for other trans people.”
Thinking beyond Pride
As a board member of Trans Iceland, Ugla has been consulted by Reykjavík Pride regarding programming, and they say that overall the pride festival in Reykjavík is inclusive of trans identities. However, at the end of their TEDx talk, Ugla reminds the audience that supporting trans people is about more than just showing up at Pride and waving a flag.
“I think people need to be aware that this is an ongoing battle, and people need to support us for the long run,” they say. “Trans people may not have access to spaces that you have access to, so you need to make sure that you bring up those issues when appropriate.”
When Reykjavík Pride kicks off on August 2, there will be a number of trans-specific events, including the ongoing art exhibition “Transformation” by Tora Victoria. Ugla will be speaking at a seminar on LGBTQI rights in a historical perspective on August 3, and the Pride parade will begin at Vatnsmýrarvegur at 12:00 on August 6.