The Swedish Government Has Stopped Sterilizing Transgender People
Jan 14 2013
In Sweden, the unbigoted wonderland where everything from kids' toys to the way people piss is a matter of freedom and gender equality, forced sterilization for transgender people getting realignment surgery has been practiced for the past 40 years. Back in January 2012, we spoke to Love Georg Elfvelin, a female-to-male transgender person campaigning for his right to not be spayed just because he didn't enjoy carrying a pair of boobs around with him all the time. Good knews for Love: This past Thursday, the Swedish High Courts finally changed the law, so he is free to produce as many mini-humans as he likes. What about those who have already been sterilized against their will, though?
A number of transgender rights organizations are campaigning to help out those who were forced to undergo mandatory sterilization as part of their gender realignment surgery. But while compensation might provide some consolation, you can't buy back your reproductive organs. I caught up with Amanda Brihed, who underwent forced sterilization when she had male-to-female realignment some years ago, to find out what’s been going on.
VICE: Hi Amanda. How does it feel to know that forced sterilization is finally a thing of the past for Sweden?
Amanda Brihed: It feels really good. I have been working for this to happen for a very long time. Unfortunately, it won't change the fact that I can't start my own family in the future. Yet it will change the future for loads of people. It's a relief for me. It’s also a first step toward a process for justice after everything that has happened.
I can imagine. Are you trying to get compensation for damages from the state?
Yes. I'm part of the class action and among those who have agreed to speak publicly for those who have gone through the process. We intend for the legal process to begin for real this year and I believe that we're going to win. Similar situations in the past have ended up with compensation as well as a public apology from the government and the state. There's no reason to believe that we will be denied. This process is in line with the EU's guidelines for these kinds of cases.
How have you been involved in the campaign?
I wasn't the first one to talk about forced sterilization, but I guess I was the first to really get myself heard over the noise of media and politics. For some reason, it all really began after I wrote a blog post in conjunction with Mother's Day a few years ago. I described the loss and grief that I experienced when friends and family members began having families and kids. The blog post developed into a column in the Aftonbladet newspaper. And then things began for real—interviews, articles, evening news, debate shows, political debates and demonstrations. It was completely hysterical. And in many ways, very difficult at times. But it feels amazing that it all led to where we are now. And then organizations such as RFSL and KIM have really done a great job to organize things. I've been working a lot with them as a member and activist, and I've also been working within the political system.
How has the support from the general public been?
I think the support has come along slowly. It wasn't too many years ago that we were considered to be pariahs. People were laughing at us and making jokes about us. A lot of transgender people still have a hard time, but nowadays the support is much greater. I notice this change every day. I've gone from feeling like an animal at a zoo to rebuilding my sense of self-value. It's incredible. We represent one of the last among the human rights movements. We were left behind and stayed there for too long. But I believe that we now have a world record in creating visibility. Even as a global movement.
So what happened for you during your sex change?
When I grew up, there wasn't really much information about sex change operations around. I knew that something was wrong when I was in kindergarten, but had no way to explain why I didn't fit in. I left home as a 16-year-old and was like, "It's going to happen now." But I didn't get any help from the Swedish healthcare system until I was in my 30s. At the time, I had already sought help abroad and began treatment and such. After that the Swedish authorities came into the picture and that meant I wasn't allowed to save my gametes and I was forced to go through sterilization against my will.
One of the many protests that have taken place against forced sterilization in Sweden. Stockholm Pride Parade, 2010.
Why were you sterilized even though you had your operation done abroad?
I wasn't accepted by the Swedish healthcare system. I had been trying to get a referral to a Swedish gender investigation team since the age of 16. It didn't work out so I did what I felt that I had to do. I paid for my own investigation and surgery abroad. However, the Swedish state has really hard demands for allowing a legal sex change. As I'm a Swedish citizen, I had to be approved by The National Board of Health and Welfare's Legal Council. And to get that, I had to prove that I hadn't saved any of my gametes in Sweden or abroad. I also had to go through some pretty invasive examinations after my sex surgery to make sure that absolutely nothing was left of my reproductive ability. Gynaecological examinations, certificates, and documents at a pretty scary level. And there was no way I could escape this. If the Swedish state had any suspicion that I had kept some sort of possibility to get a child in the future, they threatened to disqualify me from all forms of health care and any opportunities to get a legal sex change for the rest of my life.
Wasn't there any way you could tell them to fuck off?
No. If I had refused to agree with the Swedish rules and avoided the non-reproduction laws, I wasn't going to be allowed a sex change. They already pushed me so far that I almost jumped from the Västerbron bridge in Stockholm. I had to sacrifice myself to become myself, in a way. And that will always hurt.
What are you most pissed off about, other than the removal of your reproduction organs?
As I said, we still aren't considered to be human beings. Our protection against discrimination, threats, violence and hate-crimes is still very limited. We're not even protected in labor laws. Forced sterilization is just the tip of an iceberg.
How have your family and friends been through all this?
It's bee greatly varied. My family has partly split up because of it all. Some people have been very supportive, but others have been threatening me with death. Unfortunately, it's been a matter of honor. Now, I don't have many friends left from my past. But I'm lucky to have a really great relationship, lots of new friends, and a big social network around me even today.
Amanda at work with Emanuel Karlsten, a Swedish journalist.
That’s good to hear. Why do you think it has taken so long for forced sterilization to disappear in Sweden, despite the protests?
Probably because few have had their voices heard properly. It's been very difficult to get the message through. The general public has had a difficult time understanding what's been happening.
Doesn’t it feel a bit like a slap in the face that it was the Swedish courts that changed the law and not the state?
I think it says a lot. There's never really been a will to change this on a political level. I really think that all parties, no matter of political color, should be ashamed. They should realize that it’s not OK to continue ignoring us, or the situation we're in.
So if you do get compensation for damages, what’s the price tag?
The money isn’t important as such, but we have claimed €23,300 per person as a minimum. This is based on previous similar cases. However, nothing can replace what’s been taken away from us. Many of us have been scarred for life.
Are you planning on trying to get a family in another way in the future?
Yes, in one way or another. Unfortunately, the laws concerning families are still shaped in ways that make it impossible for transgender people to create a family. My future husband and I are planning to get married this summer. After that, we will still have to fight to be able to have children. Adoption is not a legal alternative for transgender people in Sweden and neither is surrogacy. It really doesn’t look very bright at the moment. There’s still plenty of stuff to do.
Congratulations about your wedding and good luck in the future, Amanda.
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