From Seattle to Scandinavia, different takes on gender identity

Grayson Toliver at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon in Iceland. (Photo by Katie Smith)

Why the cold-climate countries of Northern Europe can be hard to adjust to for LGBTQ Seattleites.

We Seattleites can often be caught talking about Northern Europe like it’s some kind of utopia. Scandinavian countries have some of the highest living standards in the world. They’re revered for “liberal” politics, developed economies, and high rankings in the Human Development Index and the Happy Planet Index.

Two good friends of mine, Indigo Trigg-Hauger, and Grayson Toliver, are spending time this year studying at the University of Oslo in Norway, and University of Akureyri in Iceland respectively.

Both say they came to these countries with high expectations.

“I definitely had a perception that Norway was going to be the closest you could get to utopia, because it’s usually ranked in the top 5 places that are the best countries to live in,” Trigg-Hauger said. “I thought, ‘Norway is so equal and perfect.’”

But within a couple of months, both students discovered something that we may have overlooked — that these highly homogenized societies harbor strict enforcements of gender roles — often in sharp contrast to the mainstream “queer-friendly” vibe they’d become accustomed to in Seattle.

“Being gay and gender queer, it’s been a bit shaky in particular social situations because… there isn’t much room for gender bending,” Toliver said of Iceland. “Through that, I have seen my own gender expression being regulated.”

“The ‘I-was-born-this-way’ argument is very strong in Norway,” explains Norwegian trans* activist Tarald Stein comments in an interview with the website We Who Feel Differently. As soon as you say: I wasn’t born this way, but I had to be this way; or: I don’t care what the reason is, but this is what I need, then it is difficult for people to deal with it.”

Meanwhile, neighboring Sweden has made news with the introduction of a gender-neutral preschool in 2011, and with certain Swedish theaters recently  implementing film rating system called the Bechdel Test to screen for strong female roles in movies.

Swedish-born trans activist Danielle Askini, has spent the past 15 years living between Sweden, the Netherlands, and Seattle, working on behalf of trans and gender non-conforming individuals. She is the Executive Director of the Gender Justice League, and helped launch the Nordic Trans* Network, which hosts conferences twice a year to bring together trans activist groups in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.

Askini began transitioning in the United States in 1997. She noted that 90 percent of trans people have trouble with health providers here in the United States. But while Americans have the option to change health care providers, cities like Olso only have one clinic to serve the trans population.

My experience [transitioning] in United States was very hostile and trans-phobic, while I felt a lot safer and continue to feel safer in Scandinavia,” Askini said. “In my first years of transitioning I had to move back to the Netherlands to get healthcare because in the United States, treating someone under the age of 18 was unthinkable.”

Teaser for “The Cost of Gender” a Seattle Globalist project on the state of transgender health care in the U.S. and why Americans are traveling abroad to get it.

In contrast, having lived in Norway for a few months, Trigg-Hauger has noticed that awareness on trans issues is not widespread.

She said concepts such as cis-gender (when an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth), pansexual (attraction to toward people of all gender identities and biological sexes) or asexual (low or absent interest in sexual activity), etc. were not widespread in Norway or Iceland in the way that they are in Seattle.

“In Norwegian the word for transgender translates to transsexual, which is no longer an accepted or accurate word to use,” Trigg-Hauger said. “My Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies class, even Master’s students, [in Norway] didn’t know what cis-gendered, pansexual, or asexual meant.”

Askini attributes these trends more to demographic and linguistic factors.

“The English language is large and evolves quickly, while Norwegian is only spoken by 5 million people, and Icelandic is spoken by [even fewer],” Askini said. “Therefore there’s some catching up to do. Within Swedish culture, which is a more large and global culture, our language has adapted through interaction with American queer activism.”

Toliver says he experienced first-hand discrimination when navigating Icelandic nightlife.

“At bars or when I went out, if I had my nails painted people would … be taken aback or confused,” Toliver said. “Also, because of my gender non-normativity people would read me as ‘seeming gay.’ People would come up to me and ask those questions, including if I was gay, and walk away, with that being the sole interaction.”

Both Toliver and Trigg-Hauger felt that beyond differences in language, this often translated into different approaches in discourse.

“Norway is really friendly to cis-gendered gays,” Trigg-Hauger said, “[but] I don’t think most Norweigans have caught on to trans issues…They have this very narrow idea of what it means to be trans or to be gender queer.”

For Askini, it comes down to how these historically homogenous societies handle identity.

“There is a wider acceptance of queerness but a lack of exceptionality in that identity,” she said. “People don’t arrange their interactions and community and identity around queerness like we do in the United States.”

Ultimately, while these Northern European nations offer really progressive infrastructure resources, there aren’t the same kind of open communities of queer and trans people that are so visible and accessible in Seattle.

“In a place like Seattle, you have queer safe spaces,” Toliver said. “So it’s a lot easier to feel more comfortable and find a sense of community,”

It makes for what Askini ultimately referred to as a “trade-off” of sorts.

“We see these nations as socially progressive, but they are also smaller places,” Askini said. “There aren’t neighborhoods [in Sweden] like how we have Capitol Hill here — there isn’t an intentional community. It feels more healthy and supportive, but more isolating at the same time.”

Editor’s note: The asterisk in “trans*” is a new umbrella addition to include folks who are transgender, gender non-conforming, and other gender identities. Learn more here!

This article has been updated since its original publication.


    1. Photo was by Katie Smith (you can see the caption and credit by clicking or mousing over the photo)

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    1. Photo was by Katie Smith (you can see the caption and credit by clicking or mousing over the photo)

Comments are closed.