Changing gender in Norway

Soon, this former Navy captain will be recognized for what she is: a woman born in a man’s body

Photo: Vegard Eggen / Addressa Transgender activist John Jeanette Solstad Remø wants to change her legal gender from male to female.

Photo: Vegard Eggen / Addressa
Transgender activist John Jeanette Solstad Remø wants to change her legal gender from male to female.

The Local

As the commander of a Cold War submarine tracking the Soviets, John Jeanette’s dresses were stashed away in a locker reserved for top-secret documents.

Under a proposed new bill hailed by activists as one of the most liberal in the world, people who want to change gender in Norway would no longer be required to undergo any physical transformation.

No more humiliating psychiatric exams, no lengthy hormone treatments and invasive surgeries resulting in irreversible sterilizations that have been the practice for a legal gender change in Norway since the 1970s.

All you would have to do is notify authorities—a click on a website would suffice—if the bill becomes law.

The legislation, which activists hope will be voted on by parliament before the summer break, has met little opposition.

“All my life, I had to show that I was a boy, then a man. I played the role of macho. I had a nice thick beard, exactly as was expected,” says John Jeanette Solstad Remø, who picked a first name emphasizing her trans identity.

“But when I look like a man, even though I can function, life is gray. When I look like a woman, it’s the opposite, there are lots of colors in my head and around me,” adds the 67-year-old ex-submarine captain.

“No one other than me can decide who I am and this law recognizes this right.”

Dressed in a black skirt and a pale green top, brown bob framing her face, Remø recalls a lifetime of uphill battles.

Her memories range from the joy of wearing girls’ clothes at the age of four and being immediately stifled by her mother, to suicidal thoughts in her teens after being outed by other youths.

She also remembers trying to fit in while hiding her true self in the virile world of the naval academy and the submarine corps.

“When we called at port, we often stayed in hotels. I would buy a bottle of wine, I’d watch TV and I stayed in my room, dressed as a woman. It was the only way to survive,” says Remø, who has not undergone gender reassignment surgery.

Her first marriage ended after her unwitting wife found a bag of women’s clothes hidden in the cellar. Remø remarried, this time to a woman who accepted her as she was: “The trans that I am is sort of a third person in our relationship.”

While times have changed in Norway, and public opinion too, daily life can still be problematic when it comes to borrowing a book at the library, filling a prescription, or crossing borders with identification papers that don’t match one’s physical appearance.

Still listed as a personality disorder by the World Health Organization, transgenderism stirs up emotions internationally.

A North Carolina law that requires transgender people to use the restroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates has sparked angry protests, from Bruce Springsteen to Deutsche Bank.

Argentina is a pioneer in the field, having allowed people since 2012 to choose their own legal gender without having reassignment surgery. But life expectancy for the Latin American country’s transgender population is no more than 35 years, according to a study by the Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgenders of Argentina.

It said they were often ostracized by society, facing discrimination and a lack of access to jobs and housing, for example, that left them increasingly desperate.

“The law is one thing but you also have to really change attitudes,” says Patricia Kaatee of Amnesty International, which fights for the rights of transgender people.

Norway’s bill also allows minors aged six to 16 to change their gender if both parents agree. If one parent opposes, authorities may decide “in the child’s best interest.”

“The law will make things easier for us. We won’t have to always prepare everything in advance before going anywhere,” says Sofie Brune, a mother of two who lives in Oslo.

Her second child Miria was born in a girl’s body but has identified as a boy since a very young age. So it’s only natural that he now plays on the local boy’s football team, and he’s treated as a boy in school.

“He’s happy. That’s what’s most important. Children around him are very tolerant once we explain,” Sofie says.

For transgender people, the most important thing is to be able to live their lives the way they want. In the words of Frida Haslund: “I don’t want to be buried without ever having been myself.”

This article originally appeared in the June 3, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.