There is always talk

Elísa Björg Örlygsdóttir Husby is the new chair of Trans-Iceland. She had to fight the system for eleven years before she was allowed to get sex reassignment. Shortly after she had started the process she met the love of her life who was also in the process of reassigning her sex. The ride has been a bit rocky for Elísa but today she is married to her love, living in her dream house in a village just outside Keflavík and enjoying life to the fullest.

Though she is the new chair of Trans-Iceland, the association for transgender people in Iceland, Elísa by no means a newby in the association. She has been a chair before and before her election a few weeks back she was responsible for the finances of the association.

“So there won’t be many changes in how Trans-Iceland is run,” she says with a broad smile, when I start by asking her about her new position. “I’ve been a member of the association since the beginning in 2007 and always as a member of the board, so I have always had a say in how we represent ourselves and been a chair twice before.”

We chat for a while and Elísa goes on and tells me that she underwent her sex reassignment operation in 2009, when she was 40 years old, but she had been trying to be allowed to correct her sex for 11 years. Why did it take so long?

“I don’t really know,” she says. “The only answers I ever got didn’t specify any particular reason, just that I didn’t meet the requirements for the reassignment. My psychiatrist said that I was confused and that I was just associated with too many gay and lesbian people and wanted to be like them.”

Elisa and Guðmundur Helgason, former chair of Samtökin '78 (The National Queer Organization) celebrating a law objective is to guarantee that transgender people are treated equally before law according to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Elisa and Guðmundur Helgason, former chair of Samtökin ’78 (The National Queer Organization) celebrating the passing of laws back in June 2012 which objective was to guarantee that transgender people are treated equally before law according to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

After two refusals Elísa applied one more time and by that time her psychiatrist had “seen the light”, she explains, so her application got the green light. Asked if she does not think it is unfair that transgender people have to undergo all these psychiatric valuations she shakes her head.

“No, I think it’s absolutely necessary. This is a very big decision and if you have the reassignment without being absolutely sure it can have horrible consequences.”

But you were always sure that you were a woman? “No, not really. I was not sure what I wanted to do. I started dressing as a woman when I was 23 years old and I always wanted to have breasts, but I was not certain that I wanted to have my penis removed. I had suicidal thoughts on and off for years, but eventually I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a woman all the way, that’s who I am.”

Shortly after Elísa started the process of sex reassignment in 2008 she met the love of her life, Íris Arna Smáradóttir, who was also in the process of reassigning her sex and within weeks they had started living together. Elísa had the operation in 2009 and Íris in 2010 and suddenly the couple that neighbours knew as two guys were two women. Didn’t people find that “strange”?

“Yes, of course there was talk, there is always talk,” Elísa says. “Some people had a hard time understanding why we both wanted to be women, even after we had found love in each other. My mother tried very hard to understand why, but I told her, as I have told everyone who wonders about us, that it’s OK not to understand. You don’t have to understand everything in life. Accepting people as they are is way more important than understanding why they are like that. Do we ever know what makes people the way they are?”

“Yes, of course there was talk, there is always talk. Some people had a hard time understanding why we both wanted to be women, even after we had found love in each other.”

On the whole Elísa is very understanding of other people’s confusion regarding trans people issues. Íris, her spouse, has a son who in the beginning had a hard time accepting that his dad was now a woman and Elísa says that she completely understands that.

“It is hard for a ten-year old child to come to terms with that and we have to respect that. Sex reassignment is a great change and it can be hard on the people closest to us to deal with that change. The prejudice in Iceland may be less than in some other countries, but we have them here as well and our families and close ones have to deal with them too. How do you explain to society that the father of your child is now a woman, for example? It is no easy task.”

Fooling around for the camera.

Elísa tells me life has not always been a bed of roses for her and Íris as shortly after Elísa had her operation in Sweden she started getting epileptic seizures that got steadily worse and have made her unable to work. She says that the doctors refuse to associate the seizures with the operation and the heavy use of morphine and other pain killing drugs that are necessary after the surgery.

“They say that there is no connection,” she says. “And I have no cause to doubt them. Nobody knows why this happened. But I really do miss my job at the old people’s home of Grund. I had worked there for thirteen years and I absolutely loved it.”

Elísa has a passion for helping other people and she has found outlet for that passion in the unlikely place of the Salvation Army, an organization that people would not necessarily associate with broad mindedness and toleration. How did that happen?

“I have always been religious and after I had to stop working I started to volunteer for the Salvation Army in Keflavík, mostly helping immigrants and asylum seekers to settle in the Icelandic community. It’s really rewarding and I really enjoy helping the people who come from horrible backgrounds but are, almost without exception, wonderful. I have never met any prejudice there. Not from anyone. That’s more than I can say for the rest of society.”

But luckily all has worked out well for Elísa’s family and Íris’ son has happily stayed with them for long periods of time.

“It took time, but now we are just a normal family and very happy together,” she says, smiling from ear to ear. “Some people find it strange that we used to be men. One of our new neighbours just threw her hands up in the air and stammered ‘Ok, would you like to barbecue?’ when she was told that we were transgender. That is not something you are supposed to talk about in our community. But people are getting more open to the idea and on the whole it’s not such a big deal. We are just these rather strange women living in this small village on the Reykjanes peninsula minding our own business.”

Elísa fighting for LGBT rights.

Main photo (courtesy of Elísa): Elísa alongside Ugla Stefanía, vice chair of Trans-Iceland.

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