Recently elected to the key position of Reykjavik City Council speaker, Alexandra Briem, member of the Pirate Party, became de facto the first trans woman to ever hold that position in Iceland. In an interview with GayIceland Alexandra shares in a very intimate way her inspiring political journey as a trans woman, what drove her into politics and kept her going forward, as well as her ultimate goals, hopefully sending a positive message to every trans person in Iceland who ever doubted they could find a place and thrive on the political scene despite ongoing prejudice.
You have recently been elected to the position of Reykjavik City Council speaker, effectively making you the first trans woman to hold that position in Iceland. How does that makes you feel? Did you expect it?
“I am very proud to be the first trans woman to take this position, but I am even more proud to be living in a country where trans and genderqueer people can fully take part in public life and can know that prejudice will not stand in their way. That we can expect to take part fully and can realistically expect any position that a cisgender person might, assuming we are qualified. We still have some way to go, but I feel we are a step closer today than we were a week ago. Knowing you lived in a country where this could happen is different from seeing it actually happen.
“I am very proud to be the first trans woman to take this position, but I am even more proud to be living in a country where trans and genderqueer people can fully take part in public life and can know that prejudice will not stand in their way.”
As to whether I expected it, honestly: no, but mostly because I was not expecting to become a full city councilor during this term, or that circumstances would require us to consider shuffling roles around. But I know that both the Pirate party, and the majority coalition, and indeed the entire city council are very progressive when it comes to LGBT+ acceptance, so I would not have expected any such concerns to hold me back, if the possibility were to present itself.”
What does that position entail precisely for those of us who are not well versed in politics?
“The position of president of the city council, or speaker of the council, depending on who you ask, is primarily about the actual running of city council meetings. Deciding the agenda, the order of the topics to be discussed, in cooperation with representatives of every party of course. It is a position that requires a great deal of diplomacy and compromise. But it is also outwardly a position of leadership, someone who can speak for the whole city council when the situation warrants, such as in ceremonies or events, and the president will often step in for the mayor in his absence, when it would be appropriate for a representative of the city government to say a few words or greet a distinguished guest. At its core though, the president of the council is in charge of the council meetings themselves. Can decide that a discussion has been going to long and can be abbreviated, will judge on disputes about how to interpret the rules or order and will decide if a councilor needs to be reminded of the rules, or even admonished.”
Aside from increasing trans visibility in politics, do you think that position will allow you to weigh in even more on the future of trans rights in the City of Reykjavik first of all but also ultimately, perhaps, in Iceland as a whole?
“I absolutely do, but I would also stress that Reykjavík city has been emphasizing trans rights in the last few years, particularly through our council of human rights, innovation and democracy. I will be sure to build on that, and use the platform both to speak on those issues, but also to simply be an example. To show people that a transgendered person in politics isn’t “just” a transgendered person in politics, and to show sceptics that nothing awful happens when we treat each other with basic dignity, when we let trans and genderqueer people take full part.”
Taking a step back, can you tell us what drove into politics in the first place?
“I had thought for a long time that I might at some point go into politics, but it was always a vague “sometime later”. I had this feeling that you needed some sort of permission or special quality to go into politics. But for me, it was the economic collapse of 2008 that pushed me from thinking about doing it “sometime maybe”, to actually doing it. I might have not thought I’d seek office myself at first, but I got very active in grassroots politics. My faith in the political leaders and parties at the time was badly shaken, and I felt that politics needed new blood and a new vision. The main things that drive me in politics are the fight against corruption and entrenched special interests. I’m a big proponent of the new constitution, fisheries reform with an eye to getting a fair price for access to the fisheries and using that to fund services. But that fight takes many forms. One of them is improving democracy, making it more direct, making sure people have the information to make informed choices, and fighting corruption.”
Had you already come out as a trans woman back then?
“I had not at that point, but I was out relatively early in my work with the Pirate Party. I believe I came out publicly in 2016, when I was running to be on the board of the Reykjavík Pirate Party. But I might be misremembering and actually come out as early as in 2015.”
How did it go when you took the plunge, with the public, your party, other political parties? Did you expect those reactions – or lack thereof?
“When I did come out publicly, I decided to make a long Facebook status explaining my situation. It was early, not long after I came out to my party, long before I actually ran for public office. It went extremely well and I got a lot of support and acceptance, both from my party and the public at large. I won’t say I haven’t gotten any negative reactions, but those have luckily been few and far between. Mostly online, but an occasional one at bars or such.”
Did you have any role model to speak of to look up to and inspire you as a trans woman in politics, whether Icelandic or otherwise?
“I wouldn’t say that no, at least not any single individual. Though there have of course been role models that I have looked up to, both trans, gay and queer. I could name Anna Kristjáns, Ugla Stefanía and even Hörður Torfa and Páll Óskar, for being pioneers for gay rights. There have been other examples that have inspired me as well, from TV shows like Star Trek that show us a better future, to my family that always supported me and my cousins, Kári and Ægir, who came out as gay a few years before I was ready and set an example, and also showed me that our family was open and welcoming.”
“I do notice a slightly higher tendency for a certain type of person to dismiss my views out of hand, but this has not been a huge issue for me.”
How about your political career per se as a trans woman? Would you say your gender identity made it harder in some ways? If so, can you give us a few examples of challenges you had to overcome because of it specifically?
“I would not say it has been harder specifically. Different certainly. And having to be away from the job for a few weeks to recover from surgery was difficult. But by and large both the politicians, and the public, have been very accepting. I do notice a slightly higher tendency for a certain type of person to dismiss my views out of hand, but this has not been a huge issue for me. If anything, I would even say that as I was raised as a boy, at least as far as anyone else knew, I did not get some of those pressures that are often put on girls to be demure, to not take up too much space… Things we as a society are still working on stopping. But I did not get those influences, and although obviously, a fair number of cis-women have not experienced them either, or have simply overcome them, I would still say that this is a rare example of an advantage when you are trans. That is of course, discounting that there are a lot of things that I would have learned had I been raised as a girl, that would have been useful to know, and I am now trying to catch up. But I do think it’s important to keep an eye out for positives.”
What is your biggest political achievement so far, the one that makes you the proudest?
“Well, that’s a big question. I would say that would be my part in helping my party get the election result that it did, that we were able to form a majority coalition that would focus on important matters like fighting climate change and making big changes to city planning to make for a greener city. A city that is denser to make better use of infrastructures and utilities, to shorten walking and cycling distance. A city that turns away from a decade-long focus on cars as the only viable mode of transport and that made historic agreements to improve public transportation and find a new site for the airport. And a city that will continue to embrace more direct democracy and focus on harm prevention in social services.”
At the end of the day, what would make you look back at your career and confidently say that it was all worth it?
“Ok, that depends on the level of politics, but I would say if Reykjavík City Council gets the city line up-and-running and turns away from being car-centric, my involvement in Reykjavík city politics will have been worth it. If Iceland ratifies the new constitution and reforms the fisheries, my involvement in politics in Iceland will have been worth it. Finally, and if the world manages to avoid catastrophic climate change, then I will feel like I have had a hand in making sure we did our part in doing something truly important.”