Sweden is often hailed as a forward-thinking society promoting equality for all, but transsexuals who had to accept to be sterilised to complete their sex changes are pushing for compensation after a change in the law.
Nova Colliander, a 31-year-old who completed her transformation from man to woman in 2010, says she suffered discrimination when she was irreversibly sterilised as part of the sex change process.
“Beautiful Sweden, with its pretty red wooden cabins… But (the reality is that) forced sterilisations for transsexuals existed until 2013,” she says.
“A lot of people want children, and it’s crazy to think that we are different than anyone else on this point. We want children just as much as anyone else.”
Until last year, the operation was obligatory for transsexuals who wanted their sex change to be officially recognised by authorities, with their personal identity documents reflecting their new gender.
But in December, a Swedish court ruled that the practice of forced sterilisations, which dated back to a 1972 law on sexual identity, was unconstitutional and violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ruling was not appealed, and a ban therefore entered into force on January 10.
“We didn’t have the right to become parents, we didn’t have the right to freeze our eggs or our sperm,” explains Love Elfvelin, a 22-year-old who recently had a double mastectomy to become a man, and who will not have to undergo sterilisation to complete the sex change.
The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (RFSL) is now preparing to help transsexuals who were sterilised under the old law to obtain damages.
So far, the government has refused to pay.
“Between the lines, they’re saying they didn’t do anything wrong,” says Nova. “And by doing so, they’re legitimising the kind of violation we face.”
Kerstin Burman, the lawyer who represents the 135 transsexuals who plan to file a complaint against the state in a few months’ time, explains that “since lawmakers are not taking the initiative, we are building a legal case”.
With the law now scrapped by the courts, “we have the state up against a wall”, says Nova. “I’m disappointed, sad, and a little angry, I had expected more of my elected officials,” she says.
“Sterilisation was an unnecessary price to pay but if you indicated that you weren’t willing to do it, that could have put an end to the (sex change) procedure, which was a matter of survival,” she recalls matter-of-factly.
She says the government’s refusal to pay damages is disappointing, given the fact that Sweden previously paid compensation to 230,000 victims of forced sterilisations under a eugenics programme from 1935 until 1996.
In 1999, the parliament adopted a law granting damages of 175,000 kronor (more than 20,000 euros, $27,000) to those victims.
At the RFSL offices in central Stockholm, Love and Nova speak freely about their sex changes.
Nova, a woman of a strong build and long sandy hair, wearing little make-up, is clad in black jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt, a woolly cap on her head. Outgoing and friendly, her voice is that of a woman but she admits she is often “mistaken for a man”.
Love, sitting with his legs comfortably spread apart, is slender with short brown hair and a few days’ stubble, dressed casually in jeans and a plaid shirt.
There is little to indicate that he was born a woman except perhaps that he is not quite as tall as most Swedish men.
Both become more reserved when the subject turns to what the future holds for them.
Nova, who got married on December 1 to someone whose gender she refuses to disclose, does not plan to have children.
But things are different for Love, who is in the process of officially changing his identity documents to show that he is now a man. He is one of the first transsexuals in Sweden who does not need to be sterilised to do so.
And he is ready to take another pioneering step, though he is not sure he will succeed.
“I think I’ll be able to have my own biological children, but at the same time I’m very aware that that is something I really have to believe in in order to have the strength to fight that battle,” he says.
Contrary to his idol, American “pregnant man” Thomas Beatie who retained his female reproductive organs to give birth to three children, Love does not plan to bear his own.
The first step will be to retrieve some of his eggs.
“But first I’ll have to stop taking my testosterone. Nobody knows how long I would have to stop for, and if my eggs are fertile” after taking testosterone for three years, he says. “We don’t know if it’s going to work.”
“I’m heterosexual but my partner isn’t a woman,” Love says, using the gender neutral pronoun “zie” to refer to his partner who he explains “doesn’t want to be (gender) defined”. However, “zie will probably carry our child,” he says.
For that to happen the couple would need a sperm donor, and then the embryo would be inseminated into Love’s partner.
But since the egg is not his partner’s and the sperm is not his, the insemination would be considered an embryo donation, which is banned in Sweden.
“With activism and politics we plan to try to get the law on embryo donation changed,” Love says.