I recently spent a week in The Hague and it turned out to be a much stronger experiences than I could possibly expect. To me a sense of belonging is as precious as it is sometimes hard to experience. I feel very different in so many ways and it is sometimes frustrating to always feel wrong in some aspect of life. I have tried to handle that by having multiple groups where each group gives me some part of that sense of belonging and when things you share makes sense to others. Multiple groups with different context and where different parts of me are appreciated and understood. Two major contexts for me have been my work in the Armed Forces and my work with LGBT rights. Add to that the special environment of working in multinational groups within the Armed Forces context, an environment which I really enjoy. Never have these worlds been fused as they did this week in May together with the NATO LGBT Working Group and it was just a great feeling.
It took a while before it really dawned on me. The very special environment I was in. The trip started more or less as usual, very similar to one of the many trips I have made to multinational working groups in the military. Sure, this time I was traveling with the Swedish Armed Forces Diversity and Gender Advisor and that is of course different. Different in the way that LGBT issues and gender issues is a natural topic of conversation. It is not with most of my other colleagues. Even meeting the group for an informal get together at the evening did not really made realize how cool this was. I mean, they were military people from 8 nations and we were in the middle of getting to know each other. It wasn’t until we all gathered the next morning in the conference room, where most of us wore the military service dress. Then it suddenly became more and more obvious how different this was despite the familiar surface. This was a group of multi-national people were I could be completely open with both being a gay woman and a woman with a transsexual background. It also meant that if I did not pass as a woman that would not render any suspicious looks but instead even a possibility that people liked that someone had a trans experiences. That was a much more different feeling than I had ever expected. A situation where you were welcome because who you are and not just tolerated.
On top of that we were all engaged in talks about how to make life better for LGBTI people serving in the Armed Forces. Even cooler! We were not just a social group of military LGBT people but also people wanted to change and improve respect for human rights. Human rights that we in the Armed Forces are there to defend. That was strikingly similar to my experiences from my many meetings at the federation board of RFSL, Sweden’s biggest LGBTQ organisation. However, in that organization my military work was something that made me very different and something not everybody really supported. So here in The Hague at the NATO (Informal) LGBT Working group these two worlds just fused in a way that felt really great. Could be me in way I really never experienced before really. Made me realize that my military identity is rather strong after all. I felt even more passionate when we kind of realized that the best selling point of our work there was that we can improve coalition effectiveness. By making sure that LGBT people can serve with equal opportunities we can really make the most of all the skills we have access to which improve the way we conduct military operations. Strangely most of my previous work from 2005-2010 focused on just that, improving multinational effectiveness in operations. This time with a completely different approach though. An approach very close to my own heart and personal experiences.
I was impressed by the work being done in countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Swedes tend to think we have “come so far” but it turned out (as usual) that we have a lot more work to do. The national society of Sweden is a great place to be a LGBT person from a formal perspective. Our legal rights are quite good. However, that also means that people have a tendency to think we have “solved the problem” and each individual has no responsibility of understanding the issue and doing something. Very much so in the Armed Forces. I often find people who really don’t understand why LGBT or Gender work needs to be done in the Armed Forces. They have no idea of what women and LGBT people goes through and therefore also quite insensitive to need to change behavior in the way we talk, the way we judge and the way we promote and recruit. Male heterosexual norms are reproduced with out a second thought. From the traditional gathering at the sauna to what constitutes professional characteristics of a person (=man).
We really need to start working in this again in Sweden. Not because members of the Armed Forces should be nice towards women or LGBT people but because it is our damn human right to be treated with equal value. That is not negotiable. Really, it isn’t and people need to start reflecting on what they can do, not just trust some HR department to spread the occasional brochure. I think it is great that we have a military LGBT organization in Sweden, one which I founded in 2002 with 8 other people. During this conference I represented both that organization and the Swedish Armed Forces.
Our conference is an initiative from the Dutch Government and they really showed tremendous leadership. They took really good care of us and created a very good environment for us to work with these issues. This year the number of nations was increased from 5 to 8 and we thus form the “LGBT Coalition of the Willing” in some respect. I hope countries like Sweden and Norway can move fast to showcase a similar commitment. Sweden is of course not a member of NATO but we have a close partnership with NATO through the PfP programme. Together with New Zealand we form some kind of NATO + (plus) group which are willing to tackle these issues. Our conference was also a part of the bigger IDAHO 2013 Forum where hundreds of people gathered in the same place from various sectors of the society.
One of the more concrete steps we identify on our way forward was to create a LGBTI rights map for those serving in Armed Forces around the world. The inspiration is of course the LGBTI rights map by ILGA-Europe and the transgender rights map made by Transgender Europe. I think it would also be possible to start some small study on how LGBTI people serving really experiences life in the Armed Forces. Our legal rights tells only half the story on our situation.
The high-level nature of the big conference also dawned on me. We understood that members of cabinets from 12 EU countries were present on Thursday and the Dutch delegation proudly told us that Her Majesty the Queen Maxima would attend the dinner on Thursday evening. I found it so important that these high-profile people like Hiliary Clinton and now both the General Secretary of the United Nations and his Comissioner for Human Rights have started to speak very clearly of LGBT rights as human rights. It makes it so much harder to ignore then. Add some royalty on that and most senior decisionmakers have a tendency to listen, especially in the Armed Forces.
After some clothing anxiety before the formal dinner we were standing there having drinks before the dinner when one of members of the Dutch delegation came up to me and proudly explained that I have been selected to meet the Queen after dinner. We were having coffee I was told. I felt really honored and the grand nature of this became even more obvious. Here I was as a representative of the Swedish Armed Forces and the first (?) openly serving transsexual woman and the Dutch team wanted me to represent the LGBT Group together with the Italian representative. What a difference compared to Sweden, where I have always have been put in the background and never been ushered forward to make the T-group visible. Here it was the opposite and I felt very proud. And yes, a little nervous too. I do tend to like Royalties and especially princesses and queens I have to confess.
During dinner I was briefed on the formalities of our meeting and soon I was in this room together with 25-30 people who were scheduled to chat with Queen. We were positioned in small groups and told to wait for her. She was wearing a clear red pant suit of some kind and had her blond her in a simple but big hairdo. She looked just stunning! After a while she approached us and she kind of stopped just in front of me. I hesitated a bit, unsure of who would take the initiative but we ended up greeting each other. However, she looked confused and asked if I was from the Dutch police and I said no and explained. Then she smiled and said the Police group was first and she headed away from me. So typical me 🙂 Always a little but confused. Anyway, ten minutes later it was our turned and she smiled again and said we had already met. She established that English would be the language of choice and we started talking. A strong wave of presence (and crazy beautiful brown eyes) hit me and I was really on my toes in very way possible. What an experience it is to meet people with that presence. Sharp yet listening and very kind. We talked about the situation for LGBT people in the Armed Forces and I told her how important she is to give us access to our senior generals. We need door openers like her. We also talked about the fact that our crown princess Victoria had attended our Gay Awards ceremony earlier this year. The encounter lasted 6-7 minutes I think and I was high for hours after words.
On Friday I left The Hague with a completely renewed energy and commitment to continue working with LGBT issues in the military. I just hope I can find a way to continue do that in this wonderful multinational context. I had a great time with great people. Thank you all!