A breakthrough for transgender people’s rights in Norway: John Jeanette’s journey

By Kristin Hulaas Sunde Londres,

Transgender people in Norway should no longer be forced to trade invasive treatment for having their gender legally recognized, an expert committee announced on 10 April 2015.

The personal story of activist John Jeanette Solstad Remø – who was supported by thousands worldwide during Amnesty’s Write for Rights 2014 campaign – illustrates the huge difference the government could now make by changing the law.

Main photo: John Jeanette Solstad Remø (above, right) and Norway’s Minister of Health, Bent Høie, at a press conference in Oslo, 10 April 2015. The Minister promised to propose a new law soon that will allow transgender people to get legal recognition of their gender by making a simple declaration. © Amnesty International/Ina Strøm

By the age of 27, John Jeanette had reached the rank of submarine Captain in the Norwegian Navy. © Private

Submarine captain John Remø was careful to hide all the evidence, stashing the women’s clothes in the cellar. It would take another 30 years before the secret was out in the open.

John was a wild card as a kid. He swore, got into fights, played in a rock band. He joined the navy, reaching the rank of submarine Captain aged 27.

One night the vessel’s phone rang for John. It was his wife. She had found a bag of women’s clothes in the cellar. John realized he’d been caught, but it was too risky to talk over a military line. He promised to write her a letter.

The next morning John's submarine left to patrol the northern Barents Sea, at the height of the Cold War. His wife was left waiting for the truth about her husband to be unravelled by post.

I can't imagine that Parliament won't make this law now. And when the new law is in place, you will be able to choose your own legal gender.
John Jeanette Solstad Remø, 10 April 2015

Fulfilling gender expectations

The story starts over 20 years earlier in a small Norwegian coastal town. John, aged about four, was discovered by his mother wearing a dress. She was furious: this was unheard of and forbidden.

“We both got scared. I realized this was dangerous ground, but I’ve always felt like a girl, wanted to look like one and be part of girls’ play.”

Growing up in the conservative 1950s, John learned that pretending to be a boy got him the love he needed. A conditional love.

“I started acting, but by trying so hard, I overcompensated and became rather charmless. I quickly learned the nastiest swear words and how to fight.”

John may have been a bad boy as a teenager, but he also loved music. This opened a door to continue exploring his suppressed female side. His aunt had a guitar and gave him the keys to her house to practice.

“She had beautiful clothes, silky underwear and high heeled shoes. It was such a feeling of freedom and happiness to go there, try it all on, and be myself. But I felt sad that I couldn’t show anyone.”

Most likely the aunt knew, but she never said a word. “My aunt was a tiny woman, and I still remember the sadness I felt when I grew out of her shoes.”

John left home aged 17 and got married in his early 20s. They had a son. As a father with a rugged beard and a macho job, he fulfilled the expectations of his gender.

Growing up in a small Norwegian coastal town in the conservative 1950s, John learned that pretending to be a boy got him the love he needed. © Private

A confident woman

John’s wife was strangely relieved when she finally received the letter. Her first thought had been that John had murdered someone and hidden her clothes in the bag.

But once the truth was out, it was clear that their relationship was based on a lie and couldn’t continue.

“I loved her, and was scared of losing her. I was hoping that my need to be a woman would go away - that by being married to her I could live without it. But that only lasted for a month before I went back to dressing up in secret.”

Thirty years after that bag of clothes turned up in the cellar, the time was finally right to let the secret out and walk openly down Oslo’s busiest shopping street as a woman: “It was such an exhilarating feeling of freedom.”

A passer-by would never know that this tall, stylishly dressed and confident woman in her 60s still has a man’s body.

Without Amnesty's support we wouldn't have got to where we are today.
John Jeanette

Gender: M

She changed her legal name relatively easily. To her friends, she is just Jeanette now. But in public she uses John Jeanette to highlight the discrimination she and other transgender people in Norway still face.

Because changing her legal gender – to appear as female on identity papers such as a driving license or passport – was a different story. Norwegian law demands that she undergoes a compulsory ‘real sex conversion’ based on a crude practice from the 1970s.

It involves having your reproductive organs removed – and therefore becoming sterile. It also requires a psychiatric diagnosis, forcing you to accept that you suffer from a mental disorder.
John Jeanette has refused to put herself through any of this. “The hormones change your body and mind – it’s like going through a new puberty,” she explains.

All her official documents therefore still refer to her male. Her transgender identity is humiliatingly public, and often commented on whenever she checks into a hotel, picks up a prescription or borrows a book from the local library.

“I sit in a waiting room as a woman, only to have my male name called out. I’m prepared for it, but I still feel humiliated and frustrated every time.”

Today, John Jeanette is a tall, stylishly dressed and confident woman in her 60s. © Amnesty International

John Jeanette doesn’t want to be forced to trade having surgery for female ID papers. She was “extremely surprised” to hear that Amnesty activists worldwide would be supporting her stance during the organization’s global Write for Rights letter-writing campaign in December 2014. And now, just four months later, our goal is well within reach.

"This is everything I have dreamt of and hoped for," she said after the recommendation to change the law came on 10 April 2015. "It was worth the fight. It took a long time, but when the results of our work finally came, it felt great.

“I can't imagine that Parliament won't make this law now. And when the new law is in place, you will be able to choose your own legal gender.

"Without Amnesty's support we wouldn't have got to where we are today. Even Health Minister Bent Høie said it made a big difference to the process within the government.

"The support we have had from people worldwide has been fantastic. I didn't expect it, and am very happy about the positive attention my case has received. I'd like to warmly thank everyone who has supported me and others in this fight."

The support we have had from people worldwide has been fantastic. I'd like to warmly thank everyone who has supported me and others in this fight.
John Jeanette

A version of this article was first featured in the November-December 2014 edition of Wire, Amnesty’s global magazine, with the headline “Open secret”.