April 7, 2015 / 12:12 AM / 3 years ago

Transgender activist: 'There is nothing to be ashamed of'

OSLO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - John Jeanette Solstad Remo was 61 years old when she transitioned from a man and started living as a woman in Oslo. Here she recalls how she always felt she had been born in the wrong body throughout her childhood, marriage and navy career.

”I knew at the age of four that I was a girl, rather than the boy that I was born as.

I put on some girls clothes at home and asked my mother if I looked nice. She said, ‘You’re not nice and you’re not allowed to wear that – I will never see you in those clothes again’.

I said I would never do it again, but I lied. I went undercover and I continued to dress as a girl as often as possible - because I was happy in those clothes and it felt natural. It was me.

I’d never heard of gender identity at that time, I just thought that I was more a girl than a boy. But I had to be tough, fight, and play football as boys did. I didn’t like it, yet I had to play the role.

When I was 10 years old, I looked in an encyclopedia and found that transvestism (dressing and behaving as the opposite sex) was a sickness or illness – that was the first message I ever got about how I felt, because I had nobody to talk to.

‘No’, I said to myself, ‘I am not sick’ – that became my mantra, I survived with that belief.

At the age of 15, I had gone out by myself one night in a dress and high heels when I bumped into some students I knew. One of them recognized me before I could run away.

I went home and decided to end my life because of the shame I felt – but I said ‘I don’t want to die’. The noose was ready but I said ‘No, act tough and give it one more chance’.

The next day, when I met my friends, they started to laugh at me and said that I’d been seen in women’s clothes. I said ‘What are you talking about? You must never believe what drunk people say’.

Throughout my teenage years, I would go to my aunt’s house when she was out, to play on her guitar to practice for a rock band I was in. But in reality I would try on her dresses, high heels and feel such freedom and happiness, to be myself.

We both knew I was dressing up in her clothes, but she never said anything. That was my sanctuary; I don’t know how I would have continued otherwise.

When I was 19, I went to the naval academy in Bergen, because I was a man – I had to prove it to everybody by doing the most masculine thing.

I got married at the age of 21, and I didn’t tell my wife about my secret. After finishing at the naval academy, I joined the submarine service and four years later I became captain, during the Cold War.

Before I joined the submarine service, I put some women’s clothes in a bag in the cellar. My wife found it while I was away, and called me on the submarine one evening while I was on duty, as we were about to leave for three weeks on patrol.

I could not explain it over the phone, because it was a military line – and somebody could have been listening. At that time, transvestism was considered a mental disease and I would have been fired if the truth had come out.

That night I wrote her a letter, and explained everything.

She was actually quite relieved when she read it, because she had come to the idea that I had murdered someone and hidden their clothes in the cellar.

We talked it through when I came home, we continued living together as normal and we had a son.

I left the navy at the age of 33 and got a job as a sea pilot – working on the west coast of Norway, then back to my hometown.

We divorced – when my son was nine - because it was too difficult and I had lied to her.

A while later, I got married to another woman and we moved to Oslo, where I could live more freely. I became more confident, but I was not fully open – I was still working as a man and was a man to my family.

My second wife and I are still together now and very happy. I told her about my situation and she said ‘I can deal with that’.

I told my son when I was he 21, and he was very understanding. ‘Oh dad, you are tough’, he said. I have two grandchildren who know me as both a man and a woman.

Five years ago, when transvestism was declassified as a mental illness in Norway, I said ‘enough is enough, I’ll go all out’. It was a great feeling to finally live openly and be known as a woman.

It was a fantastic time, because many friends came back to me and said ‘Why didn’t you tell us – this is great, you’re still the same’.

There was nothing to be ashamed of.”

To watch the video of John Jeanette's story please go to here

Reporting By Kieran Guilbert

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