The first time I sat down for a conversation with Eva-Lisa Bengtson (1932–2018) was on a Tuesday in the spring of 2016. She had attended the lesbian sing-along evenings that I arranged at Marabouparken, among other places, and during one of them said that she had something she wanted to show me. We met a couple of hours before the weekly meeting of RFSL’s (The Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex Rights) group for senior LGBTQ women – the Golden Ladies – in Stockholm. What follows is a summary of what she told me and the materials that she shared.
Eva-Lisa was born in Stockholm in 1932, and even though she understood early in life that she was actually a girl, she didn’t dare to tell anyone about it until 1964. At the time, transsexualism was still a relatively new and unknown concept, and in Sweden only a few doctors had started experimenting with gender-affirming care. During Eva-Lisa’s first visit to the doctor, she learned that she would not receive treatment because she was a lesbian and that “it would mean going from one delusion to another.” Instead, she was prescribed a medicine that would cure what the doctor believed to be “damage in certain brain activities.” Eva-Lisa took the train home from Uppsala, swallowed a pill, but broke down. She did not want to erase herself with medication.
At the same time, she came out to her family, but soon realised that she would never be able to live as Eva-Lisa, either at home or at work. She also understood that she needed to find a place where she could.
In the mid-1960s, there were no official meeting places for trans people in Sweden. One of the few reasonably safe ways of making contact was through a number of porn magazines from Hson publishing, where submissions from trans people were treated with (in those days) a relatively large measure of respect. In one of these, Raff, Eva-Lisa found a personal ad written by Erika Sjöman. Erika had worked at sea and came across the American magazine Transvestia during a stay in Los Angeles. Eva-Lisa and Erika met and drafted an advertisement which, after being published in Raff’s sister magazine Piff in 1964, received over eighty responses from trans people across the country. They put people who seemed to have similar interests in touch so that they could write each other. This was the start of Sweden’s first club for trans people; it was named Transvestia.
After a few small gatherings, Eva-Lisa and Erika got access to a dance studio where they soon started arranging parties in what they called The Hall of Mirrors (Spegelsalen). There was no toilet, and the only heat came from a tiled stove, but they made it look as nice as they could. The dance hall with mirrors became a perfect ‘catwalk’ for those who had been used to dressing up alone.
Most people at Transvestia identified as transvestites, not transsexuals. The possibility to live your whole life as who you really are was a utopia for transgender people during this time. Different kinds of trans people came to Transvestia, but also lesbians and people with other orientations, fetishes, and dreams. The club became a safe place for many. Like for the man who was afraid of being arrested, but who Eva-Lisa helped by driving him into town so that he could walk around in women’s shoes for a while. For the lesbian couple who felt so at home there, and for the photographer Christer Strömholm, who once photographed Eva-Lisa topless. For the English teacher who, whenever he got a chance, went to his summer house and changed his clothes before he waded out into the water to feel his wide skirt spread like a flower around him. And for she who never to talked to anyone, but still showed up to every party.
About a year after the first club night, Anette, a member of Transvestia, travelled to Los Angeles and met Virginia Prince (1912–2009), who published the group’s namesake magazine. Prince was also the founder of the Foundation for Full Personality Expression (FPE), an organization for heterosexual transvestites. Anette became a member and launched the association’s Nordic equivalent in 1966, which soon became the leading trans organization in Sweden. FPE rules for membership were strict, and this was the case in Sweden as well. Homosexuals and transsexuals were not welcome, and transvestites who were able to pass as a cis-woman were given preference. Eva-Lisa, who was both transsexual and lesbian, didn’t fit in, and towards the end of the 1960s she distanced herself from this new trans movement.
In 1969, one year after Transvestia’s last party, the couple Jerry and Märta took over a basement space on Södermalm in Stockholm. Via an ad in Dagens Nyheter, they put out a call for “homosexual ladies” and urged interested parties to get in touch. Soon, Jerry’s Ladies’ Club opened, with parties every Friday.
Jerry, who was given a feminine name, but who everyone knew as Jerry, soon became a parental figure to Eva-Lisa and several of her old Transvestia friends. Many of those who hung out at the club had, like Jerry, taken male names and wore traditionally masculine clothes. That some had a distinctly masculine butch expression and some a more feminine femme expression was a natural part of the lesbian community, and no one really talked about it. Words like transvestite or transsexual were largely reserved for people who had been assigned male at birth. After a rather lively party on New Year’s Eve 1971, Jerry and Märta got thrown out of their basement space, and to the dismay of many, Jerry’s Ladies’ Club was shut down.
After Jerry’s closed, Eva-Lisa followed her new lesbian friends to RFSL’s space Timmy. Here, no one talked about trans identities. That Sweden in 1972 became the first country in the world to make it possible to change your legal gender was not something one noticed. Although Eva-Lisa had hormones prescribed since the late 1960s, she never legally changed her gender because she could never be herself full-time. The pressure to live her everyday life as a man made the time she spent at RFSL all the more important, and instead of emphasising her trans identity, her identity as a lesbian became more important.
By the mid-1970s, the lesbian movement had begun organising, and in 1975 Lesbian Front was formed, which was significantly more political than the previous groups. Outward-looking activism was encouraged – the group demonstrated, lectured, and carried out several spectacular actions. In 1975, they booked seats at a porn club that advertised a “lesbian sex show.” In the middle of the show, Eva-Lisa and her friends stormed the stage and unfolded a banner that read: “Stop humiliating lesbian women!”
There was a reluctance among the lesbian feminists of this time to identify with not only the previously common femme and butch expressions, but also with the idea of the so-called “third sex” that nineteenth-century sexologists used to describe homosexuality. For Lesbian Front – just as in the rest of the feminist movement – the female identity in relation to the patriarchy was fundamental. In this division of two biologically fixed sexes, there was no room for identities that disrupted that order.
During the late 1970s, Lesbian Front, together with other women’s groups, started The Women’s House (Kvinnohuset) in Stockholm. This was preceded by hard work and an extensive renovation that Eva-Lisa played a large part in. She was there almost every weekend to prepare the building for the women’s movement’s activities.
In 1996, almost twenty years after it was founded, Kvinnohuset moved to a smaller location. It was in connection to this that voices were raised that said that trans women should not be welcome at The Women’s House. Those who defended Eva-Lisa’s presence (she was the only open trans person there) emphasized that she had been involved since the beginning, and for almost twenty years had literally built up the organisation. It all ended when Eva-Lisa received a letter in which she was greeted with her legal male name, and then informed that a decision had been made that transsexuals no longer had access to The Women’s House. For Eva-Lisa, this marked the end of a twenty-year commitment, and a loss of a place that was important to her. But the key to the first building would stay on her keychain for the rest of her life.
During the second half of the 1990s, transphobic ideas which had not previously been formulated gained a foothold in Swedish feminist circles. These ideas in radical feminism came from, for instance, Janice Raymond’s book The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979), in which trans women are described as perpetrators who appropriate femininity to gain access to female – especially lesbian – spaces. In several lesbian meeting places, decisions were made to exclude trans women, and for some time it was common to emphasise in event advertisements that transvestites and transsexuals were not welcome. Eva-Lisa went to a meeting at the association Lesbian now! (Lesbisk nu!) where representatives from various lesbian groups discussed how to relate to trans women. Someone suggested to check the underwear of club visitors; others favoured implementing a system where one could vouch for someone being “trans enough” to get in.
There were exceptions to the transphobic rhetoric, and in connection with the debates, it became important for some clubs to show solidarity with trans women. One example is the fetish and BDSM club Lash, which catered to queer women and, in the discussions, clearly showed that it welcomed all women. Soon the club changed the description of its target audience to women, transgender, and intersex people. Eva-Lisa became a loyal visitor and showed up almost every Thursday when the club had its parties.
Despite the setbacks, Eva-Lisa continued to be involved in the LGBTQI movement. During the 1990s, she again became active in RFSL, where she pushed the issue of trans people being included in the organisation – which also happened in 2001. She arranged lesbian festivals and lectured and wrote about lesbian history in the magazine Come out! (Kom ut!) She joined the Golden Ladies and went to their meetings pretty much every Tuesday for twenty-five years. As transgender people got more rights, there were also more people who paid attention to her work, and in 2010 she received RFSL’s Honorary Rainbow for her efforts within the movement. Despite this, relatively little has been written about Eva-Lisa’s pioneering work in the trans movement – or about the history of the trans movement in general.
Eva-Lisa was 83 years old when I got to know her. After she told me about her life there at RFSL, I nagged her for a year about letting me conduct filmed interviews with her, which she finally allowed in the spring of 2017.
In the beginning of 2018, I hadn’t heard from her in a while and as I’d gotten used to her regular phone calls, I started to worry. I contacted the Golden Ladies who had also been wondering about her whereabouts. But they didn’t know where she lived or how to get hold of her. Since I knew some details about her ‘other life’, I found her address after some googling. On a hot spring day, I drove to Eva-Lisa’s town house north of the city. When no one answered the door, I went to the neighbour who told me that the “man” in the house passed away a while ago. After a while, when I got hold of Eva-Lisa’s daughter, I found out that she had already been buried. Without her large queer network and under her legal male name.
During Pride 2018, Eva Lindberg from Golden Ladies and I arranged a memorial service for Eva-Lisa’s queer friends at RFSL Stockholm. A large and varied crowd showed up; we had coffee, sang, and took turns giving speeches.
Some time later, I contacted the daughter again because I knew that Eva-Lisa had saved materials connected to the early trans movement. She said she’d put aside what she thought I may be interested in. After about six months, I drove and picked up what she said she would otherwise have just thrown away. At home, I started going through the material, which fit in eight moving boxes. Among the first things I found was a bundle of yellowed letters addressed to Eva-Lisa at the start of Transvestia. I spent the first evening just reading through these testimonies about the club and what it and Eva-Lisa meant to so many people. Tidy binders and folders with records of meetings, photo albums, LPs, cassette tapes, posters, membership cards, pins, books and even more letters soon covered my entire living room floor. For more than fifty years, Eva-Lisa carefully and meticulously compiled a fantastic archive with unique material from Swedish trans history.
For the past two years – and with a lot of help from Eva-Lisa’s friends – I have highlighted her story in various ways through the Eva-Lisa’s monument project. Since 2019, I have held walking tours in Stockholm’s Södermalm district where several important places connected to her activist life were located. The same year I, together with other trans people, did a performative reading at Moderna Museet of letters from Eva-Lisa’s archive, and now I am also planning an anniversary celebration for Transvestia which will be held this autumn in the building where the club had their Hall of Mirrors.
The lack of recorded history makes marginalised movements vulnerable. Therefore, making the archive accessible becomes all the more important. After a decade of positive legislative changes – where the halt to forced sterilisation in legal gender reassignment in 2013 has been one of the most important – echoes of the transphobic rhetoric of the 1970s are once again heard. Opinion pieces and books question transgender people’s right to, in many cases, vital care. I hope that the activation of Eva-Lisa’s archive can become part of the resistance to this. I imagine the walking tours and the anniversary – as well as texts like this – as part of a memorial for a person who was not allowed to be who she was, even after her death, but who nevertheless paved the way for an entire movement.
Eva-Lisa Bengtsson, 1965.
Party with members of Transvestia at the hair salon Madame Loulou, 1965.
Party with members of Transvestia in Spegelsalen, 1965.
Virginia Prince, publisher of the American magazine Transvestia, 1960–1980.
Jerry and Märta, the couple who ran Jerry’s ladies’s club, 1962.
Lesbian Front’s action at the porn club Pussy Cat, 1975.
Renovating Kvinnohuset with Eva-Lisa on the right, 1979.
Eva-Lisas’s copy of Janice G. Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire, 1979.
Honorary membership card awarded to Eva-Lisa posthumously at Lash’s 25th anniversary, 2020.
RFSLs Honorary Rainbow awarded to Eva-Lisa, 2010.
Still from interview with Eva-Lisa, 2017.
Letters to Eva-Lisa from transgender people, 1964–1968.
Walking tour about Eva-Lisa, 2019.
Note: Until 2007, RFSL was an acronym for Riksförbundet för sexuellt likaberättigande, the National Organization for Sexual Equality. Today it stands for the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Rights.
Sam Hultin (b. 1982) is an artist based in Stockholm. Hultin holds an MA from Konstfack (2012). They work with performance and video based on an interest in queer history writing. Since 2019 they have been working on the project Eva-Lisa’s monument, which is presented in the form of walking tours, readings, and texts. This fall they are organising an anniversary celebration of Sweden’s first trans club, Transvestia, in connection with the exhibition A Careful Strike at Mint in Stockholm.