Rest in power, Maria Sundin


Maria Sundin was one of Sweden’s most important champions of trans people’s rights during the past decades. It is with great sadness that RFSL has been informed of Maria’s passing, 75 years old. During her many years as an activist, in Sweden and internationally, Maria was, among other things, a member of the RFSL national board 2010-2016. In 2015, she was awarded the “honorary rainbow” by RFSL for her work in the LGBTQ movement. RFSL’s former president, Ulrika Westerlund, has shared her memories of a strong pioneer and inspiring personality.

I don’t remember exactly when I met Maria Sundin for the first time. I mostly remember that she quickly made herself an important person within RFSL with grand plans for our future. Sometimes the plans were very big, and not everybody might have been informed about what was happening. That was probably Maria’s strategy – don’t ask for permission before, possibly say you’re sorry after. Always with a twinkle in her eyes and a magnificent energy.

In 2009, ILGA Europa had their annual conference in Malta. Before the main conference started there was a pre-conference about trans people’s rights with Transgender Europe – TGEU. I attended both conferences, as vice president of RFSL. This was the first time I met TGEU’s board and I was surprised, to say the least, when they congratulated me/RFSL on being chosen to organise TGEU’s conference 2010. It would be held in Malmö and it was Maria who had applied – without telling us. I think I managed to keep a straight face, and we organised the conference about a year after the meeting in Malta. Maria was the driving force in the work, very pleased about having managed to get many of Europe’s leading trans activists to come to her hometown Malmö.

Before RFSL’s congress 2010, when I was running for president of RFSL and Maria for a post as member of the RFSL board, she emerged with a clear authority and perfected the boards’ proposition for a new trans policy for RFSL – by giving me an endless amount of tips and instructions on what should be in it. Of course, Maria got her way and the proposition was voted through. We were also both elected and could work together on the new policy.

Right from the start, it was clear that one of the most important issues for RFSL during that term was to abolish forced sterilisations of people who wanted to change legal gender. RFSL was not alone in working with this issue. Among other things, there was a case with lawyer Kerstin Burman in the administrative court aiming to abolish forced sterilisation. We worked with political advocacy, and together, we managed to draw attention to it as an important political issue during 2010 and 2011. Apart from contributing with strategies, Maria was also visible as one of the people who had been forcibly sterilised. As all who have worked with political advocacy know, the best advocate is a person who has both the political knowledge of the problem and personal experience of it. Maria was that person in RFSL and her contributions were priceless. Late one night in January 2019 I received an sms from the people who, within the Christian Democrats, tried to change the party’s opinion in the issue of forced sterilisations. “Read DN’s opinion piece! Victory!”, the message said, and with trembling hands I checked There I saw that the Christian Democrats had done an u-turn – which later resulted in an amendment of the law. Naturally, the first message I sent was to Maria. Her answer: “Holy shit!” – and then the international information came out. Soon, all subscribers of different trans political emailing lists and Facebook groups knew what had happened.

Maria’s commitment continued on the issue of compensation to those who had been forcibly sterilised. Here, again, she became the face for those seeking restitution for the abuse the state had subjected them to. It wasn’t long ago that she did her last media appearance concerning that particular issue. Now, the news was that the temporary legislation that enabled the compensations had expired and that there therefore were statistics on how many had been compensated.

Since the conference in Malta 2009, I have been to countless conferences and meetings with Maria. Nobody who has seen her in these contexts can doubt her outstanding ability to network and get to know new people and use all her contacts in her work. In 2012, RFSL hosted ILGA’s world conference in Stockholm. Now, Maria also was president of TGEU along with Polish trans activist Wiktor Dynarski. A pre-conference focusing on trans people’s rights was to be held. Together, Maria and I worked with different actors to organise the conference. When we needed a panellist with a certain perspective, you could count on Maria – there was always a suitable candidate in her network and big international group of friends. We had no problem with a wide representation from different parts of the world and with different takes on the topic of discussion.

Since we found out that Maria has left us, many of these people and organisations have expressed their sorrow in social media. Some descriptions are recurring. TGEU writes that with them, Maria is known as “badass” – a forceful activist and a pioneer. Her favourite expression was: ”I’m not a bitch, I just have a low bullshit tolerance.” She never hesitated to express her opinion, writes TGEU. ILGA World also pays tribute to Maria and concludes that many trans activists today are in mourning. Maria has been a mentor, an inspiration and a support for so many. She contributed to improving the work for trans people’s rights across the world.

So it is, and so she should be remembered. Added to this, in my own heart, I will remember many happy evenings with something nice to drink, many board meetings with Maria’s waving hand, and many, many anecdotes – preferably about something happening in the DDR in the 70’s or at some point in Maria’s life, which sometimes seemed to have been many people’s lives, with everything she managed to achieve in the 75 years of her life. Rest in power, Maria.

Ulrika Westerlund
President of RFSL 2010-2016