Eva-Lisa's Monument is the fascinating and much important long-term project of artist Sam Hultin which commemorates Eva-Lisa Bengtson who founded the first social transgender club in Sweden, Tranvestia, in 1964. When Eva-Lisa Bengtson passed away an extensive archive she had dilligently built and collected over time, informing photographs, letters, protocols, was given to Sam Hultin which now lies at the core of the project which saw its first iteration recently at Moderna Museet in Stockholm through the reading 'Kära Eva-Lisa' (Dear Eva-Lisa). "She saved letters that other transgender persons wrote her in the 60’s and many times also copied her own returning letters, as to keep complete documentation of the correspondence both ways. It becomes obvious how much she wanted to document and narrate an important piece of history", says Sam Hultin.
Sam Hultin, photo: Miki Anagrius
C-P: How did you first get in touch with Eva-Lisa Bengtson? Was it through other past projects that tracks led you to her? S.H: For a long time I was working with the project ‘I’m Every Lesbian’ which consisted of city walks in seven cities around Europe. That project took a spin towards organizing a string of lesbian singalong evenings, for instance at Marabouparken and Etnografiska Museet, here in Stockholm. The repertoire consisted mainly of lesbian songs that were sung a lot around the ‘70's-‘80's within the openly lesbian activism movement that took place around then. I noticed Eva-Lisa at the singalong we did at Marabouparken because she came quite early, possibly so much as half an hour before and waited diligently for it to start, the way older people in a crowd somtimes are prone to be very prompt and timely.
When we did the event at Etnografiska Museet, I think I was having lunch with the band when I spotted her again on site an hour before the scheduled start. So, I figured I should invite her over to our table and we began to have a conversation. After the event she approached me saying that she had something she would like to show me, and we decided to meet at Huset which was a community meeting spot at the time housed by RFSL on Sveavägen. That was the beginning of her telling me the story about her life. I should note that she spoke about it to others before me as well and that she was an active public speaker about both lesbian and transgender history.
I actually first suggested to document by film because the story is so fascinating what with her having started the first transgender social club in Stockholm already back in the ’60, but she initially declined the idea for privacy reasons.
C-P: So, her founded club will actually have been the first? She must have been a very compelling and interesting person.
S.H: Well, at least the first that is known of that was organized as a social club for community members to interact with each other. It wasn’t about outward activism although it grew increasingly political over time. It’s barely even been written about so I was struck by keen eagerness for this story to be told and document and channel it properly the way it certainly deserves. For reasons relating to personal matters, Eva-Lisa couldn’t be very open with her identity and under other circumstances she could likely have been a major queer icon. I kept asking her however about the idea to film, granting her the control and privacy that would be necessary and initially we began recording mere sound interviews and gradually I was in the end allowed to do film recordings with her at my old apartment. We kept in touch to the extent that we would call and update each other on what was going on; she would come to my art related events and I would go to her lectures.
About a year ago I started to worry, not having heard from her in a while and eventually found out looking around that she had sadly passed away. Me and a friend of hers from Golden Ladies (RFSL’s community association for older LGBTQI women) then arranged a memorial for Eva-Lisa and managed to invite various people who had been in touch with her over time though various settings. She was also an omnipresent figure in the BDSM community of Stockholm and people gathered from there, from Golden Ladies as well as transactivists. A diverse group of people came to commemorate her together.
I was aware that Eva-Lisa had built an extensive archive from the 60’s and onwards of letters, texts and photographs that correspond to a yet unnarrated queer history of Stockholm. She was an incredibly diligent collector and had an impressive staunch memory of remembering facts and details by mere mind. And I kept thinking that her archive represents such an important cultural and historical treasure that it cannot just be allowed to disappear into thin air. I’d seen the photographs and there have been other photographs like them, but many have disappeared and do not exist anymore. After about half a year of calling and being touch with her daughter I was told a few boxes had been found cleaning out Eva-Lisas’s house that I could pick up. I get there together with a friend of Eva-Lisa’s from the BDSM community who offers to drive me to the house, and I find boxes and papers all in a mess. It’s an archive that has come to be disorganized but that is so extensive. It’s fantastic.
She saved letters that other transgender persons wrote her in the 60’s and many times also copied her own returning letters, as to keep complete documentation of the correspondence both ways. It becomes obvious how much she wanted to document and narrate a piece of history. She was part of founding the first queer women’s house, Kvinnohuset, together with Lesbisk Front. After about 20 years there a debate began as to whether transgender women belonged there and if they should be included in the house at all. The debate turns quite sour. All the turn of events around this debate, with pieces of writings and protocols, were meticulously documented by Eva-Lisa in her archive, evidently because she knew the narration of this would be significant for people to know, in time to come.
C-P: The archive obviously appears very significant but to what extent does it fill in the many gaps of a local transgender history that have existed to date and still do?
S.H: I think it’s hugely important. No one has written about the early organization of a transgender community in Stockholm. A book exists for instance about the FPES association (The Swedish Association For Transgender Persons) which in the beginning was modelled after counterparts from the US. In that it was very important for the community members to identify as straight persons who were transvestites and who could pass for cis-women. Absurd regulations as you can tell. Eva-Lisa started her club Transvestia already back in 1964 and many people who joined at the time identified as transvestites but likely today would have identified as transgender men or transgender women. But in that club everyone was welcome. There were also people with specific fetishes and lesbian women. Everyone was apparently welcome if they were fine with the presence of transgender persons.
Then FPES came along and by its default regulations excluded Eva-Lisa and others based on exclusively seeking heterosexual transvestites as members whereas Eva-Lisa was both transsexual and lesbian. A book about the early beginnings of FPES exists but what’s so unique about Eva-Lisa’s archive is the larger social description that it informs about developments and what was going around her. A very clear sexual-political debate began to take place in 1964 which was promoted partly by the publishing of Henning Pallesen’s ‘De avvikande’ and Lars Ullerstam’s ‘De erotiska minoriteterna’. Again it’s so unique with the archive that Eva-Lisa wrote about herself, her body and her own experience.
C-P: Since you have been working around this archive, studied it and spent so much time approaching the elements and contents, what are some personal revelations or epiphanies you might have had as a result?
S.H. What’s very clear and what I’ve been thinking a lot about is how when individuals from minority groups, by way of struggle have obtained certain privileges for themselves, it appears a risk that the same people will be beating on whatever groups are in an even weaker position than them to hold on to the said privileges. I think of the transvestites who couldn’t stand the thought of transsexuals which becomes evident in Eva-Lisa’s archive. As transvestites it was possible to maintain a masculine identity as a man, have a certain societal stature and everyday life unrelated to life as a transvestite. However, when Eva-Lisa came along and said that she was Eva-Lisa all the time so to speak, and that Eva-Lisa was who she was, then it threatened this order of things enjoyed by transvestites. The same patterns of beating downwards can be seen in the feminist movements over time where there is an obsession with the binary order of men or women, as well as labour movements where women have been excluded at the behest of fear of the inclusion resulting in even lower salaries for men.
It boils down to fear; fear of losing the small amounts of privileges that have been obtained to an even weaker group and in a way this fear is part of a universal human condition that is understandable in parts, but which cannot by any means be justified. What becomes clear studying Eva-Lisa’s archive is how she consistently refused to submit to these excluding orders, all the while she always presented herself as an including force wherever she was, which has been conveyed by many people I spoke to in the process. Eva-Lisa’s attitude continues to be very inspiring.
C-P: What you are part of doing is the writing and narration of history, in which several people who were affiliated with Eva-Lisa make a certain part. The material being so extensive, how are you navigating in it, or rather how do you intend to work with it to present it to the public?
S.H: The long-term project to commemorate the memory of her will see the collective title 'Eva Lisa's Monument', while it will inform various projects to be carried out in various shapes over time. A first iteration will be a reading held at Moderna Museet in Stockholm during Pride which will be about the history of transgender club that Eva-Lisa was the founder of; Tranvestia, and the reading will derive from letters addressed specifically to Eva-Lisa. That work is called ‘Kära Eva-Lisa’ (Dear Eva-Lisa). I have invited a number of people to perform the reading with me; Erica Zander who was a notable transactivist in the early 00’s and poets Yolanda Bohm and Jon Ely Xiuming Aagaard Andersson.
There will also be a city walk as well which partially derives from what Eva-Lisa personally have told me and spoken to me about but as well from what others have shared with me and what has been found in the archive. As always when it comes to navigating material like this, you need to adopt some dramaturgical approach to selectively shine light on what are the key parts to tell a story. In that regard I want to be very faithful to what would have been Eva-Lisa’s wish and let that guide me in my work.
C-P: The club that Eva-Lisa founded, Travestia, what was the social interaction like and what shape did it take?
S.H: In the beginning Tranvestia took the shape of a penpal correspondence club. Eva-Lisa got acquainted to Erika Sjöman, who was a transvestite and who’d been at sea, through the porn magazine Raff and the two of them together decided to start the venture together. There was a postbox and an ad was placed in Raff and from the many letters that came in from Sweden and Finland, people would be paired together based on their mutual interests so that they could correspond. When Eva-Lisa later got in touch with Lars Ullerstam (the author of ‘De erotiska minoriteterna’) he helped arranging venues for parties.
The first party was held in 1965 at the Dutch embassy which at the time was found on Götgatan. Eventually the club was bestowed the venue that was Spegelsalen, a dance studio on Östgötagatan close to Mosebacke. Since it was a dance studio with mirrors, it was the perfect place in where to dress up. People would perform and do mannequin acts. There parties were held once a month for a year and it made for the most recurring fixture in terms of locale that club saw in its history. Parties were also held in private living rooms and there was also a hairdressing salon called Madame Loulou on Hantverkargatan where the proprietess allowed the transvestites to get ready and dress up on the lower floor before moving on to the upper floor where she had her apartment, to party. The group were not super many in numbers but about a core group of around thirty who would go the parties, among which were transvestites but also people with fetishes, lesbian women, artists and writers. People that were "allies".
C-P: Spegelsalen (the mirror hall), sounds so fitting from a metaphorical point of view of channeling who you are and want to be.
S.H: It sounds very grand but in reality it was quite spartan. There was no toilet and rather an outdoor privy existed where to urinate in a potty. Everyone chipped in with the refreshments and while humble in a way, it became a super important space for this group. It’s so evident in the letters that are archived.
C-P: On a last note, as an artist, what room do you feel is afforded to narratives and realities of transgender people in the art sphere in exhibitions and venues today?
S.H: It’s difficult to say on a general note. I think it runs in line with whatever developments in society at large and structures also outside the art sphere itself. Needless to say, infinitely much more space is afforded to cis-artists or white cis-gay-men. I don’t think the art sphere differs so much from other white-middle class domains in media and culture. It’s as sexist, racist and transphobic, if you will. From a certain view, it can appear a bit symptomatic when you realize that more space is allocated particulary around Pride for example, than during the rest of the year.
The reading Dear-Eva Lisa was held at Moderna Museet in Stockholm on July 30
Two city walks informed by Eva-Lisa's Monument was held with Stockholms Kvinnohistoriska, on Thursday August 1 & 2.
1) Portrait of Sam Hultin, photo: Miki Anagrius
2-4) Images from the archive of Eva-Lisa's Monument, courtesy of Sam Hultin
5) Portrait of Eva-Lisa Bengsson
To learn more about Sam Hultin;