Jónína Leósdóttir, writer and wife of Iceland’s former Prime Minister, is changing the world, one page at a time
I am sitting in a coffee shop near downtown Reykjavík on a cloudy August afternoon, nervously awaiting the arrival of my distinguished guest: an acclaimed Icelandic writer who also happens to play an important part in modern history.
I look up from my laptop for a brief moment to see a woman with ash-brown hair and bright red lipstick walking through the door, her bespectacled eyes scanning the café, obviously looking for someone she has never met in person. I smile and wave to her from across the room. She returns a warm smile before walking over to introduce herself. After she graciously buys tea for the two of us, we begin chatting, and my entire body—which had tensed up in anxious anticipation of this meeting—begins to relax. Before long, I feel like I’m conversing with an old friend or a wise, discerning mentor. Meet Jónína Leósdóttir: respected author, human rights activist and wife of the world’s first openly gay head of state, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.
During our conversation, I quickly discover that Jónína’s personal story is just as captivating as the books and plays she produces. She has worked in tourism, politics, journalism and, of course, fiction writing. However, her relationship with the woman who became one of the world’s most progressive trailblazers for LGBTI rights is rapidly elevating her to legendary status, both in Iceland and abroad.
Jónína has authored many books, including ‘Við Jóhanna’ (‘Jóhanna And I’), a poignant account of her thirty-year romance with Iceland’s first female prime minister. Since the book’s publication in 2013, Jónína has travelled with her partner across the world to tell their remarkable story, most recently at World Pride in Toronto, where Jóhanna was the keynote speaker. Armed with her words and compassionate spirit, Jónína continues to fight honourably alongside many others to change the world’s perception of the LGBTI community and encourage its acceptance among citizens of all nations.
WorldPride and the current state of human rights
“The whole trip was an amazing experience, from beginning to end,” Jónína says, recounting her recent journey to World Pride, an international gathering promoting LGBTI causes. “Jóhanna and I met some wonderful human rights activists who are putting their lives at risk every day by fighting for gay rights.”
Despite the event’s upbeat tone, the countless harrowing stories Jónína heard from LGBTI people living in oppressive countries like Uganda and Russia gave her ample cause for concern. “The forces they are up against are so terribly cruel and powerful… I worry about people who live in such societies who have to fear for their lives, simply because of feelings they were born with. It makes me sad and mad.”
I ask her what she believes is currently the greatest impediment to the advancement of LGBTI acceptance. “I think ignorance is the greatest obstacle,” she explains. “Intolerance festers in ignorance—and that includes prejudice and suspicion between countries, cultures, religious groups, etc cetera.” She adds: “But once you get to know someone who belongs to a group you were prejudiced against, most mature and sensible people soon realize how wrong they were. Under the skin, and when you strip away nationality, sexuality and religion, we are all the same.”
While Iceland has a reputation as one of the world’s most tolerant societies toward LGBTI people, Jóhanna and Jónína too, have faced prejudice at home and abroad. She recalls visiting the Faroe Islands with Jóhanna on an official visit back in September 2010, when an MP in the Faroese parliament publicly refused to attend a banquet in Jóhanna’s honour. “He said that by bringing me, her same-sex partner, on this visit Jóhanna was flaunting her sexuality, which he found offensive.” Optimistic, forgiving and completely unfazed, Jónína stresses that “everyone else we met in the Faroe Islands was incredibly nice and welcoming and we took no offence… someone immediately started a Facebook page which people could ‘like’ʼ if they did not agree with this man… six or seven thousand responded right away.” A few months later, an LGBTI association was established in the Faroe Islands, and it “has been growing stronger ever since.”
Although discrimination still persists, Jónína and Jóhanna’s brave willingness to live freely and openly is resonating across the globe, spreading a positive message of love and acceptance, capable of changing and unifying the hearts of people.
“I wake up every morning, absolutely raring to start writing and feel incredibly lucky to be able to write ‘my own stuff’ full-time,” Jónína proclaims, when I ask her about her work as an author. “I am immensely grateful for being able to dedicate myself to authoring books. Actually, every single morning I can hardly believe my luck, and I begin every day by lighting a candle by my computer and taking a moment to thank God for my life and opportunities.”
An intensely productive author, Jónína recently finished her thirteenth novel, ‘Bara ef…’ (‘If Only…’), which hits stores in October. “It is a humorous study of two marriages over five dramatic days in spring,” she explains. “When the story begins, a man has just demanded a divorce from his wife at a very awkward moment and for rather unclear reasons. That shakes up the whole family, including his daughter who has her own problems to deal with.” Despite having numerous works to her name, Jónína is far from finished writing; she is already hard at work on her fourteenth novel and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. “I would absolutely love to have at least twenty more years on Earth in good enough health to be able to write novels and enjoy spending time with my family and friends,” she says about her hopes for the future.
The international literary scene is also starting to take notice of Jónína’s writings. ‘Við Jóhanna’ will be published in Danish within the next three months, and following the couple’s recent visit to Toronto, Canadian publishers have expressed serious interest in translating it into English. An engaging account of key moments within their relationship (including the awkwardly humorous moment when Jónína professes her feelings for Jóhanna over a glass of sherry in a hotel room on a business trip), ‘Við Jóhanna’ tells the touching tale of two ordinary women who fell in love in an unconventional and extraordinary way. It is truly a powerful story for all the world to hear.
When she is not travelling the world, writing novels, or speaking at conferences, Jónína is hard at work at what is perhaps her most important job to date: being a full-time grandmother. “My first biological grandchild is a seven-month-old girl named Nína,” she says. “And it would be such a joy to see her in her twenties. But even just being able to talk to her and create some memories of us together that she can carry with her always, that would be bliss. Everything in excess of that is a bonus.”
While she has enjoyed many wonderful opportunities, Jónína acknowledges that her recent life hasn’t always been easy. “Everyone has all sorts of problems to deal with. That’s life, I’m afraid,” she explains. “But we also have something to be grateful for, every single day.”
She describes the last few weeks of her father’s battle with cancer, a time when she purposely kept a gratefulness diary. Despite the tragic circumstances, she notes, “I found something to enjoy and appreciate every day. Keeping the diary taught me not to underestimate the importance of ‘the small stuff’ in life.”
Hardships aside, Jónína continues to forge a strong legacy of promoting positive change through her writing and activism, showing how people from a small nation like Iceland can have a profound impact on the universal fight for human rights.
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