Love Will Win (If We Want It): Fighting Transphobia In Iceland

Love Will Win (If We Want It): Fighting Transphobia In Iceland

Published August 5, 2022

Love Will Win (If We Want It): Fighting Transphobia In Iceland
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

On June 25th, a man walked into the London Pub in Oslo, Norway, pulled out a gun, and started shooting. He would repeat this at two other locations, killing two people and wounding 21 before being arrested. He was expressly motivated by his hatred of queer people.

A few days later, Iceland’s queer community and allies gathered in front of Parliament to hold a rally in solidarity with the survivors in Norway. Many speakers talked about the need for education to prevent such an act from happening in Iceland.

However, Norway is, like Iceland, one of the most queer-friendly countries in the world. In both countries, same-sex marriage is legal, hate speech and discrimination against queer people is forbidden, polls show most people support queer rights, and queer education can be found in many levels of schooling.

However, Iceland and Norway also share in common a disturbing trend: a rise in anti-trans rhetoric, in print and in broadcast media, which is making life decidedly more dangerous for trans people in these countries.

It is clear that the law can only go so far in protecting marginalised people. As one example, the United Kingdom has also legally enshrined many of the same protections for queerpeople that Norway and Iceland have, but the virulent and repeated anti-trans sentiment–printed in columns, splashed across headlines, broadcast over national television–is already leading to a rise in violence against trans people in the UK.

With this in mind, the Grapevine spoke with the president of Iceland’s largest trans organisation, an academic, an activist, and a lawmaker to ask: what effect is Iceland’s media having on general public attitudes towards trans people? Where is transphobia most and least prevalent in Icelandic society? And, most importantly, what can people do to stop hate in Iceland before it reaches more dangerous levels?

What is Icelandic transphobia like?

While there have always been people in Iceland who hate trans people, it has not been until the last few years that hate for trans people has ramped up.

For a few examples, there does indeed exist an Icelandic branch of the anti-trans hate group LGB Alliance, formed just a few years ago (albeit in small and nebulous numbers, and they now call themselves “Samtökin 22”–not to be confused with the National Queer Organisation, Samtökin 78), and disgraced former Prime Minister and current chair of the Centre Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has recently had a sudden interest in what a woman is.

Within the media, both Morgunblaðið and Vísir have printed anti-trans columns under the guise of “opinion” pieces, nationally broadcast television show Ísland Í Dag hosted Jordan Peterson to hold forth on many, many falsehoods about trans people, and last May news magazine Stundin published an ill-conceived “exposé” on health care for trans youth with so many inaccuracies that former Trans Ísland director Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir’s rebuttal had a word count that rivalled the original (which, to the magazine’s credit, was also published by Stundin).

What gives?

The double-edged sword of visibility

Viima Lampinen, president of Trans Iceland, believes visibility plays a part in this backlash.

“In my personal opinion, I feel like because trans topics are now everywhere, more than they were even just four years ago,” they tell us. “The raised awareness is, in my opinion, functioning in a twofold way. One is that it’s likely that more people are now aware of trans trends, topics, and issues. This also includes non-binary topics at the same time.

“Most people are positive, at least when encountering trans and non-binary people in person. But when it comes to what they may personally think, in the comfort of their own homes, and especially online, when they don’t have to actually see people eye to eye, they don’t have that emotional accountability that they would need to always have when you’re encountering another person.

“So, in general, I feel like there is more awareness and therefore, people are more used to trans and-non binary people, but at the same time, those harsher, more negative views of transphobia are also more common now. Because more people are aware of these issues.”

“I think we’re certainly more aware of more negative attitudes [towards trans people] today than five years ago.”

“I think we’re certainly more aware of more negative attitudes [towards trans people] today than five years ago,” Íris Ellenberger, a historian and assistant professor at the University of Iceland School of Education, tells us. “But it’s hard to tell how much of that is people changing their minds and becoming more negative to trans people, and how much of it is people being more open about their transphobic views and finding that they are more free to express their transphobic views. So I’m not too sure that the attitude changes itself, but it seems that at least people feel more free to express their negative attitudes and hatred towards trans people.”

Why these people might feel more comfortable to express themselves now than only a few years ago can likely be attributed to Icelandic transphobes taking cues from their ideological allies abroad: they will use the same talking points, the same dog whistles, and even cite the same sources in their writing. That said, Íris sees another possible explanation.

“Trans people are openly challenging some truths,” Íris says, such as that there are only two genders. “To a large extent, or at least, I think, one of the reasons that gays and lesbians became so accepted at the time was the message was, ‘We only want to be like you, the rest of the population. We want to marry and have children. We are not here to kind of shake up your realities, we want to keep things as they are, we only want access to everything, like stuff that you all hold dear. We don’t want to change all that much.’”

Where is transphobia most (and least) prevalent?

When asked which sectors of society harbour the most, or the least, transphobia, the medical community was cited repeatedly.

“I don’t feel safe in the healthcare system,” says Elínborg Hörpu- og Önundarbur (Elí for short), an activist who is trans themselves. “I wonder if these are people that actually care about my well being or if they just think I’m a freak, in a way. Or if they don’t take me seriously. And it doesn’t help when you’ve had all this leaked information from the doctors group.”

Here Elí refers to screenshots leaked earlier this summer from a closed Facebook group for doctors wherein a post shared an article advocating “detransitioning” trans people. This article was “liked” by over 60 doctors in Iceland’s health care system, with numerous doctors in the comments thanking the poster for sharing it.

“It’s probably a really big portion of doctors working in Iceland [who feel the same],” Elí says. “So that makes you feel really unsafe.”

Viima also cites the healthcare system, and emphasises the importance of education on trans health issues as a means to help assuage the situation.

“I don’t feel like there’s a lot of representation of trans people in the media doing something other than being trans.”

“When it comes to the individuals working there, the attitudes are also changing,” they say. “But we’re at a point where the health care providers basically need more education on trans healthcare. It’s 2022, we have so much more research and information on what trans people want and what it is like, when it comes to our health care; what needs to be considered.

“It’s not their fault, in a way,” Viima continues. “They’re not given enough means to do their best. I think in that sense, their education, the politics of it, is letting them down. And then that results in… Well, basically, trans people are not getting adequate health care.”

When it comes to sectors that are particularly welcoming of trans people, Elí cites the teaching department at the University of Iceland, of which they say, “they’re kind of doing their best to create quite a safe environment. There’s a big diversity of people both teaching and studying at this department. So I feel it could be a place where you could feel at home, if that makes sense. To feel included, actively included.”

However, if there’s one sector that is having a complicated impact on how the general public perceives and responds to trans people, it’s the media.

The role of the media

As mentioned earlier, a lot of the transphobic voices in Iceland are finding a platform in its national media outlets, more often than not under the guise of “opinion” pieces rather than news stories. As with media outlets in many other countries, what constitutes an “opinion” follows a very broad definition. Rather than being solely a matter of subjective taste or personal speculation where evidence is lacking, an opinion piece in the Icelandic media can also include expressing beliefs based on misinformation or even falsehoods. This is especially the case when it comes to the subject of trans people, for example by contending—despite scientific evidence to the contrary—that it is impossible to change one’s gender, and that only two exist.

“I think they have a really large impact, like on this kind of negative turn towards trans people in the last maybe one or two years,” Íris says of Icelandic media outlets. “The way it has become a venue for us to find negative voices. I think that matters a lot. That is something you see happening with various groups: that people are being used, kind of as a way to get attention and get clicks, to get more money from advertisers.”

At the same time, Elí says that individual reporters have gotten better in terms of how they cover trans people.

“I feel like they always check what name to use in articles, what pronouns to use, and they use mostly the correct and respectable terminology around trans people issues—in my experience, after a lot of work on behalf of trans activists,” they say. “I feel like it’s a pretty recent development.”

At the same time, Elí also points out a lack of diverse representation, saying, “I don’t feel like there’s a lot of representation of trans people in the media doing something other than being trans.”If they even get space in the media at all.”

“You need to have those difficult conversations in person and sometimes online, that it’s not okay to hate your neighbor just because they happen to be not cisgender.”

For their part, Viima believes that the small size and density of Icelandic society means that any topic reported on by the media will spread to many people quickly.

“There’s not a day that goes by where trans topics are not discussed, on the radio, in the newspapers, in magazines,” they say. “The thirst for people to know more, and to read about us seems to be unquenchable. Which is, in a way, amazing, but at the same time, it is a little bit, I would say, even unhealthy. A bit voyeurististic. It makes me uncomfortable sometimes. But yes, it has had an enormous positive effect, just making ourselves visible. That we are listened to sometimes now. Not all of the time. But a lot of time.”

Just as there is a double-edged sword to visibility, though, there is also another side to the Icelandic media’s reach.

“We’re also served on a silver platter,” Viima says. “Hate speech is not just hate speech; it is a form of violence. I am sometimes concerned for those individuals who take part who decide to share something of their own experiences or who speak out publicly. Trans people and non binary people are still marginalised groups in society and in danger of hate crimes.”

What about the law?

On the subject of hate speech, Iceland does have a law forbidding it (Article 233a of the General Penal Code), although it is seldom enforced. While the law cannot protect marginalised people completely, it can go a long way towards doing so, and Pirate Party MP Andrés Ingi Jónsson believes the government should be doing more.

“We’re seeing pushback surface,” Andrés says. “And it’s a bit frightening when it comes to the open hostilities people are facing in the streets. The things we’re seeing in the news these days—it’s a bit worrying that it seems that the authorities haven’t taken any proactive steps to make sure these things wouldn’t happen. Rather, we’ve been waiting for individuals to be in actual danger before reacting in a situation I think we shouldn’t have had to find ourselves in.”

Andrés was instrumental in the elimination of the so-called “trans tax”, the 9,000 ISK fee that used to be charged if someone wanted to change their name or gender marker at the National Registry. Within six months of calling for the fee to be dropped, it was officially stricken. Did he get much pushback from his colleagues or from the public?

“Extremely little,” he says. “For my colleagues, I think they were mainly annoyed because this seemed like a technical thing. And those that needed persuasion, they just didn’t realise that this actually was an issue. But there were no actual negative feelings within Parliament. Very little from outside Parliament.”

While Andrés believes there is more legal work that Parliament could be doing to protect trans people, he sees the passage of this bill as a part of his role as an ally to marginalised people, saying, “I’m a white, male, cisgender individual in a position of power. So basically, I’m everything that’s not discriminated against. When I look over the shoulders of my female colleagues or people in different positions, the reactions they are getting both openly and privately, I usually see things that are so far from anything I would ever experience.”

What can an ally do?

When it comes to being an ally to trans people—to push back against the rise of anti-trans hate in public discourse—our interviewees had some helpful pieces of advice.

Paramount in that advice was to not accept that bigotry against trans people is merely a “debate” or “a matter of opinion”.

“It shouldn’t be a debate,” Íris says. “My colleagues in Norway, for instance, the first thing they brought up after the shooting was that the responsibility of the media is huge, because they dehumanise people when they put people’s lives and existence up for ‘debate.’ It isn’t a debate and you don’t always have to participate in the debate.”

Íris emphasises that wherever you might hear or see transphobia, allies should always push back against it, no matter who the speaker is.

“When you hear somebody saying something transphobic, even if it’s your own family or co-workers or something, never let things slip by without questioning what people are saying. Never allow it to become something natural or something like that. Ruin Christmas dinner. Or maybe the dessert after Christmas. Basically don’t allow it to become something that is not questioned. Just don’t allow it to become a natural part of the environment.”

Elí adds that the “debate” framing is hardly anything new, either, saying, “That’s how a lot of civil rights have been framed in the past. And that’s civil rights that we find super natural to have right now.”

“The trans allies and trans people are winning right now, but I think it’s really important to keep in mind that it’s never a straight line. It’s always one step forward, two steps back or the other way around.”

Andrés points out that one does not need to be a member of Parliament to be able to exact change for the better.

“Even if you’re not in Parliament, you’re probably in a position of privilege, compared to the trans community,” he says. “So whatever you do will probably be a million times easier than then for an actual trans activist to do it. What we need are more voices. I mean, there’s many of us in Parliament or society in general, talking about these issues. Whenever they come up, we do get backup from a bunch of people, but I think we need to sort of build a stronger choir in society. To be the background to whatever’s happening.”

In terms of allyship, Eli recommends that those with the means donate money directly to trans rights organisations, and also brings up the advice to push back against transphobic speech, adding that allies should also “show up when you’re needed” at demonstrations and protests supporting trans rights.

Viima believes allyship begins with examining one’s self.

“It starts with just changing yourself, because all of us have grown up to discriminate,” they say. “We have learned to live in these worlds that have discriminatory mechanisms.” As such, educating one’s self is important, but also the recognition that we are fallible.

“If you make mistakes, it’s human—we all make mistakes,” they say. “Correct yourself and continue life and just smile.

Viima also echoes Íris’s points, saying that it is important for allies to take on the burden of challenging discussions. “There are only a limited number of trans and non binary people. We can’t be expected to have those difficult defusing conversations with those who are ill informed who may even have a hateful attitude towards trans or non binary people,” they say “You need to have those difficult conversations in person and sometimes online, that it’s not okay to hate your neighbor just because they happen to be not cisgender.”

The tide can turn

Anti-trans rhetoric is still very young in Iceland. All of the people we spoke with on why it’s here and how to stop it share in common the belief that Icelandic society is especially suited to spread misinformation amongst the population quickly, to provide platforms for hate that will reach many people with great speed.

At the same time, Iceland’s smallness and the density of its society means that education can spread just as quickly. Allyship can spread quickly. If the 2008-2009 protests, or the 2016 Panama Papers protests, are any indication, organised action can also be catalysed quickly. That said, human rights are never won once and for all.

“The trans allies and trans people are winning right now, but I think it’s really important to keep in mind that it’s never a straight line,” Íris says. “It’s always one step forward, two steps back or the other way around. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind: that these attitudes towards trans people are probably going to change for the better or for the worse continually, and if you want the forces of good to win, that is something that we have to be constantly working on. I’m not sure how it will go. But I think it’s going to be a constant flux. So I think we have to be really active in trying to make it so that trans people can live free.”

Andie Sophia is also the treasurer of Trans Iceland.

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