Grapevine: The Gay Pride Festival is hardly something one has to promote anymore. It’s now the biggest celebration in the country.
Páll Óskar: It has come a long way. Last year there were 40,000 people. [Novelist and playwright] Andri Snær Magnason wrote a piece in Fréttablaðið that we included in our brochure this year that sums everything up. It’s not just that our Gay Pride has the spirit of a carnival, it’s the spirit of fight. The 17th of June used to be like this. (Reading from Andri Snær’s article and paraphrasing) The Gay Pride Festival here now bears most of the symptoms of a national celebration: the sense of duty, the flag, here we have people who proudly carry the flag and people [for whom] the flag still has meaning.
The Gay Generation knows what they were celebrating—they would never dream of changing their flag for an Og Vodafone flag.
Grapevine: Ah, yes, for tourists, a couple of years ago Og Vodafone, a telephone company, gave out flags during Independence Day.
Páll Óskar: Gay Pride has no sales tents. We’re all about the event, pure and simple. If anything is sold, we do it personally, only gay pride flags and t-shirts, with the income going to a fellowship for the next generation.
Grapevine: It is a successful event. But I have some concerns. I covered a drag competition last year, and one of the contestants had been beaten up the night before the show. Are there incidents of violence against gays in Iceland?
Páll Óskar: I would like to see the rate of physical violence against gays in Iceland. I think it is very low. I have experienced verbal abuse. That takes place Fridays and Saturdays after midnight. Under the excuse that you’re allowed to say things when you’re drunk. But I have never had the experience of being kicked out of an apartment or out of a job, as I know happened to previous generations. Previous generations lived in fear. They had no emotional freedom. They really had to think twice about coming out of the closet.
Grapevine: Is it accurate to say that you are a member of the first generation of accepted openly gay Icelanders?
Páll Óskar: I am. I was born in 1970.
Grapevine: In fact, some say you’re one of the reasons the Icelanders accept openly gay culture.
Páll Óskar: I’m not the reason, but yes I am one of the reasons. Me and a handful of other brave people who were just out there. Interestingly, I came out of the closet in 1987, when the AIDS epidemic was reaching its climax in Iceland. I remember in 1984, the first talk show about AIDS had three panels. There were doctors, gays and religious people. My father said, “All these faggots should be shipped to a desert island and left there to die.” So I realized I had work to do.
Grapevine: It’s hard to believe things were ever like that. How were you able to cope with that?
Páll Óskar: I had some encouragement. I’m the youngest of seven. My mother was extremely helpful. When I told her, she said ‘If Páll has the talent to fall in love, he should nurture that talent. And he has as much a right to sit down at my table with his partner as anybody else does with their partner.’
Grapevine: That’s the family side. The private side. How does that compare with something like this parade.
Páll Óskar: Telling your parents is coming out. I do not consider walking down Laugavegur with a green wig on your head and shouting ‘I’m Gay!’ to be coming out. That’s easy.
The Gay Pride is something we call Organized Visibility. It’s for those who are still in the closet, still leading a double life. Living the life of a mole, really. While those people still exist, this parade has to be.
Grapevine: There is a limit as to what this does, in my opinion.
Páll Óskar: This whole festival has only one message, if you read between the lines: You are not done. It’s also a way of saying thanks to the heterosexual people who get the picture. Because without them this whole gay lib would not have taken place.
Grapevine: It’s extremely successful, and all the shops say ‘Yeah, we’re gay friendly’ for that weekend. But I get the impression that most people return to the closet soon after. Gay friends from America have told me that they hear the ‘I’m not advertising it,’ line about being gay a lot.
Páll Óskar: That sounds right. I don’t agree with them. It’s not a question of advertising it. Straight people have wedding rings and children and kiss and hug in the swimming pools. If a gay man says that he has a problem with advertising, then he has a problem with his sexuality. But the gay society has all colours. We don’t agree on politics. Some of us love each other, some of us hate each other.
Grapevine: If Iceland is so gay friendly, where are the prominent gay businessmen and women? Where is the openly gay politician? There isn’t one gay member of parliament that I know of.
Páll Óskar: That’s a good question. Come to think of it, I only know of two gay men in parliament. Neither are out. We have yet to see the day when an openly gay politician is elected. But we have quite a few gay-friendly and liberal politicians.
Grapevine: How safe is it for gay people in this country? Is it safe, for example, for a gay man to take a job in a fishing boat?
Páll Óskar: I know quite a few gay men on fishing boats personally, and, yeah, it’s quite safe. I believe the only place you can find prejudice is in sports.
There’s a good article [in the Gay Pride brochure] on the lesbian football team of the 1980s. Many of them were forced out of their team, Valur. They moved over to Haukur in Hafnarfjörður.
Grapevine: Is it as safe for a straight woman to work anywhere in Iceland as it is for a gay man?
Páll Óskar: I don’t know. It’s a good question, though. I know that as a gay man you experience verbal abuse from your fellow workers. We have learned not to react with a ‘Oh, the world is so mean to me.’ If someone is mean, it’s usually caused by not enough information: ignorance and fear. Never victimize yourself.
Grapevine: Even when being verbally assaulted at work?
Páll Óskar: Yeah. We’ve come to learn that this is caused by ignorance. Give information. I’m a firm believer in information as a tool. It should be given and even promoted as it is in Gay Pride.
Grapevine: Reading through literature about the Icelandic gay scene, I came across an argument that Iceland doesn’t have gay clubs because it is so incredibly accepting that gays interact just like straight people.
Páll Óskar: That’s a cute argument. I don’t agree. The Reykjavík gay community is always waiting for that one man with money to appear from the sky. It’s a social issue. We have to socialize somewhere. Right now, the only gay club I attend is the MSE, the Leather Club. This is the only bar where I can be gay, no questions asked. Ever. I like that just as a football fan likes going to a sports club and watching a live broadcast of his team with his mates.
But let’s not forget that bars and clubs are only open two days a week. What are you going to do the rest of the week? Sadly, the gay community is often dependent on the bars. It seems some men are content with being creatures crawling in the night. Naturally, that’s not something I’m happy about. How gay are you for the rest of the week?
Grapevine: I know you spend time on the Continent. Have you thought about just living somewhere where there’s a more active gay scene?
Páll Óskar: I would never leave Reykjavík and move to a bigger city because of the gay scene. If someone had a great job and a great platform to show my art maybe, but never for the gay scene.
Grapevine: I think a few people come out to Iceland, knowing of the acceptance of alternative lifestyles, and think there’s going to be a gay scene and are disappointed when there isn’t.
Páll Óskar: I think it’s wrong to promote Iceland as a gay paradise.
For information on the Gay Pride Festival, visit www.gayice.is.