Hörður Torfason—troubadour, songwriter, actor, director and human rights activist—is one of Iceland’s living legends. In recent memory, he was the organising force behind the Pots and Pans Revolution of 2008–2009, and has been invited to bring his philosophy on activism to Spain, Mexico, and further afield. However, he also happens to be Iceland’s first openly gay man. I met Hörður over lunch to talk about the trials and triumphs that brought him to where he is today.
From a young age, Hörður showed an aptitude for music.
“We always had music in my family,” he says. “I express myself a lot through music. Where other people write in diaries, I write songs.”
Even at a tender age, his passion for sticking up for the downtrodden was evident. The first song he ever composed, at the age of 12, was about a man living in a piano box down by Reykjavík harbour. “There’s always been this strong power in me where I don’t accept unjust things,” he tells me.
This would carry over into young adulthood when, at the age of 18, he was fired for suggesting that his co-workers organise a strike. Far from being a setback, at 20 he was offered a store manager position at a major company. His response was to ask for a week to think about it. During this time, he came to the conclusion that retail management—as well as it would have paid—would not be for him. “I made a decision never to be what I’m not: to be true to myself.” And so, to the surprise of his family and the owners of the company, he declined the offer.
But Hörður had larger issues to grapple with around that time, namely his sexuality.
“I knew I was gay,” he says. “I didn’t have the word for it, but I just knew it. And according to many people around me, it was wrong. I was a criminal. I was told I was a paedophile. I didn’t get any information about the matter, and everyone told me to be quiet about it. I knew I was gay when I was about 15. You know that you’re different, but you just hide it in the beginning. I never accepted that I was some criminal, or something very wrong, but just that I was different. I was fine with being who I am. But other people weren’t.”
The role of the artist
While considering his path in life, Hörður first turned his attention to acting.
“I was very shy, so I decided to go into a private acting school, to learn how to, well, speak up.” Private school lead to the National Theatre’s school for acting and, at 24, he graduated as an actor. Hörður, always one to have more than one iron in the fire, had contracts for two LPs at the time.
He mentions this offhandedly, as if being an actor, lyricist and a signed musician went fairly naturally together. So I asked what led him into music and, specifically, how he came to be Iceland’s first troubadour.
Folk music, he tells me, was pretty popular at the time, and he was drawn to it as well. But while most people were forming trios, Hörður decided specifically to go solo, for largely pragmatic reasons. “I don’t want to spend my time waiting for other people,” he says. “I hate it when people are late for rehearsal. So I decided I’ll go on my own. And that’s the way I’ve always worked.”
And work he did, playing impassioned songs about life, beauty and struggle for people around the country and at parties in Reykjavík.
Shortly thereafter, Hörður went to Denmark, where he came to a realisation about art that would have a lasting effect on his life’s work.
“I came to the conclusion that the role of the artist is to speak out, to fight the misuse of power,” he tells me. “Being popular is not going to be a big part of my life. That’s not going to be my job and it’s never been. I just follow my heart.”
Also around this time, he began to see how fighting the misuse of power applied to gay rights. Discovering the gay movement in Scandinavia, he began to read up on history, from Magnus Hirschfeld to F-48. And how did this apply to his everyday life?
“I discovered that I could be famous and get a lot of money if I shut up about who I was, my nature. But at the same time, I’d see gay people in Reykjavík being beaten up. I could not accept this.”
Unbeknownst to him at the time, he would end up being the catalyst for precisely the sort of change he wanted to see.
In 1975, a journalist from the magazine Samuel contacted Hörður to discuss the gay scene in Reykjavík. He agreed to meet him and they spoke at length about some of the ways the gay scene operated at the time.
“I thought he wanted to talk about the issue. What I didn’t know is that he recorded it.” The journalist revealed that he had recorded the conversation at the end of the talk, adding the caveat that he believed Hörður had agreed to meet him out of a sexual interest.
Rather than exploding into a rage or demanding the tape be burned, Hörður offered to do another interview, even more in depth than the one he had just done. The journalist accepted, but it wasn’t to be—instead, the journalist went on vacation, and Samuel’s editors decided to run the ambush interview.
Hörður’s life changed literally overnight. On the day that issue of Samuel hit the stands Hörður was busy filming a movie and he recalls that passersby were giving him strange looks on the street. It wasn’t until a shop owner pointed out the interview to him that he understood why, and that’s when things got ugly.
“My telephone was filled with threats. But people didn’t believe this when I told them. They had this attitude that this was such a good, nice society. I was silenced, totally. The only solution for me was to move away.”
Hörður once again went to Denmark and sank into a deep depression. At 32, he decided to commit suicide.
“I was determined that I was going to do this. But then I understood how deeply I would hurt my parents and family. I couldn’t take that. So instead, I went out and had a beer in the middle of the day for the first time,” he says, laughing. “I celebrated life doing that.”
Following his renewed love for life, he decided to take the persecution he had faced in Iceland and transform it: he would form a gay rights organisation, which would come to be known as Samtökin 78.
The Icelandic gay rights movement begins
While today Samtökin 78 is well known for being an active and vibrant lobby, it certainly didn’t start out that way. While trying to start his gay rights club, Hörður went into directing amateur theatre, and played his guitar on weekends, although he says no one would come to the shows.
Ironically, however, most of the resistance he faced was from other gay men, who were scared of exposure and persecution. Others were for a long time convinced that Hörður was actually trying to start a sex club.
Frustrated by the hesitance of others, he penned letters to every gay man he knew in Reykjavík, informing them of the fledgling group’s first meeting, in his home. “That upset most of them, because they were concerned their parents would open the letter. And I said, ‘If you’re worried about your parents reading your letters, what are you? This is a fact: you are gay, I am gay. And we need to stick together.’”
The confusion others had over whether Hörður was trying to start a sex club or not persisted, with one man telling him, “I don’t need to join any organisation to get laid.” Bizarrely, some even quoted the Bible to him on the sinfulness of homosexuality. In the end, though, he managed to convince some of them to help him form Samtökin 78.
Meanwhile, Hörður began touring again in the countryside. He says at first no one would come to his shows apart from the house managers of the clubs and cafés where he played. Little by little, though, as his tours circled the country, year after year, these house managers would bring their friends and family. Over a period of two decades, the crowds—and the tolerance of others—began to grow.
Hörður says this was for instance evident in the way that teachers would approach him, asking for help with how to deal with a gay student in their classes. He was pleasantly surprised to see teachers wanting to confront the issue, rather than ignore it.
Hörður’s open, personable nature disarmed the fears and prejudices of others regarding gay people.
“People would tell me, ‘You’re very different from what I thought you would be’. And that’s when I thought, OK, this is working. A big part of my job is being there for people. Be an honest person, and people come to you.”
At this point in the interview, Hörður cannot help but reflect on how, in the face of tolerance, there are still some aspects of Icelandic society that stand in the way.
“The main problem comes from the church,” he says. “I never really talked about this openly. The people aren’t the problem. If you talk to people, they’re maybe not gay themselves but they respect you as you are. But then comes the church. They put conditions on love. And that to me is unacceptable. You cannot put rules on love.”
From Crash To Revolution
This leads us to politics. Issues of class and abuse of power are prevalent in Hörður ‘s songs, and his growing activism reflects these issues that are close to his heart.
“I tell people, ‘I’m not demonstrating. I’m fighting for a better life.’ I think aloud, ask questions, seek answers. I knew there was corruption in this country. But I never thought in my wildest dreams that the banks would crash. We have been told lie after lie after lie, and people just accept them. They say ‘þetta reddast’ [‘it’ll all work out’], until it affects them personally, and then they come screaming.”
The 2008 economic collapse of Iceland would send Hörður’s life path in a whole new direction—one that would take him beyond the bounds of even his own country.
Hörður had been active in protesting the deportation of Kenyan asylum seeker Paul Ramses, who was brought back to Iceland and now lives here. So when the banks collapsed and an angry crowd gathered in front of the Central Bank on October 10, 2008, Hörður went to see for himself. The organiser of the event, who had never expected a crowd of the size that had gathered and was quite overwhelmed, gladly gave control of the rally to Hörður. He then invited people to move the protests to Austurvöllur, the park in front of parliament. And it was there that history was made.
Not everything went according to plan, though. Other groups came into the fray and wanted to take over, even with violence. “I told them, look—I have the authority’s permission to do this here on Saturdays at 15.00. And you are stepping into what I am doing. My meetings are without violence—I use reason, and I do not hide my face. To me, freedom does not wear a mask. Make your own protests; there is plenty of space and time for you. I only use three hours at Austurvöllur on Saturdays; the rest of the week is yours.”
More and more people began to gather in front of parliament, week after week, and it was in fact Hörður who put the “pots and pans” in the Pots and Pans Revolution. On January 17, 2009, he told those in attendance in front of parliament, “Go home, polish your pots and pans, and start training your voices because I will ask you to use them very soon. And next Tuesday, we will stand in front of this house, and make a lot of noise, because these people keep telling us to keep quiet.”
While popular support was growing, and even the police were getting along civilly with him for the most part, public opinion towards him would hit a nasty bump in the road when then Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde announced that he had cancer. Hörður accused the prime minister of making a ploy for sympathy. The rhetoric against Hörður, in the blog world and in the media, was brutal. Looking back, would he do anything differently?
Hörður emphatically stands by what he said, explaining, “I don’t get paid one crown for what I do and I don’t take this shit. You do not come as a prime minister and say, ‘I have cancer, feel sorry for me, don’t criticise the work I do.’ I would never, ever bring forward a personal problem in my work. It has nothing to do with what I’m doing. I never spoke of the cancer of the man nor would I attack a sick person. What I criticised was that he was using this, his sickness, to get sympathy. I mean, how dare they do this? There’s a lot more at stake than their personal life.”
Nonetheless, Hörður would press on until the beginning of March 2009, when he withdrew after all three demands of the protesters in his camp—the resignation of the government, the Central Bank chairman (Morgunblaðið editor Davíð Oddsson) and the directorship of the Financial Supervisory Authority—had been met.
“What people have to understand is that I do not do this kind of work to get rich or get into power. It is my work as an artist and sometimes words are not enough. Action is needed. And I step forward to ask people to help me. The reason is that I simply want to live a good life and I wish the same for everyone, but that does not come free. We have to fight for it. We must stay awake to protect our freedom and welfare, because out there are always people who will misuse our trust and try to steal it from us. And these people don’t use kind, polite methods.
“Like I’ve said to the people in Spain, Sweden, Greece, Mexico and Iceland: stay awake, don’t give up. There is always a way. It takes time. Maybe it doesn’t succeed today, but there comes another day tomorrow. Let’s use the politicians, talk to them, make clear demands. Make them listen to us. That is what they are for. Let’s make them work properly. Do what we, the people, want and need. Everyone can make a mistake: individuals, nations, parliaments. Let’s take a good look into our own garden. A society that does not embrace everyone is no longer a society—it has become a private club that is dangerous and destructive to all its citizens. When we, the people, have reached this point, the politicians have failed us and they are serving the minority who are sick from greed. Let us correct the situation and work together.”
Always the optimist
Hörður’s attention now, as then, concerns Iceland’s new constitution, a draft of which is currently being polished by a 25-person committee for submission to parliament.
“I think whatever they come up with is going to be better than what we have now. The power structure in this country is so sick, so corrupted. There’s going to be a lot of fights this coming winter. I mean, a new constitution: are we going to let the politicians and their rich friends take it and destroy it? Or are we going to get a new constitution and a better society? I cannot imagine the people in power saying, ‘Alright.’ They are not going to accept this. Have you noticed how well they live? I don’t mind people getting rich, but the parliament members are working for us, the people. Yet they seem to have the attitude that we are their slaves. They have lost the people’s trust and we must change this situation for the better. It will take time.”
Hörður would rather see the committee tour the country, explaining all the proposed changes to the new constitution, and then have the document put to referendum. He is currently in meetings with a number of people, discussing plans for demonstrations in front of parliament, in order to try to influence the new constitution’s fate.
I asked him what advice he might pass on to the younger generations of Iceland’s gay community. Facing his autumn years with a smile—and still with plenty of energy to spare and no intention of stopping—he said, “What I’m telling younger people today is, don’t fall asleep. We fought for this. What you have today didn’t come for free. I’m not sitting around crying because of this, but I really fought and sacrificed. The clock can easily turn back. There are signs of it in Europe, and it may well come here.”
Having said that, Hörður remains, as always, an optimist.
“I am very confident they will find a way by themselves. I don’t believe in giving advice to people, unless they come in person. Because coming out can be a very difficult decision. I just wish them luck along with the rest of the people in this world.”