Even before they reach Iceland’s shore, foreign visitors will feel the gay pride fervour that will sweep Reykjavík August 7 to 12. Flight attendants on Iceland Express, the country’s popular budget airline and one of the main sponsors for Reykjavík Gay Pride, will don rainbow scarves and neckties in the weeks leading up to the festival—a fashion statement that hints at just how big the annual event has become.
“We see an increasing number of tourists visiting Iceland this time of the year. We see it on our flights, certainly during this period,” Iceland Express’s chief operating officer Þórunn Reynisdóttir said. “It’s clearly increased business for us in so many channels. This is a different target group.”
For the first time last year, police estimated that Reykjavík Gay Pride surpassed 100,000 attendees who marched down Laugavegur and packed Arnarhóll. About 5,000 of those attendees will be tourists who come exclusively for the festival, said Heimir Már Pétursson, former chairman of the non-profit organisation that runs Reykjavík Gay Pride, Hinsegin Dagar.
Pride-goers are an increasingly critical part of the tourism sector, a budding part of Iceland’s economy that now makes up about 6% of Iceland’s gross domestic product. In early August, they will pile into shops and cafés downtown or perhaps book travel packages through the gay travel agency Pink Iceland. “For years now, you can’t find a hotel during pride weekend. It’s all sold out. There are no hotels from Borgarnes to Flúðir,” said Heimir, who currently works as a spokesman for Iceland Express.
But what Iceland’s foreign visitors will also see during gay pride week—along with comedy shows at Harpa and queer dance parties at the city’s only gay club, Gay 46—is a festival almost like none other in the world. It’s one where political messages are mostly absent and most citizens, especially the straight ones, fly rainbow flags.
Dagur B. Eggertsson, a city councillor and the former mayor of Reykjavík, said the city has been committed to the event since it started in 1999, funding one-fourth of its 16-million ISK (or $128,000) budget. “It’s been kind of a happy event although it has political undertones, it’s still very much a grassroots event with a very big heart,” Dagur said. “It’s about people, their feelings and their families. It’s about colours and smiles. That’s why it’s really one of the biggest family festivities in the city and I don’t know of any gay pride that’s a family festivity of that scale.”
Painting The Rainbow Green
Across the world, gay pride festivals have tiptoed the line of politics and promotion. Corporate sponsors have jumped into pride festivals while activists call for marriage equality or anti-discrimination laws. In the U.S., gay soldiers celebrated the fall of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law by wearing their military uniforms in parades also lined with Budweiser billboards.
But in Iceland, political slogans and commercial advertisements are both invisible—almost. Pride festival organisers said they try to keep commercial messages to a minimum, selling advertisements in the festival’s magazine from big names like Landsbanki and VÍS Insurance but keeping licensed vendors off the streets. Corporate logos line the stage and VIP Platinum passes for the festival’s events are hocked to visitors for 19,000 ISK (or $150), which give visitors access to parties, shows, a Golden Circle tour and a gay cruise.
“We have to have money to run the show, and we do that through selling adverts and selling our gay pride merchandise,” said Jón Sævar Baldvinsson, the financial officer for Reykjavík Gay Pride. “If we break even, we are very happy. We have no staff that are paid. The artists who perform, they don’t get paid.”
From pride’s small operation, the payoff is huge. City officials said Visit Reykjavík, the city’s tourism agency, has not pinpointed the economic impact of the festival on Reykjavík businesses, but Dagur said: “We believe and know gay pride matters not just during that particular time during the year but hopefully all of the year in making the city a destination for gay tourists.”
Plenty Of Flags, But Where’s The Fight?
When Reykjavík’s LBGT community first marched with about 70 other Icelanders down Laugavegur in the early 1990s, the crowd of gay activists had plenty to fight for. Then gay people were still reportedly getting kicked out of bars. Legal protections for LGBT citizens were scarce.
“[Gay pride] was an aggressive thing back then. Over the years it developed into an established institution,” said Hilmar Magnússon, a gay activist who is part of the self-described radical LGBT rights group, the Pink Fist. “Obviously, it was completely different back then. It was much more hostile. There’s much more acceptance today, on the surface at least.”
Twenty years later, gay rights in Iceland have blossomed. The country legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. Iceland started permitting gay adoptions four years earlier. The world’s first openly gay head of state—Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir—took office in 2009. The mayor of Reykjavík—Jón Gnarr, who is straight—trots out his finest drag queen costume during the parade each August, and recently announced he will be doing the same at the upcoming Faroese pride event.
Beneath the surface, however, Hilmar said there is still work to be done. He checks off the list of battles yet to be won for LGBT citizens in Iceland: extinguishing hate crimes and hate speech, wiping away stigmas of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and ending the ban on gay men donating blood. Sigurður Guðmundsson, the vice chair for the country’s 34-year-old queer organization Samtökin 78, adds that there’s still “a long way to go on transgender rights.” The parade and festival is mostly silent on these issues, Sigurður and Hilmar said.
“There’s no political discussion involved or political messages in the parade itself. I’ve wondered if the people in the parade or the people who get on stage don’t have a clue why we’re doing this,” Hilmar said. “That’s a bit sad because we have to educate people so they know where the roots lie and they know why we’re doing this.”
As the festival has grown and LGBT rights have increasingly made it into law, gay activists have mostly settled into a family-oriented crowd instead of setting a political agenda.
The country’s gay community, close-knit and small, has struggled to maintain a strong gay culture as the pressure to assimilate increases and gay bars constantly close down. Gay 46, the only downtown club specifically for gay people, draws sparse crowds who mostly sip on gin and tonics and avoid the dance floor.
“We’re kind of trying to fit in, in a sense. Therefore, we’re not being as aggressive as we used to,” Siggi said. “But then again we might not need to be so aggressive anymore since we’ve made so much progress. We can maybe mellow out a bit.”
Hilmar, who winces at the outdoor concert’s banners adorned with Tuborg and Icelandair logos, said the festival should include more seminars and discussions on human rights and issues facing gay and lesbian Icelanders. But, he admitted, LGBT Icelanders still have it pretty good. This assessment is highlighted by a visit he made to a gay pride festival in Riga, Latvia a few years ago.
“We didn’t have stones thrown at us, but the people there the year before had stones thrown at them. But it was nasty. There were 400 of us and there were 500 or 600 people outside the fence protesting with dolls hanging from gallows and signs saying ‘Gay pride go home,’” Hilmar said. “I’m glad we don’t have this sentiment in Iceland. People may sometimes think like this, but no one would express hate this way.”
From 1,000 to 100,000
An interview with the man who helped Reykjavík Pride boom
Heimir Már Pétursson just turned 50 years old. After working as a reporter and for the Iceland Civil Aviation Administration, Heimir has settled into his job as spokesman for Iceland Express, the budget airline that takes passengers from continental Europe to Reykjavík. But for more than ten years, Heimir was also a volunteer chairman of Hinsegin Dagar, the nonprofit organisation that runs Reykjavík Gay Pride. He spoke, like a proud father, how he has seen the annual pride festival grow up.
The first ‘official’ gay pride festival was in 1999. How were you involved then? I wasn’t, really. In 1999, pride was held to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York. It was just a day and an event with some performers, no parade. Sigur Rós played, and they weren’t very well known outside of Iceland back then. I saw the potential in this, because 1,500 people came down to Ingólfstorg without promotion other than from the gay community. I’d guess one-third of the crowd was LGBT and the rest was family and friends. I saw the potential in what could really happen if we really promoted it. I contacted [the people who organised it] to say we have to start right away to organise an event next year and have a parade like the big parades do in other countries.
What’d they think of this? Was Iceland ready for a big pride festival? Most people thought I was crazy to have this idea. They were happy to just organise this half-day event. They didn’t see the necessity to start organising right away. We established a special association around this, [Hinsegin Dagar], so it’s always been from that date an independent organisation. We also joined Interpride, which is the world organisation of pride organisers. We went to a conference in Glasgow that year and learned a lot from other pride events.
What people were afraid of was that we’d look ridiculous. That parade would look small and ridiculous. They were afraid it’d look more like a protest than a parade.
What’s the impact been on the Iceland LGBT community? Were they ready for this? I simply think that the Icelandic community in general was ready for it at that time. We could not forget the whole struggle people have been doing for years before or decades before. All the work that had been done for 20 years before kind of made it possible for gay pride to be born at that time in Icelandic history. The general discussion in society was totally different than it was two decades before when homosexuals were discriminated against in Iceland. I simply thought society was ready for it, and I was right.
How has the festival shifted to attract foreign visitors? How has it impacted the city economically? After the first two or three years more foreigners came. The gay community is very active on the internet. If something is happening in the gay community, it spreads fast around the world. There is a tourism culture around pride events already. But what pride in Reykjavík has done for local businesses is mainly because of the participation of the locals. When you have 100,000 people downtown, they buy ice cream, they buy clothes, they use it as a shopping and dining opportunity. Without any doubt, the turn-around of money in that day is dozens of millions [of krónur] of extra in business downtown. Reykjavík Pride has really supported businesses, hotels and airlines.