Hörður Torfason is not a man known for sitting back and taking a break. In his youth he became an accidental standard-bearer for gay rights in Iceland; to a different generation today he is instantly recognised as the man who stood before the crowds outside the Alþingi in the dark days of 2008 and told them to go home, gather their pots and their pans, and come back to make themselves heard.
This summer, however, he is back home in 101 Reykjavík to care for his elderly father and enjoy some time to himself and his Italian-born husband Massimo. “I take a vacation every year. I want to stay here in July and August,” he tells me, dressed casually in a t-shirt and loafers. Though now sixty-seven years old, he still possesses the vitality, the soft-spoken charisma, and the twinkling baby blue eyes of a man barely half his age.
He has only just returned from Spain, the latest in a string of expeditions that have taken him across the world. “They wanted me for a discussion on a very popular television programme called ‘La Nube,’ (“The Cloud”). It was a three-day job: one day flying out, the next day to meet them, and then after filming we came straight back home.”
His grand tour has seen him cross entire oceans and continents. He reels off his previous destinations with the natural ease of a professional globetrotter. “I’ve been invited to Spain many times. I’ve been invited to Mexico, Venezuela, Italy, to the Czech Republic, to Slovakia, Denmark, Sweden. And there are many more to come.”
Mr Pots and Pans
But why is the entire world now clamouring to hear the eloquent yet gentle voice of an actor and singer from Reykjavík? “It all started last summer,” Hörður says, “when the rest of Europe woke up to their financial crisis. Then people understood that something had happened here in Iceland—a silenced revolution. They wondered why there wasn’t anyone talking about it. They saw me as a leader of the Pots and Pans Revolution, and started asking about what we did here.”
Since then, campaign groups and organisations of every hue have been on the phone. When the Spanish Indignants gathered last summer at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to demand radical social reform, they sparked a movement that spread to New York, London, and beyond. “Last June, protestors in four cities—Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Córdoba, and Madrid—collected money, called me, and asked me to come and tell them about what we did here.”
In the most unlikely places, protestors are reading the words and discovering the life story of one of Iceland’s modern icons. “The other day I had a call from Panama. They’re really waking up there, and they’ve heard all about me online.”
When he addresses his audiences—often crowds of hundreds at a time—he shares the familiar tale of his fabled life: the promising theatrical career; the notorious ambush which made him the first Icelander to be outed as gay; the years in exile; the struggles for human rights.
And wherever he speaks, he gains a host of new disciples. “These people all seem to know who I am. One guy came up to me and said, ‘There are two people I listen to, who I read and who I believe in: Che Guevara and Hörður Torfason.’” But, he confides, with a self-effacing chuckle, “I think woah! That may be taking it a bit too far.”
From the experience of his own battles, he insists: “All change begins with one person who simply cannot take it anymore.” He is habitually described as a mild-mannered, warm and personable gent. “I am not an angry man,” he insists. “I got over all that years ago.”
So it is unsurprising that he preaches a firm philosophy of nonviolence. The insurrection that was brewing on the streets of downtown Reykjavík in late 2008 troubled Hörður. “People wanted to go to the homes of the bankers, to cause trouble, to start violence. I said no. These are human beings; they have families, children and relatives. There was a lot of anger around, but you make it official and go to where they are working and approach them with reason.”
“We reason and we know it takes time,” he concedes. “We don’t kill people; we don’t use violence; we don’t use masks. I don’t want to live in a society where terror reigns.”
Iceland however is a very different nation to some of those he has visited of late. “In our country we have the right to protest. We are allowed to step forward and criticise,” he says.
So it remains a cultural clash when he visits peoples bred on civil strife and violence. “People in South America say to me: ‘In your so-called revolution, you didn’t even burn one car! You call that a revolution?’”
For all his insistence on reason and nonviolence, Hörður nonetheless knows the importance of holding a personal stake in the struggle—as he did in his early campaign for gay rights. “I made fun of some Icelanders, dressing up and going protesting in their best suit to show off. Their heart was not in the protest. Many didn’t even know what it was about. It was just the in-thing.”
Returning to a bygone era
But what does he tell them abroad about the Icelandic experience in recent years? “When the crash came in Iceland,” he says, “we weren’t surprised—but shocked.” He paints a vivid picture of a nation that had lost its traditional values.
“You should have been here in 2007!” he tells me. “We had become superficial. You walked around and met people who were all—” (he strikes a theatrical pose; the actor in him at last has a chance to shine through unabashed) “‘Oh hi there! How are you? Oh I do like your shirt. Is it Boss?!’”
“The reason I started fighting back in the very beginning is because I think human values are worth more than money.” His determination is boundless: “I got seriously sick after the protests. People asked me if I regretted it. I said no—this is my vision. I can feel that what I’ve done has mattered. We have to stop thinking just of our little selves.”
A happy romantic sissy
“We have this word in Icelandic, Kærleikur, which means love or caring. Some people believe the world is harsh and tough, and so you have to be harsh and tough to beat it. But I have more belief in love.” He goes on, “So if someone calls me a romantic or a sissy then I say yes, I’m a happy romantic sissy—that’s fine.”
And now it is that heartfelt conviction which propels him wherever he goes. His globetrotting missions he confesses are “very demanding work.” “Massimo came to Italy with me recently,” he confides, “and told me it was unbelievable: ‘You wake up early in the morning, go in meetings and interviews all day, three big speeches in one day, then questions for two hours, then you’re in the car driving to the next place. I’m tired just following you. How on earth are you?’ And I say I’m fine. I’ve been doing this all my life. My fuel is my interest in the matter, it’s alive in me.”
He insists: “I don’t try and get into the papers. I do my job in silence because I know the importance of it. I don’t try to be popular, because I detest that way of working.”
He travels with an entourage: his driver, a trip planner, a photographer, a translator—and a bodyguard. He recalls quite clearly the moment during his exile in Copenhagen when an Icelandic “homosexual hater” attempted to stab him. “I was in a large group of people, and suddenly I saw the flickering of the light on a knife close by. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have had it straight into my heart.”
“The people I meet love me—I know that; I can feel that. But there’s always that one person who has a different opinion, so you have to always be careful.”
The job is not done
But continue the fight, he most certainly will. “After my break, my next visit will be to France next month.” He has no plans however to continue protesting at home. “Many people have been calling after me to do that. But I refuse—not for political reasons, but because we have to learn. We have to feel what really happened to us.” He is at his most animated now, the closest he comes to expressing anything that might resemble anger. Banging his fist on the table, he insists, “We have to suffer to understand what happened in Iceland. People only learn through suffering.”
The debate over the new constitution he believes is a good sign. “We are fighting the people who have been ruling Iceland, who have practically owned Iceland, for the last sixty years or more. We have to go through this to learn and understand how we want our society to work.”
He echoes Gandhi, declaring that we have to be the change we want to see in the world. “Life is change. We’re always changing, so let’s do it together. I say to people start in your own community—if you succeed, people will listen and come to you.”
“When I set out to do something,” he concludes, reminiscing on his role as the instigator of the Pots and Pans Revolution, “I finish the job and I walk away—I’m done.”
As the calls continue to come in from all over the world, he shows no intention of walking away just yet; the job is not yet done. Hörður Torfason will not be on vacation back home for long.
Glittering CV: The Many Accolades Of Hörður Torfason
1995: Tupilak, Swedish Gay Organization, for his pioneering work and bravery
1995: Freedom Prize, Samtökin 78, for his courage, bravery and honesty in the fight for human rights
1998: Golden Needle, Samtökin 78, for his life achievement
2008: Community Prize, Fréttablaðsins, for his work in the fight against prejudice
2008: Man of the Year, Rás 2 Icelandic Radio Broadcast, for his outstanding contribution in human rights
2009: Tupilak, Swedish Gay Organization, for his outstanding contribution to gay rights
2010: Siðmennt Award, Icelandic Humanists, for his outstanding contribution in human rights