From Iceland — There Will Be Rainbows

There Will Be Rainbows

Published August 5, 2014

There Will Be Rainbows
Photo by
Alisa Kalyanova

Reykjavík has many reasons to be proud. Heck, just last issue we catalogued the gamut of what makes Reykjavík such a groovy place to call home—including the best of everything under our conspicuously elusive sun. But, as summer (or whatever this cold, rainy season is called this year) presses on and the night starts to reclaim the day, the word pride carries a rather different connotation. From August 5 to 10, locals and visitors celebrate Pride with a capital P. For six thrilling days, the Icelandic queer community and its supporters will eagerly come together and bask in the glow of Reykjavík Pride, or ‘Hinsegin dagar’—the annual celebration that has grown to be the second largest outdoor event in the city and represents much of Iceland’s modern ethos. The crowd for the main event—the Saturday afternoon parade—is usually estimated to be anywhere from 70,000 to 90,000 people depending on the weather. This is a big number for Iceland but, in fact, the message of Pride emanating from our island in the North Atlantic reaches even more people worldwide. It is only appropriate, then, to take a moment to understand how we got to this point, what the future of the Pride movement might look like, and how this connects to the wider world.

From 1993 to O.M.G!:
A Brief History of Reykjavík Pride

This year will mark the fourteenth consecutive year of Reykjavík Pride. Beginning in 1993, what we now call Pride consisted only of the parade itself (if we should even call it that, perhaps the Icelandic word ‘Frelsisganga’ or “Freedom Walk” is more appropriate). With a few brave activist souls looking for security and tolerance in Icelandic society, the seeds for Pride had been planted. After two years of demonstrating, Pride took a hiatus before coming back fiercer than ever in 1999, on the symbolic 30-year anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. These past fourteen years have witnessed remarkable changes in the way that the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, asexual) community is integrated into the Icelandic community as a whole. Eva María Þórarinsdóttir Lange, the Chair of Reykjavík Pride, says one the biggest changes in these fourteen years is that “we have moved past simply being tolerated.” Following this, the parade now looks far less like a freedom walk and much more like “a glamorous version of celebrating our rights,” as Eva María describes it. These rights, of course, didn’t come without a fight. “We didn’t get this for free,” Eva María reminds me. The queer movement in Iceland is largely represented by Samtökin ‘78, the National Queer Organization, and has fought for equal rights for all in Iceland since the year of its eponymous founding. The ‘90s saw a big drive for equality all around the globe on the heels of the HIV/AIDS crisis and many of the advancements in Iceland were made during this time. While various rights were fought for and won in the Icelandic parliament, it wasn’t until as late as 2010, however, that LGBTQIA individuals received all the same rights, including the ‘biggie’—same-sex marriage—under Icelandic law.

‘The Gayest Country On Earth?’:
Where We Stand Now

Some argue that now that we have our rights, we should stop shouting about them, right? WRONG! Even in a generally progressive and accepting nation such as Iceland, Eva cautions, “we all know there are some dissenting voices out there and you can lose your rights if you’re not careful.” Although its beginnings were far more humble, in many ways the message of Pride thus remains the same. “Diversity, culture, and human rights—these three things sum up why we’re here,” Eva María describes to me from the cosy interior of Samtökin ´78. In that message, Pride festivities have grown to include queer and non-queer supporters alike, notably with Reykjavík’s very own then-mayor Jón Gnarr parading in drag, in the hope for a more accepting and egalitarian future for all. Today, Pride is often referred to as a family festival, which has obvious pros and cons. This type of mainstream acceptance of the queer community in Iceland is, perhaps, unrivalled in the world. In fact, before moving to Iceland I was told by an enthusiastic fan of Iceland that it is “the gayest country on Earth.” However, the family-friendliness of the parade might also be a bit restraining for those who don’t want to have to be shy about expressing their queerness. In its conception, Pride was established as an event where it was okay to let your freak flag fly and, for lack of a better word, be ‘proud’ of it. Assless leather chaps and all. But for all its magnanimity, Pride hasn’t lost its grassroots feel. Anyone can participate in the parade as long as they support the queer cause and have a message. The parade coordinators stress that the parade should be a venue that allows people to express themselves however they want to as long as they aren’t offensive. This ‘for the people, by the people’ attitude is represented in the Pride committee itself as they are all volunteer-based and work to organise Pride from a deep-rooted passion for the cause.  Finally, and importantly, there is no commercialization of Pride events. Advertising isn’t allowed on any of the parade floats or banners—a contrast to the controversial path many other Pride parades around the globe have taken. Dissenters of private advertising argue that commerce dilutes political movements.

All The Colours In The Rainbow:
The Intersex Voice Gets Its Own Stage

In order to keep Pride current, there is a constant effort to be more and more inclusive of marginalised groups that may have been previously overlooked. While gay men and lesbian women have often served as the visible foundation of the queer movement, there are quieter voices in the queer community. “We have smaller groups within our group, which don’t have as loud a voice as gays and lesbians do,” Eva María says. “That’s why this year Reykjavík Pride will give a louder voice to the intersex community.” A few specific events—including a documentary screening and educational talks—will acknowledge the importance of the I in LGBTQIA.

 “Thus, while the fight for full rights in Iceland may have been won in the law books for gays and lesbians, it seems there is still work to be done for all members of the community. ”
To give you an idea of what this discussion might entail, questions may be addressed as to how intersexuals navigate a binary gendered world—notably in places like public restrooms. Thus, while the fight for full rights in Iceland may have been won in the law books for gays and lesbians, it seems there is still work to be done for all members of the community. “We have to think of all the colours in the rainbow,” as Eva María so poignantly and fittingly puts it.

Pink Tourism, Pink Iceland

A curious intersection of queer rights and the impact of globalisation in Iceland can be found within the tourism industry. It’s obvious to anyone walking along Laugavegur these days that tourist numbers are on the rise and, by some accounts, through the roof. As the tourist industry grows, so does the demand for specialised holidays catering to niche target groups, case in point being what has come to be known as ‘gay tourism.’ Iceland is particularly well suited to attract queer tourists owing to its worldwide reputation as a gay friendly destination. Enter Pink Iceland, Iceland’s only gay owned and operated travel and event expert. Hannes Pálsson, one of Pink Iceland’s founders, describes to me the mission of their company from his office overlooking tourists on Laugavegur below. He explains that the three founding owners had long provided advice for queer travellers who wanted to see Iceland and then realised that they could turn that advice-giving into a veritable business. By emphasizing a high-level of service, transparency, openness, and honesty, they’ve created a company that celebrates diversity without excluding more mainstream, or ‘straight,’ travellers. As Hannes said, “The queer community has been buying into straight companies forever, why can’t there be a queer-focused company that straight people can buy into?” And, it seems to be working! While I was there, Hannes was preparing a tour for a mother, a father and two kids (the spitting image of the straight, nuclear family). Perhaps it’s the personal touch, welcoming people both queer and straight alike that leaves guests saying, “We came here for the nature, but we’ll be back for the people.” Iceland does seem like an odd choice for the stereotypical ‘gay-cation,’ full of bronzed beach bodies wearing more glitter than clothing; however, Hannes hypothesises that this isn’t the only thing discerning gay travellers want. “Maybe we’re a welcome relief from the typical gay destination that seems to focus solely on six-packs” (that would be abdominal muscles rather than beer). He tells me of a touching story of a lesbian couple from India who claimed their favourite thing about visiting Iceland was being able to openly hold hands on the streets of Reykjavík without attracting unwanted attention. Despite the fact that there is only one queer bar in Reykjavík—Kiki Queer Bar—Hannes tells me that this lack of ‘gay space’ doesn’t seem to be a problem for Pink Iceland’s guests. Perhaps the lack of queer themed establishments poses more of a problem for the locals; however, the overarching acceptance of Icelanders discourages the gay ghettoization common in other urban areas around the world. Hannes agrees that Reykjavík Pride is an obvious draw for LGBTQIA travellers. While no one can be certain how many tourists choose to come to Iceland specifically for Pride, foreign visitors certainly abound at all of the events. Relating tourism to this year’s focus on the intersex community, Hannes recalls a time when he arranged for a guest to use a private changing room at the Blue Lagoon which, for obvious reasons, could have been an uncomfortable experience for the visitor to have to coordinate on their own. Adding to reasons why he thinks trans and intersex people are underrepresented in the travel industry he says, “maybe it still seems like a matter of life or death for them rather than Benidorm or Iceland.”

Iceland As A Role Model For The World?

With more and more tourists arriving every year for Pride and social media spreading Iceland’s accepting image around the world, one might wonder if Reykjavík Pride now serves as an example on the world stage. What does this mean for Iceland? On one hand, this interconnectedness allows struggling Pride movements in places like Russia and Uganda to know that they are not alone, that there are places in the world where acceptance is the norm, and to keep on fighting for what is just. On the other hand, should Iceland feel responsible as global human rights crusaders? “We can’t only think about ourselves,” Eva María says, “we have to think about our people everywhere because human rights is not a matter of one country.” But perhaps being a role model might be too big of a charge and Iceland should be looked at as a case study instead. “Maybe ‘role model’ is an overstatement,” Hannes tells me. “I’m afraid of the white saviour syndrome. Like, ‘look at us, we got it right’…But, maybe we didn’t.” Whether or not Reykjavík Pride serves as an example for the world, there will still be a delightfully local feel come August 5. Eva María assures me that, despite the influx of visitors year after year, Pride is still primarily targeted at Icelanders and expats living in Iceland. On an even more local note, when asked if she thought the new mayor of Reykjavík, Dagur Eggertsson, could fill in Jón Gnarr’s imposing high heels in this year’s parade (let’s be honest, this is the big question on everyone’s mind) she told me, “Dagur is very supportive. I’m not sure if he’ll be sporting high heels this year….but you never know.” High heels or not, pretty soon the streets of Reykjavík will be filled with joy and merriment. And, yes, there will be rainbows.

Baldvin Kári’s Top Tips For A Very Merry Pride baldvin

This year’s Pride programme is chock full of events meant to educate, inspire, and entertain. Some events carry a minimal admission fee (hey, it costs money to look this good!) but most are free. If you’re planning on binging on Pride events, it’s in your best interest to buy the Pride Pass (6,900 ISK) granting you access to everything fabulous on offer and some street cred to boot. Here are a few of the highlights from Baldvin Kári, the Vice President of Reykjavík Pride and event planner extraordinaire:

Tuesday, August 5

Baldvin says not to miss the documentary screening of ‘Intersexion’ by Grant Lahood with a Q&A session hosted by Kitty Anderson, the President of Intersex Iceland. As a focus of Pride this year, the intersex community is being given a louder voice and this is the perfect opportunity to hear it (21:00, Bíó Paradís, Free!). Alternatively, if you don’t like learning, there’s always pleasure in ogling your favourite beach volleyball players at Blak, BBQ & Baywatch—a friendly match between queer sports groups and Reykjavík City Council members. (17:00, Nauthólsvík, Free!)

Wednesday, August 6

Wednesday is the day for unexpected unions. Perhaps the most unexpected—but entirely welcome—is the marriage of diving and divas in Dívur og Dýfur, which Baldvin describes as amazing already “based on the name alone.” What could be better than ‘live music, diving show & splashing around’? Nothing. Nothing at all. (20:00, Sundhöllin Swimming Pool, 1,500 ISK) But don’t let that be the only union you make on Wednesday. Allow Greeks, Gods and Green Queers to be united at Grikkir, goðsögur og grænir hýrlingar in a guided tour of the botanical gardens focusing on plants and mythology from a queer perspective. (17:00, Reykjavík Botanic Garden, Free!)

Thursday, August 7

Opening ceremonies are always the best. Don’t be foolish and miss out on this one! Baldvin notes that this year will welcome the unparalleled WILLAM of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame as well as Iceland’s very own and very admired Páll Óskar. Make sure to get your ticket early! (20:30, Silfurberg Hall, Harpa, 2,500 ISK)

Friday, August 8

What’s Pride without a little (or a lot of) dancing? One of your best opportunities (but surely not the only one) is at the Landleguball or Shore Leave Dance following the Pride Cruise. Don your sailor cap and find some nice seamen (yeah, I went there) and dance the night away. (23:00, Kiki Queer Bar, 1,000 ISK)

Saturday, August 9

The parade. ‘Nuff said. If you’re in town and you miss it, you might want to get your ears and eyes checked. (14:00, from Vatnsmýrarvegur to Arnarhóll hill)

Sunday, August 10

There will be fun for the whole family on Viðey Island at the Rainbow Family Festival. Baldvin encourages you to come even if you’re just a kid at heart but don’t have any yourself. The Association of Queer Parents is happy to welcome everyone to Viðey. (Ferry departures from Skarfabakki Harbour every 60 minutes beginning at 11:15, festival begins at 14:30 on Viðey, FREE!—except for the cost of the ferry)

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