From Iceland — Drawing A Line In The Sand

Drawing A Line In The Sand

Published June 8, 2015

Drawing A Line In The Sand
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Art Bicnick

When Samtökin ’78, the National Queer Organisation of Iceland, showed up at the police station on April 26 to file charges against ten different individuals who had made hateful, threatening or defamatory comments towards queer people that they felt warranted criminal investigation, they entered uncharted waters. Until then, the organisation had met hate with positivity and education, but following a rise in hostility and mounting pressure from their own ranks, they decided enough was enough.

The chair of the organisation, Hilmar Hildarson Magnússon, stated during a press meeting at the police station that they had to draw a line in the sand, take a stance against hateful speech and discover how Iceland’s judicial system dealt with hate speech, which is punishable under the Icelandic Penal Code.

It was after witnessing how upset a friend and her wife were over a particularly hurtful remark that Björg Valgeirsdóttir decided to see if the remark stood up to Iceland’s penal code. Although she refuses to reveal the remark in question at this time, she said she deliberated on the matter and after some time found that it violated article 223a, which states in no uncertain terms that it is illegal to “mock, insult, threaten or in any other way publicly attack [people] because of their nationality, colour of their skin, race, religion or sexual orientation.”

She told me there is legal precedent in Iceland for people being indicted via that penal code, and that the European Court for Human Rights has ruled on cases that are similar in nature, stating that “discrimination based on sexual orientation was as serious as discrimination based on race, origin or colour” in Vejdeland and Others vs. Sweden.

The director of Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands (“The Icelandic Human Rights Centre”), Margrét Steinarsdóttir, explained over the phone that human rights come with obligations towards others in society and cannot be used to suppress minority groups. “Your rights end where the rights of the next person begin,” she said.

Björg presented her legal opinion to the board of Samtökin ’78, and together they began working on building a more extensive case, scouring the internet for similarly damning comments. The group was very careful in coming to that list of ten individuals, shying away from comments made by people not of a sound mind, or ones that were later retracted.

Hateful comments

Over the past few years, there has certainly been enough hatred to go around. Just last month, police had to get involved when a staff member at Seltjarnarneskirkja reacted with hostility to the Reykjavík Queer Choir, who flew a rainbow flag at the church to mark their concert, with the reverend’s blessing. Choir chair Gunnlaugur Bragi noted that this goes to show that “queer people are still accosted and discriminated against in Icelandic society.”

One incident in particular drew a lot of attention: a wall of vitriol and prejudice emerged when the Hafnarfjörður town council decided in April to update sex education curriculum in schools to reflect more diverse sexualities.

Amongst those spewing hatred on that occasion was famed folk singer Gylfi Ægisson, who has repeatedly spoken out against the Reykjavík Pride parade and accused its organisers of corrupting the youth. He started a Facebook group called “Barnaskjól” to “stop Samtökin ‘78’s indoctrinations of children,” only to have his own personal account reported and shut down temporarily.

Iceland is frequently thought of as one of the more LGBT-friendly countries, recently ranked as the top country in the world for the happiness of gay men by PlanetRomeo, but these achievements didn’t come overnight. Below is a list of some of the milestones achieved in the fight for gay rights.
1940 – Same-sex sexual activity legalised
1992 – Equal age of consent for straight people and others
1996 – Anti-discrimination laws implemented, same-sex unions recognised
2006 – Same-sex couples legally allowed to adopt, equal access to IVF treatments
2009 – First openly gay head of government elected
2010 – Marriage laws changed to include same-sex couples
2012 – Process to change legal gender implemented

Meanwhile, Útvarp Saga radio host Pétur Gunnlaugsson made clear his dissatisfaction with the town council’s decision and opened up the phone lines to let concerned citizens voice their worries about the curriculum. People claimed that the education would involve live demonstrations of homosexuality and expressed general dissatisfaction about the moral hazards of homosexuality. Some even suggested that this move was a part of queer evangelisation, insisting that Christian studies should be brought back into the curriculum.

Samtökin ‘78 has made clear that it won’t publicise which remarks or individuals they included in their charges, as they want to let the matter go through the legal system, not start a witch hunt. The deputy police commissioner of the metropolitan area, Jón H.B. Snorrason, acknowledged that the police had received the charges, but had no comment on the case at this time.

However the police and state prosecutor decide to react, this move is potentially a game-changer for Iceland’s queer movement. Prosecuting these individuals with the full force of the law would create a strong legal precedent with regards to hate speech, while not reacting would suggest these sorts of remarks are protected under free speech laws. Either way, at this point many of those who have publicly expressed their ill feelings are probably wondering if they need to look for a lawyer.

Hatred and gay bashings

On the day that the charges were filed to the police, I met with Árni Grétar Jóhannsson, the general manager of Samtökin ’78. He said there were more to these comments than just hurt feelings, as the more hateful comments surfaced, the more people seemed to find such hostile attitudes excusable. “We’ve become aware of more violence against queer people, so we knew we had to put our foot down,” he said. “People have to watch what they say, and be respectful.”

In no uncertain terms, Árni said this violence included physical attacks, primarily in downtown Reykjavík against people who “looked or acted gay.” When asked whether these assaults were being reported to the police, he said the organisation always encouraged people to press charges, but that it was difficult because people practically retreated back into the closet and experienced feelings of powerlessness.

“We have a minority that we’re entrusted to look out for, and we don’t want to lose any more individuals this way.”

“This is happening everywhere,” Árni said, “such as in Russia where people are systematically being bullied by the state.” He concedes that the circumstances are different in Iceland, but that these attitudes can nevertheless be very dangerous. A recent Norwegian study showed that queer youth are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide due to social isolation and a lack of role models in society, which leads them to have a hard time developing a positive self-image. “That by itself speaks volumes,” Árni said. “We have a minority that we’re entrusted to look out for, and we don’t want to lose any more individuals this way.”

The silver lining, according to Árni, has been seeing so many straight people stand up to defend queer people. “It’s vital for each and every queer individual to know that they aren’t alone, that the majority of the nation supports them,” he says, “and that it’s not a silent majority.”

You may also be interested in the following articles:

Páll Óskar by Börkur SigþórsPáll Óskar: In The Name Of Love
The front door is wide open. Giving a little tap on the wooden frame, I hear the boom of his instantly recognisable voice greeting me from the next room. The one and only Páll Óskar strolls into the foyer motioning that he’s on the phone, and leans in to give me the kind of casual half-hug you do with your best friend.

Islamophobia by Lóa HjálmtýsdóttirXenophobia, Ignorance And Útvarp Saga: It’s Bullshit-calling Time
When it comes to discussions about immigration and multiculturalism in Iceland, most of our daily media focus has been on the things politicians say. This is natural, to an extent—these are the people who write our laws, after all, which will have repercussions for us whether we like it or not.

pride 2014 - Alisa KalyanovaNational Queer Organisation Seeking Enforcement Of Hate Speech Law
The National Queer Organisation (Samtökin ’78) has harshly criticised police for not enforcing Iceland’s hate speech law, and intend to go to the State Prosecutor to see that charges are filed.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!

Show Me More!