When president Guðni Th. Jóhannesson took the stage at Reykjavík Pride on August 6 followed by a group of drag queens and kings dressed in their finest rainbow-patterned outfits, you’d be excused for thinking Iceland has always been the queerest rock in the North Atlantic. But try to scratch the surface of queer history in the country and you’ll soon realize you won’t get very far.
The theme of Reykjavík Pride this year was “Our History,” and the festival featured a number of events that commemorated the people, places and events that have shaped Iceland’s queer communities. However, this history, as with queer histories around the world, is one that is largely undocumented and patchy at best.
A people without a history
There were no queer role models for Þorvaldur Kristinsson when the former Reykjavík Pride president was growing up in the 1960s. “The word was hardly spoken in my hometown of Akureyri, and I never came across any discussions in my college about gay people,” he says. When Þorvaldur came out in 1979, he says he wanted to learn more about the history of queer people in Iceland, but after doing some research he came back empty-handed.
“We were a people without a history,” Þorvaldur says about the lack of written or oral histories that have been preserved. Since then, he has taken it upon himself to collect the stories of queer Icelanders over the centuries, a task which has proven difficult. “Letters and diaries have simply been destroyed,” he explains. “I have incredibly little written material to create a history from before 1970.”
There are, however, some diaries that remain in the National Library, of people such as Ólafur Davíðsson, a prominent folklore collector in the late 19th century. When Ólafur was a student at Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, a prominent local upper secondary school, Þorvaldur says he developed a relationship with Geir Sæmundsson, another student. “When the diaries of Ólafur were published in 1955, all those places were omitted where he spoke about his love for Geir,” Þorvaldur adds.
From the years prior to the inauguration of Samtökin ‘78, the national queer organization, fragments of stories such as these are all that remain as evidence of queer life in Iceland. However, this of course does not mean that queer people have not lived and created queer spaces on Iceland since the island’s settlement.
Spaces in the silence
Historian Íris Ellenberger has been researching how queer history is framed in Iceland, and she criticizes most popular tellings of this history for its narrow scope. “Somehow the story we tell about queer history in Iceland revolves mainly around the right to get married and have children, which is framed as the end goal of the struggle,” she says. “Of course, queer people have a much longer history.”
Although terms such as “gay,” “queer” or “transgender” are relatively new, Íris is interested in finding out how queer spaces were formed prior to the advent of this terminology. “The problem with talking about queer history in Iceland is that there is so little research,” she explains, although she follows that up with a much more exciting and tantalizing proposal. “There is room for queer spaces in the silence,” she says.
For example, Íris says there are rumours that there existed an association of queer men who played glíma, the traditional Icelandic martial art. However, she’s also quick to point out that understandings of sexuality and queerness have changed over time. “It would be wonderful to see if there really were queer spaces in Iceland or Reykjavík before 1976,” Íris says. “I think it’s very likely that there were and I’m not sure if we’re ever going to find them, but we can’t exclude the possibility.”
Þorvaldur has also found that WWII provided unique opportunities for queer Icelanders due to the influx of foreign soldiers. “It was easy for a young man or also probably young women to disappear into the crowd and mingle,” he says. “There was so little control over your private life.”
The “queer utopia”
More traditional histories of queer life and struggle in Iceland will point to years such as 1978, when the national queer organization was formed; or 1996, when registered partnerships were made available for same-sex couples; or 2010, when same-sex marriage was legalized. Queer rights have progressed quickly on the island, from when there was little mention of gays or lesbians in the mid-20th century to when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the world’s first openly gay head of government in 2009.
Þorvaldur became political shortly after he came out, and was at the forefront of some of the early struggles for queer rights in Iceland. “We used this main characteristic of Icelandic society, which is the fact that everybody knows everybody here,” he says about how early queer activists mobilized momentum for their cause. “We used the press and we used our personal contacts in the parliament, which grew through the years.”
Today, Iceland is considered by many around the world to be something of a “queer utopia,” which is a subject also studied by Íris. She’s concerned that this concept of utopia will mask some of the issues still faced by queer people in Iceland. “That serves a certain group of queer people,” Íris says about legal rights such as same-sex marriage. “But not the others who are dealing with very severe issues, like the right to control their bodies.”
“There is no queer utopia in the world. I don’t believe in utopias!” Þorvaldur says in agreement. “It’s easy to enjoy life as a gay person. Our daily lives are peaceful, filled with friends and filled with respect,” he says. “But the rights of transgender people and intersex people is still limited, and there is a lot of work to do.”
Victory or defeat?
Íris is measured when it comes to celebrating the successes of the queer rights movement in Iceland. “These mythic histories that we are telling have been shaped by certain people or certain interests,” she warns. “And they have certain interests in telling it a certain way.” As a historian, she recognizes that there are plenty of sides to each story, including queer stories.
“The story that we tell doesn’t only tell the story of the queer movement, but it also tells the story of the Icelandic nation, and how it has opened its arms to queer people and it loves us so dearly,” she goes on. “When maybe it actually loves just a small group of people who have assimilated or who don’t pose a threat to the dominant ideology.”
It’s hard to say whether or not the story of queer people in Iceland is one of a victory, as it may seem each year at a celebratory rainbow-striped parade, or one of defeat as certain queer identities are assimilated, leaving others behind. However, if there is one thing that this history can teach us it’s that queer people will continue to create spaces for themselves on this island, even in the moments of silence.
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