From Iceland — So, what´s all the fuss about?

So, what´s all the fuss about?

So, what´s all the fuss about?

Published July 23, 2004

“What we need is more men and women to enter marriage,” say the priests and fundamentalists who worry about the collapse of a worthy institution. “We need men and women who will stand before God, take their vows and keep them.” But what they fail to make clear until recently is, “Gays and lesbians need not apply.”

This is one of those rare and delightful occasions when America, and most other Western societies for that matter, can learn something from Iceland. This country has lately been aquiring a very good record on its treatment of gays and lesbians to such an extent that it is almost no longer an issue for debate. The people have accepted, voted, and moved on, and while the Lutheran Church has failed to go the final yard of actually marrying same sex couples, they do bless unions, and same sex couples can get married in churches such as Fríkirkjan.

Change takes time and centuries of prejudice don´t disappear through an act of parliament, but when the people are willing, a new generation can be relied on to finish the job. For this to happen, the environment for change needs to be created and nourished and hence the importance of the Gay Pride movement.

Reykjavík is now preparing for their annual Gay Pride festival which, if last year is anything to go by, will be attended by more heterosexuals than gays, many bringing their families with them. Supported by the City of Reykjavík, who give 1.6 million ISK each year in sponsorship, it is one of 120 such events organised around the world involving over 20 million people. The streets will be full, the entertainment will be packed and, when it comes to a close, another important step will have been made in ensuring that future generations accept gays and lesbians as part of the fabric of society.

Not everyone will be happy, though. Christian fundamentalists will seeth, simmer and preach their doctrine of ´re-education for homosexuals’. Happily, their voice will ignored by most. These fundamentalists take their lead from their brothers in Amerca who use slogans which vary from the seemingly light hearted ‘Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve’ to the hysterical and sinister ‘The homosexual activist movement has set forth to destroy the family…’ In America their words cannot be ignored so easily; they have a growing following and a key supporter in George Bush. The man who sees everything in terms of good and evil has thrown his weight behind a draft ammendment to the constitution which would define marriage as only between a man and a woman. There are similar moves throughout Europe, many with links to the far right.

The movement to ban gay marriages whips up the same hatred and prejudice that was hurled against the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and it all seems so uneccessary. A man is capabale of loving another man as much as he is a woman: so it is with women. The fact that same sex couples wish their union to be blessed and made permanent through marriage is something that should be encouraged, not villified. Other countries should learn from Iceland, which demonstrates to the world that gays and lesbians need not be treated as a minority nor marginalised.

There will be gay marriages in the future and there will be, to the great delight of lawyers, gay divorces, too. Same sex marriages are just like any other form of marriage, and should be treated as such.

Iceland: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay History
by Thorvaldur Kristinsson

Until the 1970s, lesbians and gay men were practically invisible in Icelandic society, which surrounded them with contempt and massive silence. Their reaction was either to hide their sexual identity completely, finding an occasional escape from the oppression while touring abroad, or to move to the metropolitan cities of continental Europe and Northern America. Many of those people never turned back, being later properly termed as sexual political refugees. The silence was first broken in 1975 when the first gay man revealed his sexual identity publicly in the media, influenced by the international liberation movement, and in 1978 Samtökin ´78, The Lesbian and Gay Organisation of Iceland, was founded by some twenty people. It is now, twenty five years later, the most powerful force in the gay liberation movement of Iceland with a little less than 400 members, working with financial support from the Icelandic state and the city of Reykjavík.

To describe the prejudice and hostility which met the little group on its way to visibility in these years, one recalls a discotheque in Reykjavík which in 1983 sought its popularity by advertising in newspapers: “Everyone is welcome – except gays and lesbians.” Another example from the same year took place in the Nursing School of Iceland which forbade its students to call for a meeting with the educational group of Samtökin ´78, a visit which the students themselves had organised after a gay student found himself forced to leave the school due to group mobbing.

Nevertheless, the few who had the courage to stand up and speak for their cause saw a remarkable progress in the eighties. They rejected, for instance, the oppression of the Icelandic language, that stern ruler of thoughts and emotions, by protesting people´s use of the common word “kynvilla” (sexual aberration) for homosexuality, a term analogous to the older word “trúvilla” (religious aberration) for heresy. They fought for a decade with the Icelandic State Radio against being labelled in such a derogatory manner, and suggested their own popular words, “lesbía” and “hommi” for themselves, and “samkynhneigð”, a compound of same, sex and orientation, for homosexuality. And finally they won.

Since then, educational and legislative work has characterised the gay activism in Iceland with positive results, and recently several other gay associations have appeared, such as FSS, the Association of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual University Students, founded in 1999. In 1983, a new political party, The Social Democratic Alliance, was the first one of its kind to place gay human rights on its agenda. In 1985, a resolution was presented in the parliament, Althingi, by four political parties demanding action to abolish discrimination against lesbians and gay men. It was never passed, and it was not until 1992 that a similar resolution was reworked by five political parties and passed by the Althingi.

As a result of the research work ordered by this resolution, a law on registered partnership for same-sex couples was passed by the Althingi in 1996, though denying same-sex couples any right to adopt children and seek insemination in an official clinic. However, by this law, Iceland became the first country in the world to legalise joint custody of children brought into same-sex partnerships. Furthermore, the Protestant Lutheran state church did not formally approve of a blessing ceremony, as the gay movement demanded, causing friction and open fighting with the church, which still is unresolved. In 2000, the Althing revised the law on registered partnership, giving same-sex couples the right to adopt stepchildren brought into such partnerships. Furthermore, in 1996 the Althingi passed an anti-discrimination law. It is worth noting that the parliamentary opposition in the debate preceding these legislative improvements has been minimal compared to the parliamentary opposition in other Nordic countries, and to give a clear example of an organised opposition, one has to go as far as to Christian fundamentalist congregations, functioning outside the state church of Iceland.

Opinion polls show a surprising change of values in society and express, in fact, more respect and tolerance towards gay men and lesbians than in most other western societies. The change is generally affirmed by what lesbians and gay men experience in their everyday life. In a surprisingly short period of time, the Icelandic society has left its homophobic attitude of the past and opened up for new visions and ideas, as the annual Gay Pride events clearly reflect in Reykjavík.


Love is love
by Marcie Hume

“I think there’s a positive aspect to having only two gay bars in Reykjavík,” Björgvin Gunnarsson tells me over the fuzzy music blaring throughout Prikið. I laugh, thinking he’s being sarcastic. “Because you have all types of people together,” he continues. “If you had more bars, everything would be segregated…a drag bar, a lesbian bar….” Björgvin is in town to visit his mother for a while, but lives in Norway. He’s keen to talk about the gay scene in Reykjavík.

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