Gaykjavík: Exploring Reykjavík's Gay Nightlife - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Gaykjavík: Exploring Reykjavík’s Gay Nightlife

Gaykjavík: Exploring Reykjavík’s Gay Nightlife

Published June 15, 2007

“You show me a queer in any city, and I will in turn show you someone that incessantly complains about his gay scene and nightlife. It doesn’t say a thing about the gay scene in question; it’s just the way the discourse is shaped. The-grass-is-always- greener-syndrome if you will.” This was one of the things the Grapevine learned while researching Reykjavík’s potential for gay nightlife F-U-N. Not a small or particularly modest task, defining the nightlife of an entire demographic, but our interest was aroused by… well, by some complaints from our gay friends about the local nightlife (or lack thereof). The following details our attempts to learn whether they are warranted.

First off, it should be noted that Iceland is by all accounts an excellent place to be gay. Through the tireless work of the pioneers behind Samtökin 78 (the Icelandic Gay and Lesbian Organisation) and some progressively minded MPs, gay and lesbian rights in the country are now near-indistinguishable from those of their heterosexual cousins (although “close to indiscriminatory” is never acceptable when it comes to basic human rights); the gay lifestyle is widely accepted, and homophobic acts and rhetoric are publicly condemned and frowned upon.

A lot of good work has been done by a lot of good people since the early days of the Icelandic gay rights movement in the seventies, when young gays often saw no option other than to flee the island for fear of persecution and banishment. While the ongoing three-decade-plus battle for gay rights in Iceland is deserving of many lengthy essays, this particular article, rather, places focus on various social aspects of homosexual life in modern-day Iceland – the nightlife: the celebration that inevitably follows any successful revolution. And we are currently mid-party.

Spartacus Meets Reykjavík
What better place to start our journey into Reykjavík’s gay social life than the 2007 edition of the Spartacus International Gay Guide? The Spartacus guide is a renowned resource for globetrotting homosexuals of all ages. A thick and sturdy book lined with ads depicting handsome men in various states of undress and oiliness, it makes a valiant effort to document gay life around the world, with chapters dedicated to nearly every city that has even an inkling of a gay scene.

It lists the atmosphere a gay man may expect to face in a given country, along with their various attractions that are potentially of interest to gay tourists: gay friendly bars, clubs and restaurants, and popular cruising spots, of course. The guide gives a fairly accurate (if thoroughly out of date) account of Reykjavík’s gay nightlife options, along with the normal tourist attractions: Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, midnight sun, etc.

Not surprisingly, most of the Iceland entry is dedicated to the fair state of gay rights in the country, as opposed to the hedonistic options at hand. This seems in-line with a common view expressed by many of the young gay men I spoke to: Being gay in Iceland is awesome, if uninteresting at times.

This leads one to wonder if the significance of many of the major gay rights achievements of the past three decades is lost on the younger generations now enjoying them – if they are too caught up in enjoying the fruits of past labours to fully appreciate their elders’ years of strife. Then again, the same can (and has, frequently) be said of Western youth for several decades. When your worries are more pertaining to parties than poverty or persecution, you know you should feel thankful.

That said, the complaints are somewhat understandable. Until late February (when research for this article commenced), there really was no officially gay night club in Reykjavík, and hadn’t been since a club called Jón Forseti (“President John”) closed down a few years ago. The gay nightlife was for a short while limited to a 35 square metre room next to the downtown Subway franchise in Austurstræti – a pleasant, if tiny, bar called Café Cozy. While Cozy (as it is affectionately known by regulars) continues to be a fun and friendly place to take drinks and hook up with likeminded folk, it can by no means satisfy the partying needs of a several thousand-strong, thriving gay community.

So, it was with great abandon that the Reykjavík gay scene welcomed Q Bar when it underwent its transformation to an official “Gay club” late last February. Previously a yuppie-ish dive, known mostly for discriminating guests on the basis of their footwear, the club’s advent into the gay market was spearheaded by late-twenties Reykjavík nightlife mainstay Óli Hjörtur, who continues to run the shots.

Although celebrated from the beginning and steadily adding to its clientele since then, many of those who spoke to the Grapevine at that time took the Q Bar’s transformation with a grain of salt, cynically commenting that “turning ‘gay’ is usually the last resort for failing bars. The lack of options for gays in Reykjavík will always guarantee a flux of curious customers for the first couple of weeks.” The ongoing success of Q Bar has silenced those voices for now, and several visits to the club during the past months indicate that it is here to stay.

“There wasn’t even an internet to speak of”
Sipping on a soy latté, 29 year-old hairdresser/stylist Skjöldur Eyfjörð reminisces about the state of the gay scene when he came out and started participating in the mid-nineties, at the tender age of sixteen. “Those were entirely different times. The only thing going on was Samtökin 78 and (now defunct bar) 22 – and 22 wasn’t even an officially gay bar; it was just where all the gays hung out. It was much the same as it is now, actually: arty types, college folk, bohemians, you know, the people that aren’t interested in the mainstream culture [note: legendary gay nightlife spot 22 now operates under the moniker ‘Barinn’ and is very different from what it used to be]. There wasn’t even an Internet to speak of, all that came later. The only way to get into the scene was to visit Samtökin or hang around 22 for long enough.”

“Then, Spotlight [another legendary, and at one time huge, gay club operated from the late nineties ‘til a few years ago] opened up and it was like a bomb. The atmosphere really changed, the state of gay rights also changed much to the better and we started becoming more visible in society… fashion was changing, AIDS wasn’t as big an issue; people weren’t afraid anymore. Things got very exciting for a period in the late nineties, we had the first drag show, Gay Pride got off to an excellent start… The atmosphere at Spotlight was insane at times, all of the sudden you got away with doing things that you really weren’t allowed to before. It was like our very own Studio 54 there for a while.”

As the Reykjavík nightlife-scene is legendarily fickle (which explains the Spartacus writers’ problems with keeping up to date), Spotlight’s day in the sun drew to a close early this decade, following an ill-advised move from its original location. Skjöldur tells me that the nightlife scene now is in many ways different from his halcyon days. “It’s much more aggressive than it used to be, in a bad way. People are using more drugs than they used to, and for different reasons, too.”

“Nowadays I rarely stay out past 2 AM, the mood is uncomfortable and aggressive, people all have these big egos. I don’t like it, it’s lacking a certain joy.” Given his remarks, Skjöldur seems to be referring to the 101 Reykjavík nightlife in general, the gay scene notwithstanding.

I ask him how he regards the difference between the gay scenes in Iceland and other countries he has visited. “Well, Icelandic gays have never realised that there are only 300,000 of us. That’s not a lot, and you can’t really have case-specific places for everyone. Rather, you have a few places that are doing their best to appeal to a wide range of people aged 16- 100, and while people’s tastes inevitably vary, I think these places are doing a commendable job. Splitting up into smaller groups isn’t really an option in such a meagrely populated country.”

“There’s an upside, however. You won’t get lost in the crowd, you always have a place to go where you’ll know somebody, you never wind up standing alone in a corner, and it offers a certain protection. It may be boring as hell at times, not being able to choose between several places, but it has many benefits as well. And it’s shaping up nicely. Gay life these days is not so much about drinking and partying as it is about just… being. We now have a lot of couples and full-fledged families, people don’t rely on the crutch of alcohol, drugs and partying to the degree they maybe once did. Being gay is different now. Easier, even.”

Gay and night
When prompted, Skjöldur describes his idea of a “perfect gay Saturday in Reykjavík”. It entails an early workout at the luxurious Laugar-gym (“a lot of hot men exercise there”) followed by brunch at Jómfrúin (downtown’s excellent, gay-operated Danish Smörrebröd house in 101). “I’d then browse the fashion shops downtown, as we have a lot of exciting young designers here. I like Kronkron, Gyllti Kötturinn and Sævar Karl, for instance. Then maybe dinner at [vegetarian restaurant] Grænn Kostur. The night would conclude by perusing the 101 downtown scene, I have a man so I’m not looking for any hook-ups, but some coffee and socialising would serve me fine.”

While Skjöldur seems content jettisoning all-night drinking and partying for relationships and responsibility, as many grown-ups will, others still revel in the fun to be had sipping cocktails ‘til Monday, joyously dancing nights away at every chance. Hence, one striking young man professed his love for all things nightlife and boogie in the Thursday night bathroom queue at Q Bar, describing his routine thusly: “On a good Saturday, I’ll usually start out visiting the leather club around midnight, then move on to Q Bar for some drinks and fun around 2 AM and finally close the night at Café Cozy. Depending on what’s happening there, I might be home anytime from 5 AM to sometime the next day. Things can really get crazy around there, there’s no telling what will happen.”

His plan seems as good as any, so the following Saturday night commences with a visit to the leather club.

A refuge for former sexual-political refugees
MSC Ísland [MSC is short for Motor Sports Club] is a private club, founded 22 years ago by former sexual-political refugees who had left the country in the late seventies and returned in the early eighties, when the atmosphere started getting a little more welcoming. These were men who had lived in London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and San Francisco; places where gay men could live relatively normal, comfortable lives in harmony with their sexuality.

Homosexuality has of course always existed in Iceland, but no one talked about it until Samtökin 78 was founded in 1978, there was no information to be had and the possibilities for a social life were extremely limited. Being gay here wasn’t an option; the situation was much the same as it is in the Faeroe Islands today.

“Around 1981 things had gotten slightly better, you could count on at least one of the discos in town to have a ‘gay corner’ where like-minded homosexuals could convene. People started returning, and MSC was eventually founded by men who had gotten to know ‘the leather life’ while living abroad and wanted to bring it back home.”

The deceivingly young-looking secretary of MSC Ísland (“Proper gays need to look at least ten years younger than they really are,” the 61 year-old tells me at one point) is explaining how he came to co-found an Icelandic leather-fetish club for like-minded gay men during the mid-eighties. We are sitting in a corner of MSC’s tiny downtown Reykjavík clubhouse, where properly attired members and their guests will meet at weekends to share drinks, conversation and other pleasantries.

It is decorated in true leather-bar style, camouflage-netting hanging in the ceiling over pitch-black walls boasting posters for leather summits around Europe along with various club insignia and memorabilia, lit by dim red lights. A wall-mounted TV is eternally blaring high-quality gay porn in one corner, a tiny bar sits in another, while a small steel cage, convenient for climbing into when the mood is right, is located centre point. Past the proper social area, a small corridor leads to a well-outfitted back room where those interested can engage in pleasurable acts at their discretion.

Like all self- respecting fetish clubs, MSC Ísland has a strict dress code policy. According to their web site, www.msc.is, those who seek admittance to the clubhouse must be decked out in a certain manner (although exceptions are made for travellers and first-time visitors). In short, leather and rubber attire is encouraged, as are uniforms and sportswear (Nazi-related uniforms are strictly forbidden, as are all forms of business suits). Work boots, jeans, T-shirts and nudity are welcomed, the main point and rule-of-thumb is dressing in a MANLY fashion. MSC.is provides a list of 13 different, ECMC approved, dress-styles, all of which are pretty self-explanatory. They include the Leatherman, the Soldier, the Officer, the Skinhead, the Cowboy and the Rubberman; members are encouraged to find their niche and dress accordingly.

MSC Ísland was operated out of a PO Box for its first decade, the club only acquiring its current HQ in 1997. As the secretary tells it, the club was originally founded in May of 1985, by a small group of men who wanted to create a social scene and gain admittance to the ECMC (a European coalition of MSC-style clubs). “Gay men usually have money and love to travel – there’s no kids to keep them at home – and the ECMC originally started in 1972 as a venue for such men from London, Cologne and Amsterdam, who would cross Europe on their motorbikes and meet up in different cities. The thing with many of these guys is that they are very bourgeoisie and civil minded, straight-types who like to get hip at weekends; they also love to organise and publish documents and newsletters [he says, pulling out a slew of ECMC affiliate newsletters from around Europe]. There are a lot of meetings and conferences, and their objective is usually planning next year’s big party.”

“One of our goals in founding MSC was to give such men, that for some reason found themselves visiting Iceland, an opportunity to connect with likeminded people. It was also an attempt to do something truly cultural; a big city needs to provide certain services, and this kind of club is one of them.”

These goals seem to have been well met, as the MSC annually entertains hundreds of visitors from around the globe, many of them crying out in joy: “Finally! I’ve found a real gay club in this godforsaken country!”

Two years of abstinence
This weekend sees MSC welcoming over 40 visitors from the Nordic Alliance of Leather Fetish Clubs to the Top of Europe summit, with representatives coming in from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. The programme includes celebratory dinners, club nights and a ‘Jock and underwear party’ at the clubhouse. Other activities planned for this year include a ‘Bears on Ice’ weekend, when members of the London Bear club Come to Daddy visit Reykjavík, Leather Pride days and, last but not least, the annual Icelandic Independence celebration of December 1, which has been a steady MSC tradition since the beginning.

The club is in fine spirits these days, and those members the Grapevine spoke with all expressed a good feeling for the summer of 2007 and its many planned parties. Things were quite different during the mid-nineties, when the club had all but ceased to operate following some heavy blows. As the secretary tells it, “Aids had taken a huge toll on the community and we assumed MSC was all but over. There was a two-year interval where gays didn’t really have any sex at all; people were scared of the virus and the threat it posed.”

“In 1995, I was travelling in Europe and stumbled into an ECMC conference in Amsterdam, where I saw that the scene was in full swing. You could say we instigated a sort of renaissance for MSC in the wake of my realisation. Now we have around 50 steady members [up from 15 in MSC’s first years], and another 50 that frequent the club regularly, not to mention all the casual visitors that pass through. For some of Iceland’s international visitors – and I’m referring to businessmen and diplomats as well as casual tourists – a visit to our club is as essential as a trip to the Blue Lagoon.”

They all get drunk and laid
As our conversation progresses, attendants in various states of fetish gear start showing up for the night’s festivities. A doorman will monitor those seeking entry, carefully checking if they live up to MSC’s codes of dress and conduct. MSC’s clubhouse isn’t a bar after all, it is a private social club, much the same as any Freemason or Lions-Club, and many are thus refused admittance. The secretary doesn’t like the looks of some suited-up guys who pass us on the club terrace and yells at his brethren inside to “make sure they lose the tie and shirt as soon as they get in.”

We then discuss Iceland’s gay scene in broader terms.

“Gays are always complaining that their scene is too small, their club isn’t good enough. They hate it all, and yet they go out every night, it’s just a staple of every gay scene, everyone complaining. I think it’s different for Icelanders who’ve lived abroad however, as opposed to those who have only briefly visited big cities.”

“Living someplace is very different from casually visiting there. The scene here is fine; at least we’re trying our best to uphold a regular gay scene. We’ve been participating in the Reykjavík Gay Pride since the beginning… you know, in many ways it’s like the scene’s been over-advertised, much the same as the Reykjavík nightlife in general. Journalists come over for Pride weekend and are filled with awe at the traditional Icelandic weekend-drinking culture. They’ll write raving reviews filled with exclamation marks regarding nightlife craziness.”

“That reputation is in some ways warranted. One of our past Gay Pride visitors, a South-American boy, saw Laugavegur at night and thought an actual revolution was at hand, so there’s that. Icelanders aren’t jaded with tourists yet, like people in Amsterdam and those tourist places are. Our visitors are welcomed wholeheartedly, and they get a lot of attention. They all get drunk and they all get laid, that’s the secret to our ‘legendary nightlife’ more than anything.”

Our talk is concluded by the secretary telling me the story of several gay clubs and bars that operated in Reykjavík since the eighties (in various states of officialdom). Aside from the previously mentioned Jón Forseti and 22, clubs such as Moulin Rogue, Hótel Borg, and Mannsbar are reminisced about, along with the various adventures enjoyed there throughout the years. The secretary professes a liking for Q Bar (“aside from the screeching girls!”) and their policy, although he says he’d like to see some traditional gay activities there, such as drag shows. “We now have a sorta holy trinity here in 101 Reykjavík. You can stand on the corner over there with us on one side, Q Bar on the other and you can view Café Cozy over there in the distance. It’s promising.”

Q Bar-stravaganza
We bid farewell to our friends at MSC and make our way to the now bustling Q Bar. It is 2:30 AM and the mood is vibrant. Deep House is blasting through the PA, drinks are being bought and there’s hardly any room to move around, whether you’re in the outside smoking area or moving on the dance floor. The following Tuesday, the club’s proprietor, Óli Hjörtur, will tell us of his experiences running it since February. He tells me the gay community really took a shine to Q Bar from the start, and that it is usually filled to the brim on any given weekend. “It’s been great so far. We’re trying to create a suitable weekday feel as well – we’ll begin operating a full-blown kitchen here soon, offering up a Spanish-style menu of Tapas and the like.”

Late Saturday night, no one seems to be thinking of Spanish cuisine. Many patrons are sitting at tables, deep in conversation, while others are dancing on those same tables. Big smiles and a drunken sort of joy fill the room. I poll several of those attending on their views and experiences from the Reykjavík gay scene. All of them agree that a place like Q Bar had been sorely missing for a long time, although many of them professed a need for even more such clubs.

“Too bad there only seems to be room for one gay club in Reykjavik,” a striking young blonde boy tells me. “We could really do with a more diverse nightlife.” Another speaks pleasantly of his London experiences, where there is “a different club for any preference, thousands of them.” He does, however, acknowledge the benefits of a certain camaraderie and security that stem from the relative smallness of Reykjavík’s scene.

Chaos at Café Cozy
I ask about their social lives in the city. Many of them recount experiences of hooking up with people on-line, through IRC-chat, classified ads and MySpace. “Scoring that way takes way too much time, way more than simply going out.”

We speak of Reykjavík’s main cruising spot, Öskjuhlíð, and the fact that Vesturbæjarlaugin swimming pool has mostly lost its status as such, even though it remains listed in many gay guides. “I’ve hooked up at Öskjuhlíð and enjoyed it, even though the experience leaves a lot to be desired. It’s rather basic, and only a certain type of guy will go there.” Some tell me they think no one dares cruise Öskjuhlíð anymore, for fear of gay bashing. We drink many beers and I hear many stories of coming out and moving away from small towns, of big city dreams and a growing optimism. As a steady stream of alcohol takes us further into the night, a move to the final destination, Café Cozy, seems inevitable.

When we get there at close to 5 AM, we’re greeted with a more traditionally gay music than we’ve heard all night at Q Bar. Eurovision high-points blend seamlessly with disco classics and soft-rock anthems. As is usual when one stays up late enough, the night has evolved to a point where conversation seems both impossible and unnecessary. Most communicating is done through shouting, waving of hands, dancing and the occasional ass-grab.

It’s glorious, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Outside of Cozy, early Sunday morning, a final conversation with a gay nightlife regular seems to sum things up quite nicely. “What I like about the gay nightlife scene here in Reykjavík is much the same as what I like about Reykjavík nightlife in general. It’s friendly, welcoming and people aren’t afraid to let go of themselves. I’m really looking forward to this summer.”

Where are the lesbians, you ask?
Since this article is exceedingly heavy on the Y-chromosome, some of you might be wondering why lesbian social life goes largely unmentioned in these pages. Early on in researching ‘Gaykjavík!’, we decided to place the focus solely on the gay (read: male homosexual) scenes, especially since many of those interviewed (male and female) commented that, even though paths will cross, there is a fundamental difference between gay and lesbian approaches to nightlife activities, and social life in general.

Icelandic lesbian nightlife surely warrants an entry all of its own, and you can be sure that such an article is forthcoming. For more information on lesbian life in Iceland, visit the website of Icelandic lesbian organisation Konur með Konum (“Women with Women”) at www.kmk.is.


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