The March Of Progress: The National Queer Organisation Turns 40 — The Reykjavik Grapevine

The March Of Progress: The National Queer Organisation Turns 40

Published June 29, 2018

The March Of Progress: The National Queer Organisation Turns 40
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Anna Maggý

Samtökin ‘78 (literally “the ‘78 organisation”, with its official English name being The National Queer Organisation) celebrated its 40th anniversary on June 23 (although the actual founding date is May 9). While the organisation is virtually unheard of outside of Iceland, it is in large part responsible for Iceland’s image as a tolerant and inclusive society. It has also changed a lot over the past 40 years, and not just in terms of who’s in charge. Since its inception in 1978 as an activist group fighting for gay rights, Samtökin’s umbrella has expanded, most rapidly in the 21st century, to include trans, intersex, non-binary and other queer identities, which, while having been around for ages, have only recently begun to get the recognition they deserve.

Not that this expansion has not been without contention. For some we spoke to — namely, those no longer in Samtökin or never were — it has become too unfocused and has lost its way. But for many others, the organisation has been a lifesaver, in some cases literally. No matter what the critics say, Samtökin persists, and already has its sights set on new frontiers.

A detailed and all-inclusive look at Samtökin would encompass an article much longer than this one. Instead, we wanted to focus on how the group came to be, what they have done, how they matter to those involved with them, and where they are heading.

The founder

Hörður Torfason is a man who needs no introduction to Icelanders. He was a prominent figure in the 2008-2009 anti-government protests, but much farther back he was Iceland’s first openly gay man. Hörður tells us he founded Samtökin “because of my struggle” in 1978, although it was Guðni Baldursson who would be the first chair of the organisation.

Hörður’s opinion of Samtökin in its current form is, to put it mildly, critical.

“The organisation was founded as a group that fights for human rights,” he tells us. “It seems to me that gays and lesbians can be a part of the group now, as long as they behave. Otherwise, it feel as though we’ve been pushed to one side. I’ve pointed out that this happens because people have rested on their laurels. Gays and lesbians have been pushed into a corner. A great many of us are not a part of the organisation today.”

Hörður, who has not been involved in the group since 1993 and admits he doesn’t follow their activities very closely, believes that gay men and lesbians have been functionally marginalised within the organisation. This is an unusual position to take, especially as many in the queer community feel as though Pride celebrations have become dominated by gay cis men. Yet Hörður insists this is the case within Samtökin, which he attributes to a lack of historic appreciation.

“What I’ve been trying to tell young people is, ‘Look a little in the rearview mirror,’” he says. “I met representatives of Samtökin a few years ago, and none of them had read my book, Tabú, which explains how the organisation was formed. They didn’t know the history. The new generation comes, and isn’t looking in the rear view mirror. They just keep on driving. That’s just what often happens when new people come in.”

Curiously, he points out that in the same year he left he fought to have Samtökin recognise bisexuals as a part of the fight. When asked if he believes the current leadership are simply trying to do the same thing, i.e., bring more groups into the fight as the understanding of gender and sexuality changes, he concedes the point, albeit conditionally.

“It should be allowed to grow,” he says. “People should be able to come into the group, discuss their issues, and get their platforms included. The rights of one are the rights of all: that was my policy. It’s very simple.”

The freedom to be who you are

Alexandra Briem, a trans woman and a deputy Reykjavík city councilperson for the Pirate Party, has a much more positive outlook on the organisation, although she is not an active member and doesn’t presume to speak for Samtökin.

“If they hadn’t started doing this 40 years ago, there would’ve been no chance for me to be doing anything in society,” she says. “They’ve been vigilant in paying attention to, first of all, gay, lesbian and bisexual issues. And then some years ago, they decided to broaden their scope. And that’s what I think is most admirable about them. Many organisations, once they’ve reached a certain point in equality, they tend to lock down. But not Samtökin. They chose to embrace other identities and groups that were still being marginalised. I really admire them for that.”

For Alexandra, the struggle is about “the freedom to be who you are and who you should be. That’s something we’re all together in.”

One of the most important things Samtökin does, in her estimation, is their education campaigns, wherein they visit schools and workplaces to get non-queer Icelanders up to speed on what science has discovered about gender and sexuality.

“This is really important because there are a lot of people who are confused as to why something that was OK to say yesterday isn’t OK to say today,” she says. “They feel like the ground is uncertain and they can’t say anything. The best thing we can do about that is provide more information. To make sure that people who want to be part of a progressive society for everybody have the information they feel they need to do that, so they don’t feel like they’re in a constantly shifting landscape of terminology that nobody can properly navigate.”

“People should be able to come into the group, discuss their issues, and get their platforms included. The rights of one are the rights of all: that was my policy. It’s very simple.”

One of the key concepts behind including more queer identities into the group is intersectionality. Dating back to the 1800s, it was feminist writer Kimberlé Crenshaw who first introduced the word within a feminist context. The underlying principle is fairly simple: people may belong to many different marginalised groups and many different privileged groups at the same time, and being aware of the “axis of oppression” helps foster solidarity between marginalised peoples. For example, a middle-class white woman, while being marginalised for being a woman, is also privileged for being white and middle-class. A white middle-class woman who was a good feminist, then, would be one who recognises the privilege she has, and does her best to defend and lift up more marginalised women.

Intersectionality was a very important concept to those we spoke to about Samtökin, and Alexandra was no exception.

“This is something that we are only recently starting to realise is important,” she says. “Sometimes when a previously marginalised group begins to feel more secure, they might start to feel like they don’t have to stick up for other minorities, or minorities amongst themselves. But being blind to your own privilege is absolutely something that happens, and isn’t something that incurs blame. I don’t think you can be expected to be aware of your privilege, because that’s not what your situation allows you to do. When that privilege is removed, or equalised, because you were blind to it in the first place, it often feels like oppression. So it’s critical that we approach this in a way that people understand that this isn’t the case. I don’t want my own struggles to unfairly impact other people. I just want to make sure that when I ask for equal rights for myself or other marginalised groups, it’s to help those groups; not to harm the group that doesn’t happen to need it.”

In keeping with intersectional thought, Alexandra brings up other marginalised groups when asked about the new frontiers that Samtökin should focus on.

“I think we’re going to have to be more aware of people who are intersex, or non-binary,” she says. “We need more intersectionality. We have to find some common ground in how we’re going to use language in the future. While I absolutely agree that people shouldn’t be referred to in ways that feel marginalising or offensive to them, I also hesitate to suggest we change our whole system of grammar.”

The fought the law

Kitty Andersen is the chair of Intersex Iceland, which became a part of Samtökin in 2015. At that time, Kitty joined the board, and served as International Secretary for the organisation from 2016 to 2018. Kitty also believes Samtökin has accomplished a lot, in particular citing their legislative battles and victories.

“Historically, Samtökin has done an immense amount of work to change public perception in general” Kitty says. “It isn’t really that long ago that the words ‘hommi’ and ‘lesbía’ (literally “gay man” and “lesbian”) couldn’t be used on state media. These were the playground taunts. Compared to how Iceland likes to portray itself today, it was a completely different reality. Samtökin has also done a lot to influence legislation.”

The list of Samtökin’s legislative accomplishments is pretty impressive. They fought for same-sex couples to be able to enter into registered partnerships. In 2010, they won the fight for complete marriage equality, followed by anti-discrimination legislation in goods and services. Much more recently, a new anti-discrimination bill that focused on employment was passed into law. Every step of the way, Samtökin worked with groups like Trans Ísland and Intersex Iceland to help craft legislative drafts. And that work has paid off: Iceland’s current government is built on a coalition agreement that includes queer issues, a historic first for the country.

Kitty, ever the fighter when it comes to legislative reform, still sees room for greater change.

“There are so many issues where Samtökin is needed today,” Kitty says. “Advocating for legislative change, providing support services for LGBTI people in Iceland. I think not only an increase in knowledge, but also an increase in funding [is needed] to be able to provide support for LGBTI asylum seekers who come to Iceland. We have no criteria for them. Queer people are not referenced at all in the newest legislation on foreigners, nor are they recognised as a vulnerable group. The Directorate of Immigration has no active policy when it comes to LGBTI asylum seekers. They say they’re following UN guidelines, but they have yet to receive any of the training that’s a prerequisite for those guidelines. There are various fields where anti-discrimination needs to be addressed.”

Kitty adds that trans and intersex legislation is “horrendous” and badly outdated, but remains ultimately optimistic.

“Samtökin has done a lot in the past, and I see it continuing to advocate for legislative change in Iceland to increase the rights of all LGBTI people,” Kitty concludes.

Empathy is making a comeback

Alda Villiljós is the chair of Trans Ísland, and identifies as non-binary, i.e., identifying as neither female nor male. Some non-binary folks see themselves as possessing proportions of both, or neither, often in a “fluid,” rather than fixed, form. The story of their involvement with Samtökin is a testament to the inclusive tendency within the queer community. Trans Ísland was established in 2007. When they helped establish Non-Binary Iceland in 2015, Trans Ísland asked the group to become a sort of “sibling organisation”. Trans Ísland was soon thereafter brought into Samtökin’s fold.

For Alda, intersectionality is both important and encouraging.

“It makes me very happy to see,” they say. “There are still pitfalls and refusals to see certain intersections as valid or important, but on the whole we’re getting there.”

At the same time, Alda also recognises that disagreements have arisen within Samtökin, as is the nature of all democratic organisations.

“It hasn’t been an easy road – just as there were problems in other movements getting the more privileged to acknowledge intersectionality (white feminists for example) and even more to acknowledge their own privileges, we’ve had plenty of clashes in the queer movement,” they tell us. “It’s always difficult to acknowledge your own privilege for the first time, because we’ve been taught for so long that having privilege somehow makes you a bad person; and that it’s completely black and white — you either have complete and full privilege over all groups or you have no privilege at all. So coming to terms with the fact that you are a member of an oppressed group but you still have privilege needs a complete overhaul of some very old and ingrained ideas. I think some people older than me think of me and younger people as some sort of Tumblr know-it-alls, who were born with intersectionality already ingrained in us and that’s not true. Well, I hope it is true that kids being brought up now are being brought up with intersectionality as the norm! But I certainly remember having to confront my privileges for the first time, and it was hard and painful and took a long time. It was completely worth it in the end, so I always applaud people who manage to go through with it; and each consecutive time will get easier!”

“It happens every time there is a major step forward for the rights of oppressed groups and human rights in general; the rights advance for a time until the privileged group starts feeling uneasy and they start pushing the rights back.”

Alda is also optimistic about the future, saying that “empathy is making a comeback”, which they believe is the driving force behind not just the queer movement but also its intersections with other liberation movements.

“I think we’re now finally starting to give rise to empathy, and you can see it in all of these different social justice movements,” they say. “Slut Walk, #karlmennskan, Black Lives Matter, anti-war demonstrations, anti-corruption demonstrations, and so forth — all of these are centered around empathy and compassion in different ways. It’s waking us up to our emotions and that I think is where we can start talking about intersectionality, because to be aware of how our privileges, oppressions and power (im)balances intersect, you need to use empathy and compassion.”

Although optimistic, Alda sees Samtökin’s new frontier as being the fight against reactionary thought that hopes to undo decades of social progress.

“Although we are experiencing a comeback for empathy and compassion, we also live in so-called push-back times,” they say. “It happens every time there is a major step forward for the rights of oppressed groups and human rights in general; the rights advance for a time until the privileged group starts feeling uneasy and they start pushing the rights back. This is happening right now quite literally — immigrant detention centers; access to abortion and birth control being refused or taken away; and queer people are feeling this push back heavily all around the world. In the near future, the queer community needs to focus on staying vigilant against this pushback, giving aid wherever we can, using our privilege here in Iceland of being heard and being taken seriously to speak out against offenses against our siblings around the world, and of course, staying aware of any pushback taking place here locally.

“Most important, I think, is to keep educating everybody. Education and awareness are the most effective piece of combating hate and prejudice and Samtökin needs to keep its already impressive work on that going. As for new frontiers, the queer umbrella is constantly growing and there is no way of foretelling where the community goes next and where we are needed. All I can hope is that we keep being open minded and that we keep listening to people seeking shelter from the rain with us.”

The current leadership

The current executive director of Samtökin is Daníel E. Arnarsson, who was hired for the position just last year. In many ways, being hired for this position was an educational experience for Daníel about the organisation itself.

“When I began working for Samtökin, I didn’t realise how much they do; how many people come to us with a range of things we could help with,” he tells us. “I didn’t realise how broad it was and how much work was needed. I was actually flabbergasted. I also didn’t realise how much volunteer work is involved. All the board members are volunteers, and we have many other volunteers doing hard work. I’m very proud of Samtökin because I’ve seen how much work they do, and how much it’s needed. It just makes me really proud of our staff, volunteers and councilors.”

Daníel is a reformer, first and foremost, and emphasises the importance of being taken seriously by powerful people in order to be able to make progress.

“I think in the last couple of years, Samtökin has changed quite a bit,” Daníel says. “I think we have more weight in society. In Parliament and within the ministries, we have been building ourselves up in a professional way, in the sense that we are making Samtökin more able to do advocacy work. I think when you build something with professionalism as a key, many more people will listen to you and take it more seriously. That’s the direction I want Samtökin to go.”

Always evolving, always growing

Samtökin does not resemble the same organisation that it was 40 years ago. It will likely not resemble its current form ten years from now. What is undeniable is that they have been responsible for a lot of the aspects of Iceland as a free, tolerant, and equality-striving society. Daníel, for his part, does not see Samtökin’s future battles as anything written in stone; for him, it’s the guiding principles that matter most of all.

“I can’t predict the future, but the Samtökin that I want to see is an organisation that offers help when it is needed, and gives help when it’s asked for,” he says. “An organisation like ours should always try to help, with our knowledge and experience. It’s hard to predict what we should do or what will become of us, but I think that the path we are right now is the right one. The path towards openness and humanity.”

Additional photography by Hörður Sveinsson, OII Europe, Samtökin ’78, and Art Bicnick.

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