From Iceland — Political Change through Celebration

Political Change through Celebration

Published July 28, 2006

Political Change through Celebration

Most of the year, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender people are invisible to the population at large in Iceland. The Grapevine is as guilty as anyone of not covering the politics and struggles of this segment of the population. But it’s August, and the Gay, Lesbian and Transgender population are celebrating, which means they’re in the news, which means we’re covering them.
/// Good evening. It’s time for the yearly phone call where we ask about gay issues just before the Gay Pride Festival. I should apologise; it’s flat out embarrassing that we don’t offer more coverage in general. Are there stories that you feel we’ve been missing relating to gay, lesbian and transgender issues in the last year?
– I don’t have any comment about that. Nothing comes to mind.
/// But now we, like the rest of the media here, have our attention on Gay Iceland, as this festival and march are more heavily attended than even the national independence day.
– Yes, of course the national holiday is a whole-day event, we are a four-day event, and the programme on the main day is maybe not that long. Last year, we had 50,000 at the main event, which is the parade. People look at it as an opportunity to show support and have fun. I think they can, we have a good time, because we have managed to have a good program down at Lækjargata.
/// About the programming: Can I say, as someone who attends the festival in an attempt to support the cause, that I get nervous about the parade. There’s so much mocking, and so much joking. Are straight people really supposed to be laughing? Isn’t this, kind of serious?
– If it’s funny, you should laugh. It’s meant to be joyful. It is a celebration, but behind the celebration is the issue we’re celebrating. It started after Stonewall in 1969, and we’re celebrating that people finally said this is enough you cannot act like this anymore
Of course, the seriousness behind the celebration is the whole history behind the fight for gay and lesbian rights. People are doing (routines) that are meant to make you laugh. There’s no shame in that. Laughter is a very good thing.
/// But other than the laughing, and the celebration, do people really understand the origin of the movement? Do people know about Stonewall here in Iceland? Do they know about struggles in gay rights more than just seeing a cowboy movie?
– We try to remind people of this milestone in our history on our web page and through our publication. And, of course, we’re not forgetting that we ourselves here in Iceland and in Europe have our own story. This didn’t all start in the U.S., though this idea of pride in the celebration grew from those events in New York in 1969.
It’s important for everyone to have some clear event. We could start the story in Rome 2,000 years ago. But this event really changed things. People used to be harassed as individuals. If you went to any city in Europe and the U.S., you were harassed and people just took it. They were arrested and put in jail. Some people were killed and executed by governments.
What happened in New York in 1969 was that people stood up as a group. And the riots that took place over two or three days, showed the community the power they had as a group. That was the birth of what we call pride. It’s a basic truth that people who are proud of what they stand for are better fighters and more likely to gain victory. A person who is ashamed is not very likely to be listened to and not very likely to believe in his or her own struggle.
/// When you mention thousands of unacknowledged masses getting together and saying we’re not going to take persecution anymore, my mind goes straight to one event: the cartoon protests in Denmark. There wasn’t positive coverage of what they were doing, when Muslims took to the streets to protest, but I think of them as the successors to Stonewall.
I bring this up because we’re in Europe, where, on occasion, the gay rights movement and the immigration rights movements seem to run in direct conflict, as we saw with the arguments that came out of the Netherlands a few years ago with Pim Fortuyn.
– The anti-immigration sentiment in Europe is based on two things: it’s based on ignorance and the hatred that comes from ignorance. What we in the gay and lesbian movement in Iceland have managed to do is to educate people. It is so easy to hate people that you know nothing about. And sometimes the information we get is based on ignorance.
The key thing is to educate, and show your countrymen that you are not some monsters from dark corners. That you are humans. And maybe that has been the failure of growing populations of immigrants in Europe. A failure to connect maybe, or educate the public of the people moving into the countries. Of course, in some of those countries immigrants have been isolated in special parts of the cities and they are not encouraged to integrate, so people feel isolated. It’s a complicated matter of course.
There’s the story, also, of course, of the conflicts between religions. You don’t have to go outside of Iceland or Denmark to find people who have differences in religious faith. You can find people here who preach hatred and thrive on it. Here in Iceland you can see religious extremists who see gay people as decadent unhealthy social deviants. And that can only be met by answering back with real and truthful information.
/// You mention that there are religious extremists in Iceland who see gays as social deviants. I don’t hear much about them. Not nearly as much as I hear about them in America, for example.
– They are here. They are leaders of small churches and write articles now and then in the mainstream newspapers or preach hatred of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people on their TV channel.
It’s not new to us that gay issues are not on the top of the list of mainstream media. However, Gay Pride is a tool for us to make it into the media. For the last five or ten years, we have succeeded in that. And we have been able to use our publicity when the festival wasn’t on. Reykjavík Gay Pride has protested when parades have been banned in other countries. Just last week we sent a letter of protest to Latvia and the city of Riga when they banned a gay pride march, and just last year we sent a letter to the mayor of Warsaw, who is now president of Poland, when they banned the parade. And I can tell you that I was invited to participate this year when the parade was allowed for the first time in Warsaw. It was a very moving moment.
The Reykjavík Pride is not hard core political, but we believe in the politics of pride and celebration, it is politics to have something to celebrate about. To come out with pride in Eastern Europe where ministers of governments and prominent parliament members speak publicly with contempt about their own lesbian and gay countrymen, shows great courage. Governments and politicians in those countries, especially in the new member states of the European Union need to understand they cannot choose who gets human rights. If they want to participate and be taken seriously in the European community they have to grant everyone equal rights or risk being thrown out of all important institutions of Europe.
/// This all, sadly, falls under the radar. I guess we don’t quite report this.
– The situation in Russia is also shocking. The last independent media died a few weeks ago. That’s an important thing for gay and minority groups. It has always been free media that helped gays and women liberation with their rights.
Here in Iceland there was a huge change when radio frequencies went free. Before, under the monopoly of state media, the silence about gay issues was so thick you could almost touch it.
/// And this changed when?
– In 1986.
/// Is there a free media in Iceland now?
– Sure there is. We have lots of radio stations. They are not controlled by the state. The people working at those stations have no other rules to work by than the rules of good journalism.
/// And you’re stating that the free market will allow freedom of expression?
– There cannot be freedom of expression when all media are controlled by the state. It’s a sign that the government is healthy when colourful free media are allowed to run.
We can see what happens when it’s not, like in Belarus.
/// But the free market doesn’t always give us the best of journalism, either. In the English-speaking world, many of us still turn to the BBC, now and then.
– Of course, when you have a state media in countries where the free media are also flourishing, then you have someone to compare with the state media. The state media is by gentle force directed to talk about issues and events they might not do if they were the only media on the market.
You can go to England and ask how it was to be gay in England when BBC was the only media in the country. They would say there was silence between stories about perverts in Soho.
When we first tried to take an ad to state radio using the terms lesbian (lesbian) and hommi (gay man), they wouldn’t allow it, because those were bad words.
/// Outside of the parade that will have the streets packed, what else is going on that people might overlook?
– We’ve been growing to a four-day event, and we even start with a preview on Wednesday with the Icelandic Drag Competition organised by private group. On Sunday, we will have a service at Hallgrimskirkja with the Reverend Pat Baumgartner, who is the priest of the Metropolitan Community Church in New York. The Metropolitan Church is the gay Christian church established in the United States decades ago. And she will have a service with three or four Icelandic priests from the Icelandic National Church and the Fríkirkjan. This will hopefully show Icelanders that many Icelandic gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people are religious people who worship in the same ways. That we are human. We are hoping people will use the opportunity to see this extraordinary service, the first of its kind in Iceland. We are hoping people will flock to the church.

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