As the controversy over gay rights continues to seethe over heatedly and caustically in the United States, like freshly expulsed volcanic lava from Mt. Hekla, here in Iceland cooler heads have prevailed and much progress has since been achieved. Way back in 1996, Iceland became one of the first nations in the world to give gays and lesbians civil union rights, as well as thorough protection from discrimination. Most recently, in fact only a few weeks ago, same-sex couples were finally allowed to have their relationships legally confirmed by church ministers. While it isn’t quite full-marriage equality, most of the liberties granted by hetero-marriage are included.
“[Iceland’s civil union law] includes all the same legal rights as does the traditional heterosexual marriage, and there is only a question of time until we see one unified marriage law for Icelanders regardless of sex and sexual orientation,” says Gay Pride organiser, Þorvaldur Kristinsson. “To make it clear what a progress we have seen, I like to point out that the revised versions of same-sex registered partnership law in 2000 and 2006 gave full adoptive rights to same-sex couples as well as full right to seek assistance in official fertility clinics.”
Moreover, Iceland is one of the biggest European LGBT celebration hotspots of the summer with Reykjavík’s cheerfully raucous Gay Pride festival taking place August 7 to 10. Organizers affectionately declare the event “the biggest little pride in the world!”
Despite the present ubiquity of the great strides LGBT people have accomplished in Iceland, the movement has been through hard times and much greater adversity. “Until the 1970s lesbians and gay men were practically invisible in Icelandic society which surrounded them with contempt and massive silence,” says Kristinsson. “Their reaction was either to hide their sexual identity completely or leave the country, correctly termed as sexual political refugees. The radical change we have seen in the last 30 years has mainly been based on a massive educational and legislative work led by Samtökin 78, the Icelandic national organisation of queer people. A close cooperation with several MPs led to several important recommendations in Alþingi.”
This year, Samtökin 78 celebrates its 30th anniversary. As Iceland’s only gay rights organisation, the organisation provides a safe space for LGBT people as well as allies to gather and organise. The group also boasts an umbrella network comprised of similar other subgroups including LGBT students & youth as well as parents and various other caucuses.
Executive director of the organisation, Lárus Ari Knútsson, says that Iceland should be considered a role model to the world on LGBT matters. “The Nordic countries have been the front runners on this issue, we’ve learned from the others; there’s definitely been a strong collaboration.”
Knútsson acknowledges though that while Iceland has made great strides, there is still a way to go to ensure greater equality for LGBT people. “Unfortunately, we have not reached the same peak as Norway. What Iceland has done is allowing for churches to marry if the priest will agree; Norway has said, ‘Everyone can get married, deal with it.’”
Knútsson also notes that the rights of transgendered people are limited and medical services required for their needs are far and few between. “Icelandic law is quite unclear about the rights and status of transgendered people,” says Kristinsson. “I see it as our most important task here to establish a parliamentarian committee to investigate the legal and social situation of transsexual people in Iceland, and suggest progressive improvements, so important for their happiness and well-being.”
Public Sentiment Remains Supportive
Contemporary public attitudes in Iceland have been growing more accepting of the LGBT community. “Since the early 1990s, opinion polls have shown a surprising change of values in society and express in fact more respect and tolerance towards gay men and lesbians than in other western societies,” says Kristinsson. “Although the situation is almost the best imaginable right now, we must bear in mind that new generations appear every year and therefore our fight for human rights – as well as for the social security and well-being of gays and other queer people – is a never-ending story especially in terms of educational and informative work. Let us bear in mind that historically speaking we belong to a culture which has always been hostile towards queers. Although being grateful for the enlightenment which characterises the modern Iceland, I am always prepared for some unexpected swing in weather.”
Gay Pride Fest
The annual Gay Pride festival is just around the corner and when asked how big he expects the turnout to be this year, Kristinsson said it would depend on the weather. “Last year we saw some 75.000 guests in the Reykjavík city centre. That makes about one fourth of the nation. I would be quite happy to see some 100.000 this time!”
Kristinsson also stresses that locals are very welcoming of LGBT visitors who are coming to the festivities. “A great part of the people who attend Reykjavík Gay Pride is heterosexual, our families and friends, and without this supportive atmosphere, there would hardly be such a big celebration in Reykjavík. The general heterosexual support makes our festivities quite unique in the world and our queer visitors grasp this particular spirit immediately as they arrive,” says Kristinsson. “The number of foreign visitors have increased by every year and many of them come again and again!”