Things I Learned At The Gay History Walk

Things I Learned At The Gay History Walk

Photos by
Hörður Sveinsson

When I first heard about the gay history walk, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. In all honesty I didn’t really think there were that many places relevant to gay history in a burgh as small as Reykjavík. Boy was I wrong.

What I learned on the one-hour walk was that Reykjavík is sprawling with significant gay history sites, buried beneath decades of conservative history writing.

‘But what is the gay history walk?’ you ask. Let me tell you. It is an annual sightseeing walk through Reykjavík that takes you through sites and locations significant to the history of gay culture and the gay rights struggle in Iceland.

Upon showing up at Ingólfsstræti, I was surprised to see how many people had actually showed up for the walk. A hundred and ten, to be exact. That’s a lot of people. Standing there amidst the crowd was a rather small man dressed in civil attire, a cheap flower lei around his neck, shouting out to the people that the show was about to start. That was the walk’s conductor, professor of political science Baldur Þórhallsson.

What I learned more and more was that many buildings I had previously not taken any notice of seem to have a great significance in the gay history of Reykjavík. One of the reasons probably being that in the early years of Samtökin 78—the National Queer Organisation—they had to move location quite frequently, since very few were willing to rent space to the organisation. Their first headquarters were located at Garðarstræti 2, which is a very simple apartment building near Ingólfsstræti.

Gays have had to fight diligently for their rights in Reykjavík, and it wasn’t until 1987 that Samtökin 78 started to receive public funding. In what came as a surprise to some, it was actually Iceland’s former Prime Minister, then mayor of Reykjavík Davíð Oddsson, who administered the funding.

One of the more interesting characters Baldur told of about during the walk was Þórður Sigtryggsson, a flamboyant homosexual who had his heyday during Reykjavík’s more conservative era. This is a man I have never heard of before, although he shared a fellowship with some of Iceland’s most famous artists at Unuhús. There he drank coffee with the likes Halldór Laxness and Þórbergur Þórðarson, two of Iceland’s most beloved writers. Over drinks, Þórður used to tell the residents of Unuhús tales of his active sex life and his many partners, who apparently span some of the most very important men and women in the history of Reykjavík. Elías Mar, a famous Icelandic poet, wrote his biography together but they are yet to be released, as to this day his stories and their revelations of well-known Icelanders and their sexual preferences seem to cause outrage.

The walk also brought new perspectives to old historical events that are rarely thought of as relevant to gay history.

There were, for instance, the times of WWII when British and American soldiers inhabited the country. Thousands upon thousands of uniformed soldiers swarmed the young city’s nightlife, and the men of Iceland screamed bloody murder as the girls swooned at their advances. In our history books, the only thing mentioned about this is the fear every man in Iceland harboured of losing his wife to a soldier. They never mention what a euphoric fantasy world this must have being for a gay man in Reykjavík. “A friend of mine that now resides in a retirement home always talks of these times with tears in his eyes,” proclaimed Baldur.

Notable by its absence was the lesbian input in the walk. Of course, history has been written by men that are reluctant enough to put gay men in history books, let alone gay women. Or as Baldur explained: “Men in older times hadn’t even thought of the notion that two women could be together.

Probably every city in the world has a similar history. A hidden one, of people who weren’t accepted in their societies, and had to find ways to live their lives knowing they were part of a group that was not accepted. I learned afterwards that some of the things mentioned in the walk were historical gems due to how unattainable they are. You wouldn’t be able to find most of these facts when just merely browsing, you would have to look deeper, conduct interviews, talk to people.

This gay walk wasn’t just entertaining; it was also sort of a revelation.

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