Nordic Queer PioneersHelga Mjöll Oddsdóttir
In honor of pride month and especially the upcoming Barcelona gay pride parade on Saturday, let’s look at some renowned LGBTQ+ members from the Nordic countries who have made a mark on the rights and representation of other members in their countries and in the world. In terms of LGBTQ+ equality, the Nordic countries are in the forefront of the world. They were some of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage, and consistently rank as the top countries to visit or live in as an LGBTQ+ member. The Nordics are now often seen as an inclusive, tolerant, and progressive zone, even as being a kind of queer paradise, or at the very least a particularly accepting region. But like most other countries around the world, it was not always like this. To understand how these countries got to this point, we need to look at these pioneers that paved the way.
Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir made history in 2009 when she became the countries (and the world’s) first openly gay head of government. In addition to this, she was also the country’s first female prime minister. During her term, she managed to lead the country out of its financial crisis, ban strip clubs throughout the country, earning Iceland the title of “the most feminist country in the world”, advance LGBTQ+ rights, with same-sex marriage being legalized in 2010, and more. She herself married her long-time partner Jónína Leósdóttir shortly after the legalization.
She could not always live out who she truly was so freely, however. Although she met Jónína in the 80s, because she did not want to jeopardize her political career, the pair did not come out as a couple or move in together until 2000. She was a pivotal figure in the history of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Having an openly homosexual national leader sends a strong message to everyone in the world that it can be done. Another woman in Icelandic politics that is making history is Alexandra Briem, who was recently elected as the first trans woman to be a member of Reykjavík city council in Iceland. Her being elected sends a powerful message to every trans person who has ever doubted that, despite persistent intolerance, they can find a place and prosper in politics. The two are pictured below.
Eigil Eskildsen and Axel Lundahl-Madsen of Denmark were involved in a crusade for LGBTQ+ rights that lasted a lifetime. The two of them, along with other activists, founded the Forbundet af 1948, later changed to the National Homosexual Association, in Aalborg. The goal of this group was to pursue ‘equality in those areas in which we so clearly were being discriminated against. We had to demand, if not understanding, then at least tolerance from the heterosexuals.
Progress was eventually made, in 1987, anti-discrimination laws were expanded to encompass sexual orientation, and Denmark became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex civil partnerships two years later. Eigil and Axel were the first gay couple to form a civil partnership anywhere in the world, and they changed both of their last names to Axigil, a combination of their first names. Even though it was not until 2012 that same-sex marriage was officially legalized, the steps that this couple took years before helped the country get to the progressive place it is at.
In Norway, Karen-Christine Friele or “Kim” put on a life-long fight for equality, respect, and societal acceptability. She has been acclaimed as the homosexual rights campaigner in Norway who “broke the sound barrier.” Born in 1935, she was one of the first women in the country to openly identify as a lesbian, and fight for the rights of all LGBTQ+ people. She was regarded as a courageous and influential factor in persuading Norwegian legislators to repeal a long-standing legislation criminalizing homosexuality in 1972, but it took another few decades for homosexuality to gain greater acceptance.
She was fearless, throwing herself into the homo-battle in the 60s, and standing up against the state church to get them to recognized homosexuals, is not something just anyone would do. Her confidence in the cause and desire for everyone to be able to be who they are and love who they love made her unstoppable. Thanks to her work, progress was made, and Norway legalized same-sex civil partnerships in 1993 and same-sex marriage in 2010. She entered a civil partnership with Wenche Lowzow in 1993 and the two were together until Wenches’ passing in 2016. In 2019, the city of Oslo erected a statue in her honor, so she will forever be remembered and admired. Pictured below.
Tom of Finland, born Touko Laaksonen became an international gay celebrity in the 1970s due to his revolutionary and erotic depiction of the male figure. Tom blended realistic attention to detail with his sexual desires to create a collection of work that will almost certainly never be topped in terms of extreme homoerotism. His drawings were proactive and boundary breaking at the time, and he did not always get respect for this work. In fact, at his first exhibition in Hamburg, Germany, almost all of his work was stolen. He traveled to the United States in 1978 to do another one, and although he was discouraged after his first, he found much more success in the states, and ended up doing a series of exhibitions there over the next few years.
Tom’s work is still commonly featured in gay magazines, bars, clubs, and online forums. The combination of the hats, leather, and mustaches, which he frequently drew, have become a cliché of the gay man in Western popular culture. Tom’s work directly challenges homophobic, heteronormative masculinity cliches found in depictions of cops, military members, cowboys, etc. Tom shifted his focus toward black male subjects toward the conclusion of his career, a community that had been glaringly absent in his earlier works. He is recognized for increasing the exposure of black homosexual male subjectivity to this day. Pictured above is Tom and one of his most famous works.
When it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, it is no secret that some religious groups are some of the most intolerant of them in the world. So, the fact that Bishop Eva Brunne is a lesbian, and one that is accepted by her church is a happy surprise. Eva served as the Bishop of Stockholm from 2009 to 2019 and is the world’s first openly lesbian mainstream bishop, as well as the first bishop of the Church of Sweden to be in a registered same-sex civil partnership.
It is clear that the Church of Sweden is more forward-thinking than many other churches, Eva herself advocated removing Christian symbols from the Seamen’s Chapel in Stockholm Harbor, including crosses, in order to open the church to worshipping sailors of all faiths and to designate the direction of Mecca as a courtesy to Muslim tourists. Nonetheless, this still gives hope for more churches to be accepting of this so more LGBTQ+ people who wish to still pursue this career path can. We can hope that this is a sign that churches may be heading in a more open-minded direction.
It is thanks to these iconic people, and to others like them that the Nordic countries are where they are today when it comes to accepting the LGBTQ+ community. They pushed boundaries and stood true to who they were, and stood up for what they believed in, no matter how challenging that may have been for them. There is always still more work to be done, but because of them and other courageous people like them that are sure to follow in their footsteps, progress will continue to be made.
By Reilly O’Neill