Copenhagen: A Happy Home for Citizens and for World OutGames 2009

A Happening Scene

It doesn’t take long to locate gay Copenhagen. The gay-friendly guidebook Lonely Planet has a boxed section that describes the scene as “one of the liveliest gay and lesbian scenes in Europe…”

From this simple comment into the thicket of LGBT organizations, clubs, saunas, bars, accommodations and publications–as well as a quietly ingrained widespread community that thrives in this city and country–it is easy to feel welcome here as a gay person, especially in this particular year when two significant events have further rooted same-sex life into the psyche of the Danish culture.

The first was the April election of a pro-gay Prime Minister who recognizes the right of LGBT people to the same social and legal  protections as everyone else. Although constrained by heading a coalition government with conservative parties, Lars Rasmussen clearly stated that he is “proud to live in a country that introduced registered partnerships in 1989 and I’m proud to live in a society that comes out very well in surveys the real degree of tolerance…”

The second event followed the elections by three months: hosting the World OutGames sports ‘olympics’ and the affiliated OutGames Human Rights Conference. Bringing together thousands of athletes and rights activists at one time in one city is an enormous challenge that evoked a surge of volunteers from Copenhagen and around the countryside. From helping with constructing the scaffolding for the opening ceremony to hosting housing to guiding participants through the registration process to monitoring the games, the LGBT community and their gay-friendly neighbors created a rainbow of welcome to visitors from 75 countries.

As well, the Lord Mayor the city of Copenhagen, Ms. Ritt Bjerregaard, welcomed both athletes and conference attendees heartily to her city, in person and in print. In addition to the Lord Mayor, Copenhagen has six ‘sub mayors’ one of who is openly gay Klaus Bondam.

Denmark as a Country

It’s almost impossible to improve on this description of Denmark from Wikipedia: “Denmark, with a free market capitalist economy and a large welfare state, ranks according to one measure, as having the world’s highest level of income equality. From 2006 to 2008, surveys ranked Denmark as “the happiest place in the world,” based on standards of health, welfare, and education.

The 2008 Global Peace Index survey ranks Denmark as the second most peaceful country in the world, after Iceland. Denmark was also ranked as the least corrupt country in the world in the 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, sharing a top position with Sweden and New Zealand. In 2008, the capital and largest city, Copenhagen, was ranked the most livable city in the world by Monocle magazine.

“The national language, Danish, is close to Swedish and Norwegian, with which they share strong cultural and historical ties. 82.0% of the inhabitants of Denmark and 90.3% of the ethnic Danes are members of the Lutheran state church. About 9% of the population has foreign citizenship—a large portion of those are from other Scandinavian countries. Denmark has the best business climate in the world, according to the US business magazine Forbes. The Global Enabling Trade Report 2009 ranks Denmark fourth in the world and first in Scandinavia when it comes to enabling trade.”

A Liberal country

It’s intriguing to ferret out the reasons for Denmark’s liberal leanings regarding sexuality. As an integral part of the ‘Scandinavian mindset’ Denmark has benefited (although conservatives would disagree) from the independent, resilient self-reliance that often results from physical and political and religious challenges imposed on a people.

Starting as far back as the early 19th century, restive and independent-minded farmers and liberals joined forces against monarchial lordship and Catholic influences to forge a politically neutral country while much of Europe was consumed in wars. The absolute monarchy was abolished and Parliament took political control of the country’s affairs (today the Danish monarch—Margrethe II—is a beloved figurehead) and Denmark became one of the most democratic countries in Europe at that time.

With no dictatorial person (monarch or pope) or class to control the thinking of the masses, an ethos of equality and fairness emerged which allowed socialized programs in health and education to form. Having survived minimal damage under the Nazi’s (the Danish underground spirited thousands of Jews out of the country to safety) the country is perhaps one of the best-run ‘social-capitalist’ societies in the world today.

It has efficient transportation systems, farming practices, technically proficient communications—and clean streets, thanks to a strong sense of individual social responsibility. (A visit to the Danish Resistance Museum reveals that more physical damage was done to Copenhagen by the British bombers when they targeted the Nazi HQ, which they destroyed, but also mistakenly bombed a nearby school killing many students and teachers.)

So it was no great surprise that a particular minority group began to express their claim to an equal share of recognition and rights in the post-war years. In 1948 the Danish National Association for Gays and Lesbians
was formed and made their presence known socially and politically. Ahead of their time, the association lobbied and rallied persistently for years, with moderate success, for recognition and pro-gay legislation.

In 1989 Denmark became the first European nation to offer legalized partnerships (the Register Partnership Act) with virtually the same rights as heterosexual married couples—although adoption rights did not come until 1999.

To this day, however, some LGBT activists still bristle that these gay unions are not called marriages. (The Prime Minister carefully parses this issue by saying that ‘marriage’ is a church issue and ‘registered partners’ is a civil issue and allows the same rights as marriage.)

Some observers have pointed out that Denmark’s liberated ideas are in good measure due to a lack of religious influence. In southern Europe the strong influence of the Roman Catholic church’s homophobic attitudes have influenced numerous countries to condemn or criminalize homosexuality, whereas the Protestant northern countries, although puritanical, did not advocate as vehemently against homosexuality. After all, Calvin and Luther rebelled against rigid Catholic dogma in favor of free thought.

More specifically in Denmark, and in much of Scandinavia, although the Lutheran denomination is the state-supported church (Folkekirken), fewer than five percent of the population claim to be regular church-goers–again reflecting the independent-mindedness of the Danes to think for themselves on issues of conscience. And since homophobia is an irrational ‘belief’ imposed from an oppressive authority, be it church, tribe or state, the free-thinkers of this democratically-minded country choose not to submit their attitudes to such discriminatory external influence.

In the Streets

Meanwhile in the streets and businesses and offices and homes of the LGBT community in Copenhagen, gay life pulses often quietly but steadily in the life stream of this ‘fairy city’ with its little mermaid symbol, its fantasyland of Tivoli gardens, ornate architecture and imaginative castles.

The ‘scene’ is widespread, from the tireless LBL (Danish National Association of Gays and Lesbians) rights organization that constantly pushes against conservative influence in government to the brazen dark rooms of Body Bio sex club to the important LBL-Ungdom gay youth group to the yearly Pride festival to the gay-owned hotels and restaurants…the scene is cosmopolitan and inclusive. Even the trans community is not left out: the XXDark club is known for its open-minded welcome of bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals.

LBL is the leading LGBT organization in Denmark, currently headed by ‘HC’ (Hans Christian) Seidelin, with its numerous lobbying and social offerings including counseling, health awareness, telephone hot line, outreach to schools and businesses, support groups (especially for youth) and publications. It houses a respectable library and a large database of members and their interests.

A monthly newsletter is issued around the country. Pan magazine was a LBL magazine but is not currently being printed. The offices are in the heart of the city and offer a café, meeting facilities for all LGBT interest groups including trans people, and a radio station. LBL also has a chapter in Aarhus, Denmark and an international chapter. There is also an asylum group.

Before the OutGames started I spoke with two staff members, Lina (vice chair) and Michael (office manager, photo above) who reaffirmed the message in their website: “For almost 25 years a group, consisting of both gays and lesbians, has been visiting schools sharing “coming out stories” and debating legal and other issues concerning homosexuals.

“The debates show, with all clarity, that young people still need to be educated about gay issues, thus allowing the next generation to become more enlightened and non-prejudiced. Bearing in mind that the swearword most commonly used among children and young people is the Danish equivalent of the word “faggot” goes to show that LBL still has an important role to play and fights to win.”

A block away from LBL (on the city’s main pedestrian street Stroget) is the other major LGBT organization in Denmark, the effective Stop AIDS association (English version) that was visible throughout the week of the OutGames with their attractive ‘cheerleader team’ scantily clad in red shorts waving their banner ‘Sex is here to stay: Stop AIDS-Make Love’. (photo right, Stop AIDS brochure)

Even in ‘healthy’ Denmark, around five percent of all gay men are estimated to be HIV positive. In Copenhagen it is probably closer to ten percent.  It is estimated about 5500 people in Denmark are infected with HIV. Of these, some 1000 persons are estimated to be infected without knowing it. (Denmark’s population is 5.5 million.)

Additionally, there are dozens of other social and specialized LGBT groups in the country. See the LBL listings.

The popular Out & About (usually in Danish, with a special OutGames edition in English) includes just about everything to do with gay Denmark from film revues to stories about Rainbow families to interviews with notable people—such as Axel Axgil and his partner Eigil Eskildsen-Axgil, the first ever legally registered gay partnership in the world.

The recent English version of Out & About included a ‘shocking’ article about a favorite cruising park, Ørsteds Park, where gays are known and expected to hunt for anonymous sex among the foliage. Any homophobic behavior is to be reported to the police whose job it is to protect gays while doing their ‘business’ in the bushes. The conservative previous mayor went so far as to have many bushes removed much to the protests of the parks’ nightly patrons. A current gay sub-mayor promised to restore the bushes but has not yet carried out this promise. It’s hard to believe this was a political issue!!

An extensive website for gay Copenhagen,, is also filled with just about everything a visitor needs for a serious visit to this inviting capital, including the lesbian bar Chaca and five choirs.

Shout is a gay youth magazine with a wide variety of lifestyle articles including entertainment, film reviews, sexy underwear ads, health, transsexual surgery, gay rights, Islamic gays, parents of gay and more

For gay Arab residents in Denmark there is the Sabaah group whose presence I encountered by accident when I saw a large LGBT flag hanging inside their office window in the former meat packing district that is now an arts enclave. They were preparing their seminar for the  Human Rights Conference and their Pride presence during OutGames week. (See photo gallery)

There are free gay maps offered by several bars and restaurants and associations that list at least forty LGBT established venues and organizations (an incomplete list).  An important series of health brochures are issued by Stop AIDS.

The major event in July, in addition to OutGames and Human Rights Conference, was the Copenhagen Pride 09 parade and festival presented in the heart of the city with the full approval and support of the authorities. This year, because of the Games, the festival lasted a week with performances of opera, Queer Tango Festival, choral concerts, a dragking boyband, beach BBQ, drama, film, church and meditation services, art exhibits all culminating in the grand finale parade of floats, costumes, speaker-busting music, marching bands, LGBT organizations and OutGames athletes marching to City Hall Square for a ten-hour Pride Show under the theme of ‘Celebrating the Right to Love’. Not to mention the sponsored theme parties by gay businesses and organizations such as the Arab, Tyrkish, Bhranga (Indian) & Balkan Party, the Vela Female Pride Party and a fashionable Dansk Design party (17 in all, with cover charges ranging from US$10-50).

Quiet Life

But all is not about festivals and public demonstrations. Most of Danish gay life is lived quietly and ‘normally’ especially since the social milieu easily allows for calm and respectful attitudes towards alternative families. One such family is the partnership of Jens and Hans, a gay male couple for 30 years. They are happily ‘married’, as some gay people call their partnerships. They met accidentally in the Tivoli gardens when they were both showing out of town visitors the wonders of this amusement-garden-dining-entertainment park one summer evening — “when all the fairy twinkle lights were on; how romantic can you have it,” said Hans.

Both are retired now, Jens from teaching and Hans from a health care agency, and live in a modest two-storey brick and tile-roof home in the suburbs. They have seen the changes over the past generation that have brought them the same rights as married pairs including power of spousal health and rights of inheritance, to name two.

“Our life is boring,” said Hans, “if you compare it to young people and their gay scene. But we prefer it this way. Our friends are mostly older as well and our social activities involve them, you know, for a dinner or a film or a concert… it’s not much to write about.

Have you ever been the target of homophobia?

“Not really. Because of our conservative  jobs, we developed conservative lifestyles. Being flamboyant was not accepted as it is today. I think how brave are these young gay people—and good for them. They even have a gay youth organization at LBL and their own dance nights. It wasn’t like that a generation ago.”

But wasn’t Denmark a leading country for gay rights?

“Maybe.  When you shine a candle in the darkness it’s not much light. You need a lot of them to make change. Even in Denmark it took forty years to go from the first gay group to granting couples legal status. But at least we were not an oppressive society like some other countries, so gay people did not face strong harassment or beatings. Maybe the odd arrest for public ‘disorder’, but we were mostly left alone and we did not celebrate it in public like the gay festival they now have.”

And the OutGames?

Oh yes. We are blessed to see this happening in our lifetime. Never could we imagine it. We’re volunteering to help at the sports.”

Which one?

“Swimming of course. We may be old but our eyes are still young!” (laughing)

A Bicycle Culture (a digression)

Denmark has more bicycles than people. Easily a third of the population commutes to work or does chores via bicycles. By chance I wandered into one of the many bicycle sales and repair shops in the city and by chance was greeted by a mechanic, Anthony from Tennessee, assembling a new two-wheeler. It a serous business with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. A good household bike costs about $700 and almost all are insured by large companies who require locks and lights on the bikes.

Anthony was no ordinary mechanic. He was also on a grant study to analyze the ‘sociology of the bicycle culture’ -–no kidding. Within a few minutes, on my prompt, he offered a brief summary of why the Danes are so addicted to their non-polluting bikes. “It’s much more complex than you might imagine. It goes beyond issues of noise and air pollution, conservation, economics, health and exercise. Bicycle mentality is so ingrained into the mindset here that people don’t even realize it.

“Also involved is a cultural ethos that includes self-reliance, modesty and conformity. A bicycle is a very self-reliant vehicle that depends only on oneself, independent of bus schedules, gas pumps or traffic jams. There are separate bike lanes on most streets in Copenhagen and other cities. As well, Danes don’t like to stand out or attract notoriety and riding a bicycle is a modest gesture indicating a modest life.”

So went my first lesson in the sociology of bicycles. Indeed, in two weeks in Copenhagen, I saw one Rolls Royce (an antique Silver Cloud from the 60’s). But there are a lot of nice Audi’s and virtually all the taxi drivers are Muslim with recent shiny Mercedes. Go figure.

OutGames Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony of the OutGames was energetic and exciting. Held in the square in front of the gothic City Hall a huge scaffold stage was constructed on which the athletes entered and the entertainment performed. The music and speeches, acrobats, singers and dancers played to the crowds gathered around—perhaps three or four thousand.

Compared to previous Games (OutGames and Gay Games) and the expansive spectacles of their opening/closing ceremonies held in huge stadiums, Copenhagen offered a more modest show of sound and light. While many of the spectators watched with enthusiasm as supporters of the Games, others were there because it was the city center and came for a beer, a smoke and a chat with friends.

More than a few passing tourists noticed the activities and passed on, while other locals preferred to play video games at the nearby Boom Town internet/gaming hall. There were noticeably fewer athletes at this Games—about 5000 from 75 countries—but more than enough to have pitched competitions and fun parties.

Simultaneous with the Games was the Human Rights Conference, which unfortunately was scheduled on the first three days of the sporting events so attendees interested in both had to give up some preferred activities. (See OutGames report).

Denmark Gay Pride 2009

Finally on the day following the hundreds of OutGames events Denmark held its Pride Parade winding through the streets of Copenhagen with enthusiastic crowds of gay citizens, families (gay and straight—with baby carriages), and many more accidental onlookers—mostly straight tourists–who had no idea the parade was happening.  (“Who is passing here,” asked one stocky woman with a thick Slavic accent.  I said ‘a gay parade’, at which she nodded and said, “Ah. oke… let’s go” to her friend as they went their way.)

As the parade came over the Queen Louise Bridge, heading toward City Hall, anyone with an ounce of wit needed only one look at the caravan of big trucks with their cargo of semi-nearly-somewhat-almost not-so naked disco dancing flag-waving cheering, whistle-blowing rainbow celebrants bouncing and gyrating to the thumping music to know this was definitely a big deal homosexual splash. (See photo gallery of parade)

About a dozen of these big rigs were sponsored by organizations such as LBL (Danish national LGBT organization), Men’s Bar, BeProud Bar, Sabaahethnic minorities, Absolute Vodka company, dating site, Same-sex Partnership 20th Year Anniversary. The final truck was OutGames followed by hundreds of athletic participants from runners to swimmers (who like to show off in their minimal Speedos).

Waving and prancing and cheering were thousands of walkers from other groups such as Stop AIDS, Danish Defense Forces, co2-neutral hotels, Microsoft (‘Out is the new In’), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and more.  Not identified as a group but still very present were the countless gay families with rainbow-flag-draped baby strollers or toddlers-on-shoulders. One mom put ear phones on her infant’s head to protect him from the music volumes on the trucks and at City Hall.

The parade ended in the large square in front of City Hall square where it all started an exhausting week ago. A grand stage had been erected the night before for closing-day festivities of this very gay pride in this very gay city.

The closing ‘ceremony’ was more of a concert bash than a program of farewell (other than a couple of short speeches by officials) as thousands of mostly happy singles and couples sat on the ground with cans of Tuborg or Carlsberg beer (both from Denmark) in one hand and their partners–or a cigarette–in the other.
The age-span crossed from eighties to toddlers in strollers; from  conservatively dressed queer ‘grandparents’ watching the vibrant colorful scene from the fringes of the crowd to the bouncing and wiggling duo with large red costume crowns on their heads.

It was a sea of party-makers in the late afternoon sun sprawling over the square and being the dominant norm for a while, some kissing, others hugging, many arms entwined, and more than a few single ‘members’ of the community soaking up the energy and validation of the day—a rarity for many who don’t live in northern Europe.

I passed by one of the African lesbians, whom I knew, from Uganda where such a celebration would be utterly impossible: everyone would have been arrested for such unnatural immoral behavior. It was hard for me to imagine how busy her mind was as she wove her way through the dense and dancing, queering and cheering crowds knowing she would be back home in 48 hours hiding her authentic identity and being cautious with her public presence as an activist. (Indeed, Uganda’s parliament was debating that same week whether to criminalize homosexuality.)

What’s It All About?

What is such a crowd? What does it mean to gather several thousand LGBT people from nearly a hundred countries in such a massive show of lights, sounds, colors, sports, culture, rights and parties? What’s the purpose here, in Denmark where LGBT citizens have virtually all the rights and protections as any other non-gay citizen. Is there a struggle–here?

These questions came up in an impromptu conversation with a cute young (late 20’s) lesbian couple from Copenhagen whom I happen to meet just as the parade was winding its way downtown. Tina and Trina have been a couple for five years and live in Vesterbro suburb in a flat they rented together.

They did not go to the church blessing ceremony yesterday at the Church of Our Lady, Copenhagen Cathedral (Lutheran) where clergy gave hands-on blessings on any couple (or single) who came forward: “the love that already exist is celebrated here,” declared the dean. (See report)

Since Tina and Trina were already ‘sealed’ into their spousal partnership by the state they not feel the need for a religious ceremony. They supposed most of the couples who went for a blessing were foreign visitors who could not have any legal ceremony at home and wanted a symbolic ceremony here in Denmark.

Gay life in Denmark for them was a shared home, accepting families, secure jobs, national health services, pro-gay legislation and an intimate circle of friends. Is there a struggle–here?

Only the challenge of taking deep enough breath to fully feel the meaning of being a beautifully free lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender citizen in this very free and liberal country.

Also see:
Gay Denmark News and Reports

OutGames ’09 Conference Report
OutGames 2009 Report
Outgames/Conference Photo Galleries