(Updated April 2016)
(1) If you are coming to Reykjavík
What to expect.
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe but relatively few people live there. The wilderness of the highlands is untouched and unspoiled nature. The Icelandic nation only counts 280.000 people and most of them (170.000) live in the capital Reykjavík and surrounding areas. Most tourists land at Keflavik International Airport and then drive for an hour through moss grown lava landscape to Reykjavík. Icelanders feel that this flat desert is barren and uninteresting but many foreigners get the feeling they have just landed on the moon.
Reykjavík has grown from a village to a city in this century. The suburbs are big, but the city centre is small and shows a rather mixed blend of architecture. The ruling style, however, is the old Icelandic balloon frame timber house, covered with corrugated iron and painted in all the colours of the rainbow. The roofs of Reykjavík are a festival of colours.
Icelanders use geothermal water to heat their houses and we get electricity from hydroelectric power plants at big waterfalls in the highlands. This makes the air completely clean and Reykjavík is one of the cleanest cities in the world. For this same reason you get first class drinking water from the tab.
The weather is unstable but surprisingly mild; it never gets very hot and never very cold. But rain, snow, fog and sunshine can all happen in the same day. Iceland is in the high North but the Gulf stream from the Caribbean makes the winters warmer than in New York, and the summers are rather warm and wet. The length of the day in Iceland varies very much: December and January are the darkest months with only 4-5 hours of daylight but in June and July there is bright daylight all around the clock thanks to the midnight sun.
Nightlife in Reykjavík is amazing. Icelanders are rather trendy and fashionable and on weekends it seems that everybody is out on the town. Things start rather late, bars are crowded after ten and discos after midnight. They are open until three and in summer, at least, the streets in the city center may be full of people until morning. Some popular bars get very crowded and tourists should not take some pushing and shoving personally.
Icelanders are usually a very friendly people and rather willing to talk and give information to tourists. Younger people speak good English and often enjoy practicing their skills. Icelanders travel a lot and we like to think of us as open minded and modern in our way of thinking. In the last years tolerance towards gay men and lesbians has grown considerably and now we have very few examples of discrimination on basis of sexual orientation. Foreign guests are very welcome in the gay scene in Reykjavík.
On the Reykjavik gay scene
In 1925 Halldór Laxness, the only Icelandic writer to receive the Nobel prize for literature, wrote a teasing article with the headline: On the cultural situation. The author was then 23 years old, a young and rebellious man of the world, comparing the Icelandic culture with other countries:
“And as a culture-with the exception of our countrymen in Copenhagen-we had no representatives in Iceland throughout the last century but a few vagabonds in the countryside and that miserable Latin school without a decent house. We now have in Reykjavík all of a sudden got everything which suits a cosmopolitan city, not only a university and a cinema, but also football and homosexuality.”
–Halldór Laxness, 1925
This sarcastic comment says a lot about the gay reality: Our culture comes out of the cities and it is only in the big cities of the world that it gets to grow and flourish. Of course there have always been lesbians and gay men in Iceland but many of those who were lucky enough to recognize those feelings moved away to foreign cities. When Samtökin 78 were founded in 1978 they were at last recognized as “the Icelandic sexually-political refugees.”
The homosexual exile was not without pain, people had to say goodbye to their language and culture. But when these refugees started to come home again in the early eighties they became a very strong and influential gay group, bringing cosmopolitan gay culture to Iceland, where it mixes with the habits and culture of the nation in a strange but fascinating way.
The Icelandic gay society is small but very active and a ‘gay scene’ exists only in Reykjavík. There are lesbians and gay men all over Iceland but the only organized services for gay men and lesbians are in the capital and here they mix freely. The same goes for the Community Centre of Samtökin 78, so MSC Iceland, the leather club, is in fact the only place strictly reserved for males. A couple of bars and discos are ‘gay friendly’, open to straight people but chiefly catering to the gay crowd.
Some foreign gay men and the lesbians travelling to Iceland for the first time hardly know what to think of Reykjavík. One night you might feel you are in a busy gay club in Hamburg or Manchester but the next night you feel that you have landed in a small village in North-Dakota and you´ve lost your train-ticket! Reykjavík has many of the things you find in the metropolises of the world but as soon as the guest is starting to “feel at home” he or she is reminded that this is a small community, speaking the language their forefathers spoke thousand years ago, and in many ways like a big family of 280.000 people.
To enjoy life with this family you have to try to enjoy a rather strange mix: World culture, where and when it can be found, magnificent nature and some strange customs of a nation isolated for centuries. Icelandic culture is young and ancient at the same time. But if you come, armed with curiosity, you will feel at home before you know it.
(2) About Samtökin 78–One of Iceland’s LGBT Rights Organization
In the past 20 years Samtökin 78 have achieved much in making gay men and lesbians visible in Iceland and thus worked a lot against prejudices. Samtökin 78 have also ensured that gay men and lesbians in Iceland have more legal rights than most countries in the world.
Samtökin 78, The Organization of Icelandic Lesbians and Gay men, was formed in 1978. The founding members were 13 gay men. No lesbian was found to take part in the beginning and that says a lot about the situation back then. Today the members are 300 in total, both gay men and lesbians.
The founding committee had a problem because there was no acceptable word for homosexuality in the Icelandic language. The department of Icelandic Language at the University of Iceland was asked for help but found no solution. Today we use the words “hommi” (from the Greek “homos”) for gay men and “lesbía” (from the Greek Lesbos) for lesbians.
In the first years our small organization had to struggle to keep activities going. Constant lack of money made it hard to find adequate housing and our first place was literally underground: in a small basement room with only one window. At one time the organization was even based in the private home of the chairman. But in 1987 Samtökin 78 won support from the City Council of Reykjavík and could rent a small house at Lindargata 49. There the organization had its base until the end of last year (1998). And now, on the 20th anniversary, we have at last managed to buy our own place in the city center, at Laugavegur 3 (fourth floor). This was made possible by generous support of the City Council.
Today Samtökin ´78 get financial support both from the Icelandic Government and from the City of Reykjavík. There has also been a steady increase of membership, making all our work much easier. But we still have a lot of work to do and it seems that the number of projects increases faster than the number of members. The projects of Samtökin ´78 are many and different as they (along with FSS) fight for equal social rights and law reforms for gay men and lesbian in our country: Firstly, the organization attempts to create a cultural base to support the self-confidence of lesbians and gay men; secondly Samtökin ´78 fight for legal reforms for homosexual people; and thirdly the organization fights social injustice and prejudice by open discussion and information in schools.
(3) FSS is the GLBT association at the University of Iceland
FSS has also been very active in the gay rights struggle as well as Samökin 78. (The latter is sponsored by the City Council and the Government and have more resources to push for legal reforms.) According to one activist, FSS is the only group that openly welcomes bisexuals into their circle and works to educate people about bisexuality. They feel it’s important that bisexuals should live without fear of rejection from either the gay or straight community.
Here are their answers to frequently asked question about lesbigay live in Iceland.
When is gay pride in iceland?
Gay Pride in Iceland is usually held in August. You can get more information on the link www.this.is/gaypride.
Is it safe to be gay in Iceland?
In gay issues it´s safe to say that Iceland is a model Scandinavian country. Homosexuality is very well tolerated and the general public very enlightened and friendly. The nightlife can however get violent so it´s safest not to act provocatively -regardless if you´re gay or straight. Walking down Austurstræti hand-in-hand i at 3 in the morning can have some dire consequences. When in small villages in the country use caution if partying with locals.
Icelanders are not very used to seeing gay people (or straight people for that matter) holding hands in public. You might get looked at, but it will probably just be curious looks rather than frowns. Come to think of it, Icelanders don´t hold hands that much in public anyway.
What is the legal position of gay Icelanders?
Gay Icelanders have one of the best legislation’s in the world: legal age of consent is the same for everybody (14), gay couples can register their partnership and they can share custody over children. We have anti-discrimination laws which ban that we are refused to buy things or to be serviced on basis of sexual orientation and it is also forbidden to attack us in public by scorn,lies, humiliation, threat etc. because of our homosexuality.
Can foreigners get married in Iceland?
The laws regarding registered partnership are only valid for Icelandic citizens so at least one of the two has to have an Icelandic citizenship for a gay couple to get married in Iceland.
Can gay people adopt children in Iceland?
Yes and no. The Icelandic parliament has approved Step Adoption in Iceland. This allows a partner in a registered partnership to adopt the child of his/her partner. Currently the focus has shifted to gay and lesbian couples being able to adopt children “from scratch”. Full adoption rights is one of the most important human rights that gay people in Iceland are fighting for.
Is there a lot of tolerance for gay men and lesbians in Iceland?
Yes, the level of tolerance is quite good and it has been getting better with education and open discussion in recent years.
Is gay bashing frequent in Reykjavík?
No, gay bashing is not frequent but unfortunately there have been a few incidents. Samtökin 78 hear about 2-3 bad incidents every year.
Will the police persecute homosexuals in Iceland?
Are there any restrictions to HIV+ people coming to Iceland?
No. Information about service for HIV+ people is to be found in the chapter Health/HIV
How big is the gay scene in Iceland?
It is hard to tell but to say something it can be guessed that about 1000-1500 people make use of the gay services that are are offered in Reykjavík.
Where can I meet gay Icelandic guys/girls?
Iceland has one gay club called Spotlight (www.spotlight.is). It doubles as a café on weekday-evenings, and the dance-club is open on weekends. The crowd ranges from very mixed to mostly gay. At the time of this writing Spotlight is struggling with some drug-problems, so don´t be surprised if there are a couple of black sheep in the crowd.
The Icelandic GLB organisation, Samtokin 78 (www.samtokin78.is), doubles as a café/library on selected days of the week. See their homepage for more details. Fridays are usually designated for the Revolta youth group (www.run.to/revolta), technically open for anyone to the age of 27, but is mostly frequented by kids 22 and younger. They also have a women’s group KMK with their own email address and web site: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.geocities.com/konurmedkonum.
For those leather-oriented there’s a gay leather club called MSC opposite the old Icelandic Opera. It´s hidden in a damp, dark back alley and not for the faint of heart. Most popular with the 35-and-up year-old crowd (and an occasional stray sailor).
Online you can go to www.icelandicdate.com where you can systematically search for -and write to- gay, lesbian and bisexual Icelanders -free of cost!
You can also chat with icelanders on the Ircnet channel #gay.is. To chat on Irc you must have Mirc chat software, available free on www.mirc.com (Ircle for Mac users). You then connect to an ircnet server close to you and write: /j #gay.is
Keep in mind that Iceland’s gay scene is rather small and it´s no exaggeration to say that everyone knows everyone. Thus it´s advisable to choose your words carefully, especially when online.
How do you get to know Icelandic pen-pal?
The quickest way is to go into bulletin board and put in an ad. You can also e-mail to us on email@example.com and we will publish your advertisement in our newsletter.
Is there an Icelandic gay irc?
Yes. Gay men meet on gay.is and the lesbians talk on lesbians.is – on ircNET. On top of that we plan to have a chat-line here on our homepage.
(4) Political and Legal Rights for Lesbigays in Iceland
From the IGLA Site (http://www.ilga.org/Information/legal_survey/europe/iceland.htm)
1996: “Parliament in Iceland – the Althingi – has passed a law on the cohabitation of people of the same gender, so-called Registered Partnership. On 27 June, Gay Pride Day, Icelandic lesbians and gays gain the right to enter into marriage before the law. The minister of justice introduced the bill in parliament and while the new law is similar to those passed in Norway, Denmark and Sweden, it also gives gay couples joint custody of the children of either partner. Both partners then become the children’s guardians and should the natural parent die, the other partner the children’s step parent – automatically becomes their sole guardian. Nowhere have gay couples had such rights up to now.
Though a great victory has been won, the new law differs in some ways from the general laws on marriage. It does not permit the adoption of children by gay or lesbian couples, nor does it provide for the right to artificial insemination. In addition, the law only permits gay and lesbian couples to confirm their partnership in a civil ceremony; this in light of the Church of Iceland’s firm opposition to church marriages of gay and lesbian couples. The new law enjoys the support of all political parties represented in parliament and only one member voted against the bill which was introduced by the minister of justice, Thorsteinn Pálsson of the the conservative Independence Party which is Iceland’s largest political party.
A long and hard struggle preceded the present victory. A parliamentary motion protesting discrimination against lesbians and gays was first put to the Althingi in 1985 at the behest of Samtoekin ‘78. It did not pass due to the ‘non-importance of the matter’, to quote the parliamentary committee concerned. Times have changed, however, and following an increasingly open debate about homosexuality and homosexuals in the Icelandic media, attitudes have become more positive and have moved in the direction of greater tolerance. A new motion was put to parliament in 1992 and unanimously passed. A committee was set up to investigate the position of lesbians and gays in Iceland and to return an opinion that would become the basis for new legislation. Samtökin ‘78 had representatives on this committee. (Samtoekin 78 press release 22 June 1996, at ILGA Euroletter 43, August 1996)
ICELANDIC GAYS MARRY, PRESIDENT ATTENDS RECEPTION: 27-Jun-96:”Two gay-male couples and a lesbian couple got married at the Reykjavik registry office June 27, the day Iceland’s same-sex registered-partnership law came into effect … Following the weddings, a large reception was held in the lobby of the Reykjavik City Theater with none other than Icelandic President Vigdis Finnbogadottir as the guest of honor.” (RW/2362)
(5) A personal journey to Iceland by Reed Ide
As the Icelandair 757 thunders into the night sky that Friday, I have no second thoughts. I’m heading for Viking territory. It will be an adventure.
Iceland, an island nation roughly the size of Kentucky, sits at the top of the North Atlantic, its north coast brushing against the Arctic Circle. Because of frequent volcanic activity, and the fact that there are two glaciers covering much of the interior land, only about 21 percent of the island is considered habitable, almost all of it near the coast. The climate, however, is surprisingly moderate, because the gulf stream passes close to the southern shore. Winters in south Iceland can be milder than those in New York.
The plane flies northward through the night. Outside my window the Northern Lights constantly flare, shifting form and color. I land at Keflavik International airport just after 6 on Saturday morning. The sky is as dark as midnight. Dawn won’t come for another three hours. I board the “Flybus” for the 45-minute ride to Reykjavik, the nation’s capital.
Samtokin’78 and the ‘New’ Iceland
I begin my visit at the new headquarters of Samtokin ‘78 at Laugavegur 3 (photo right). This is the National Lesbian and gay rights organization of Iceland, located in the heart of Reykjavik’s main shopping district. I am in search of information, but I quickly discover that in the course of everyday life, this is the place to meet people and socialize as well. It is, in fact, the center of gay life as well as the official voice of the gay and Lesbian community in Iceland. Financial support comes primarily from the national and city governments.
I’m also in luck. Leading the work crew that is putting the finishing touches on the new space is Mathias Mathiasson, the organization’s director. He seems happy to drop his tools and talk with me. We sit in the library, a bright, cheerful room that contains over 2,000 books and videos relating to gay and lesbian life. Matti, as his friends call him, teaches high school psychology, and is also a systems manager at Reykjavik’s university. At 34, he is old enough to remember the darker days of oppression in Iceland.
For the past 12 years Iceland has had a growing reputation for tolerance and inclusion of Lesbians and gay men, but that has not come without a struggle. “It’s sad to say it, but it took the AIDS epidemic to create a turning point for gay and lesbian rights in Iceland,” he tells me. “Around 1987, when the epidemic really took hold here, the government began a national discussion. Through all the talk and debate, peoples’ attitudes began to change.” Before that time, he says, gay people had one choice if they wanted to live free from prejudice and hatred, and that was to live abroad.
Since 1987, there has been remarkable change. Siggi Eysteinsson is a 24-year-old gay man who is a regular at the Samtokin library and also at the café which the group operates at its headquarters. He came out at the age of 16, and promptly moved from the nearby town of Selfoss to Reykjavik. “Just before I came out, there really was a lot of discussion of homosexuality in Iceland,” he says. “Soon after that discussion started, Club 22 opened as a gay bar, and a magazine called Pink and Blue began publishing. Samtokin’78 also publishes a newsletter (cover photo below). All sex subjects were discussed in its pages, including homosexual sex. By the time I came out in 1991, Iceland had revolutionized. It’s basically very easy to be gay here today.”
And so it appears, although the shaping of gay life in Iceland has been markedly different from that which has happened in the large cities of Europe and the U.S. There is no gay ghetto (“We don’t want to live in a gay neighborhood,” says Matti. “There would be no gain. Gays here are very socially integrated.”). There are no gay baths. (“They’re too unsubtle,” says Siggi. “And we are, perhaps because of the size of our community, too gossipy. I couldn’t imagine sleeping with someone in the scene. Within a week everyone would know my penis size, how good I am in bed, and what my kinks are.”) Shops selling pornography are outlawed in Iceland (although Samtokin discreetly maintains a “backroom” collection from which people are free to borrow).
There are two dance bars that gays frequent in Iceland. Neither is 100 percent gay. (“A strictly gay bar won’t work here,” says Matti. “Most of us, most of the time, want to associate with a larger group of friends than just gay people.”)
Clearly, in Iceland, size is a consideration.
The country’s population is only 280,000 people, about half of whom live in or around the capital. Samtokin estimates the lesbian and gay population at the usual 10 percent, or 28,000. “Only around 5,000 of them are really completely out of the closet, I think,” says Matti. The gay community, has by necessity a more intimate feeling. It is, in fact, a reflection of the national ethos as well.
All this is not to say that there isn’t cruising, that there isn’t available sex. Foreign visitors, in fact are in high demand. They bring variety, different points of view, different styles to the party. “There is always the possibility for sex, and for sexual flirtation,” says Matti. “It’s just that visitors should be more relaxed, less energized here – more like they would be in a smaller town.”
Siggi is currently in a long-term relationship. He and his lover Matthew (a linguistics lecturer from the United Kingdom) plan to marry when Matt returns from a sabbatical in California. Matthew would like to be married in a church. But Siggi is not so sure. There are still pockets of homophobia in the Iceland’s dominant Evangelical Lutheran church. Regardless of where the ceremony takes place, family, friends, neighbors and the civil authorities will regard it as a legal marriage, extending to the couple all the legal rights (except adoption), expectations, and support accorded heterosexual couples.
I leave Matti to his work laying floor tiles in Samtokin’s new café. Outside, it is mid afternoon, Just across the harbor, the sun shines on mountains. But over the city a snow squall is underway. Its like that in Iceland. The weather can change within minutes.
Reykyavik on Foot
I begin to explore the city. It is small enough to get around on foot. That’s the best way to experience it. I turn away from the shopping street and walk up the hill to the Hallgrimskirkja, The church of Hallgrimur (photo right) named for a 17th century Icelandic poet who is still the nation’s most beloved bard. Designed in 1937, the church, with its modern lines and towering steeple, remains a controversial site. Arguments aside, it affords one of the best views of the city. An elevator whisks the visitor to the top where the bright colored roofs of Reykjavik lie below, huddled on the harbor peninsula. From this vantage point, the city looks more like an overgrown fishing village than a national capital.
In fact, that is often my impression on the ground as well. Small two and three-story homes line the narrow streets of downtown. Sheathed in corrugated iron, many are painted excruciatingly bright colors. An electric blue domicile shoulders itself assertively between one of crimson red and another of Halloween orange. It’s all quite cheerful in a land where the sun is in the sky for just few hours each day in the dead of winter.
I turn back onto Laugavegur, the shopping street. There are no department stores in Reykjavik. Shopping is done in small specialty shops and boutiques. Casual clothes are sold in one shop, dress clothes in another. Icelanders are very style conscious, and the establishments on Laugavegur carry the latest of European fashion. The street offers an eclectic mix of stores, and a thorough examination of the shops (and their customers) can take the better part of an afternoon.
Nightlife on the Weekend
Having been forewarned about the strenuous weekend nightlife, I choose a nap over dinner before taking to the dark streets. For that I will have a guide, Vertulidi Gudnason (aka Erik), the Secretary of MSC Iceland, Reykjavik’s leather club. He has volunteered to steer me through the evening’s festivities. We meet at the group’s new clubhouse, a small intimate room accessed through a candlelit courtyard (Bankastræti 11, entrance from Ingolfsstæti, opposite the Opera-house). Being a visitor, I have been excused from the dress code (In fact non-leather guests are often welcomed at this, the only exclusively male space in gay Iceland).
The group publishes a monthly newsletter, and sponsors regular social events and theme nights. Its members also organize an annual summer Leather Summit gathering, and invite leather clubs from throughout Europe The clubhouse is only open on Saturday nights, and closes at 1 a.m., giving people time to visit the two other gay spaces in the city before they close at 2:00.
I am ready to sleep (Jet lag remains, and I must be up at 8:30 in the morning for a trip into the Icelandic countryside). But my protests are overruled. We head for Club Spotlight (Hverfisgata 8-10) , a predominantly gay and Lesbian disco. A brightly lit bar, a room with tables set up for conversation and a separate room with a dance floor define the physical space of this very pleasant club. We sit at a table. Two men, boyfriends (at least for the night), sit down next to me. The one nearest me puts one arm around his friend and they kiss passionately. At the same time, his other hand is working at the front of my pants. As Siggi says later, Icelandic men, when they are drunk, will do just about anything. The next morning they won’t know who you are.
Our last stop is Club 22 (Laugavegur 22), the most popular place for gays and Lesbians to meet, to drink, and to dance. This is also a mixed venue, with straights and gays happily coexisting and mingling together. A small bar with table seating is on the ground floor. Upstairs is the more crowded disco bar.
Here I meet Ingi Hauksson., the club’s manager and also the chairman of the Icelandic AIDS Organization. He is a friend of my faithful guide Erik. The bar closes. We remain, talking until 4:00. The city is crowded as I walk to my hotel. Boisterous young men and amorous couples fill the sidewalks. Cars jam the streets. No one feels any pain. But then, neither do I. Every weekend the ritual repeats. The bars fill up. The people get drunk (Cheap vodka is preferred over the more expensive beer which has only been legal in Iceland for 10 years). The bars close. The party continues all night in the street.
At 4:30 my queen size bed at the Hotel Borg looks very inviting. At 4:40 I am no longer aware of the bed. At 8:00 I am painfully aware of my head. But I’m ready when the bus arrives at 8:30 to take me out into the wilderness of rural Iceland.
In the remaining days I have to explore Reykjavik, I continue to discover a city of contrasts. In some neighborhoods I feel like I could be in a small Maine coastal village. In the city center heavy traffic, taxis, busses, and crowds dash the illusion. The city first developed around Tjörnin, the lake in the center of town. On the northern side is Reykjavik’s modern City Hall.
Nearby is the National Gallery, where you can view the work of some of Iceland’s best artists. There are several other excellent museums in the city which will quickly show the American visitor how little we know of Scandinavian art and cultural development. Iceland’s National Museum (Su<eth>urgata 41) will lead you through the story of the country’s history and Norse culture. The Kjarvalssta<eth>ir (Miklatún Park) contains an extensive collection of the works of Iceland’s most popular artist, Jóhannes Kjarval.
But Reykjavik is not just about museums. My walk along the harbor front reveals the extent to which the city (and the country) relies on the fishing industry. I take two mornings to discover the joys of outdoor winter swimming. There are six public swimming pools in Reykjavik, and their water comes from wells deep below the earth’s surface. Some of these wells produce water that is 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Pool temperatures are maintained at about 85 degrees. It is important to note that Icelanders are extremely conscious of cleanliness at their public pools. A thorough shower is required of all before swimming. They are very aware of Americans who jump out of their clothes, into their suits and into the water. Those who do this invite hostility from their hosts.
My first swim stop is Vesturbaejarlaug, (Hofsvallagata). This outdoor pool, located in the western section of the city, also has a sauna (heavily frequented by gays, especially on weekends), and three jacuzzi-like “hot pots” each maintained at a different temperature (the hottest being around 110 degrees). The weather is stormy. Snow and sleet fall. The pool is warm, womb-like. After a half-hour in the three hot pots, I feel nothing as I walk back to the locker room in 20 degrees and blowing snow.
The second pool I visit is Sundhöllin (Barónsstígur). With it’s old-style decor of white tiles, Sundhöllin is the only indoor public pool in Reykjavík, located in the center of the city in back of the Hallgrimskirkja. The pool is divided in half lengthwise, creating space for both the serious lap swimmer and the recreational swimmer. The hot pot here is outside, and is of a milder temperature than those at Vesturbaejarlaug.
The largest swimming pool in the city is Laugardalslaug (Laugardalur). A full 50 meters in length, it offers the most extensive facilities. A bus ride is recommended to reach it; use the Number 5 or 9 bus.
On my last night in Reykjavik, I return to Club 22. The upstairs disco is closed. Downstairs, the bar is quiet. It will be until the weekend “begins” on Thursday. I move on to Samtokin ‘78. Here there is life! The café, its tile floor now complete, is doing a brisk business. People are gathered in small groups around the candle-lit tables. In the library, people sit reading, playing cards, just talking. Matti is there, watching over the tribe. Siggi emerges from one room, goes to the check-out desk of the library, two porno videos from the clandestine collection in hand. (He smiles. “What’s a guy to do when his boyfriend is in California?”)
Matti takes me aside in the café. Some last words from the chief. He’s just gotten off the phone, talking with someone who wants a member of the group to speak at a social workers’ conference. “For free!” says Matti. “I asked her if her group paid other speakers and she said they did. But we, because we represent a ’cause’, should speak for free. Gays, I guess, should just be happy for the opportunity to speak.”
And the outcome? “I told her no money, no talk.” Even in Iceland, the fight goes on.
The Iceland Outback
No visit to Iceland would complete without at least a glimpse at the raw nature of this island nation. One of the easiest and most pleasant ways to accomplish this is by taking a bus trip from Reykjavik. There are several tour companies operating in the capital city that will take the visitor on trips ranging from a few hours to a full day or more — from a city tour of Reykjavik to an air trip to a village in Neighboring Greenland.
I choose Reykjavik Excursions, a company that offers over 20 different trips, all designed to suit varied interests and time schedules. The trip I have selected is The Golden Circle, one of the company’s most popular for Iceland virgins like myself. At 8:30 Sunday morning, following a Saturday night I can only describe as frenetic, I am awake, though certainly not running on all cylinders. A van meets me at my hotel and takes me to the central gathering point for the beginning of what, in my debilitated condition, I see as a ten-hour endurance test of sight-seeing.
Within minutes of leaving the city limits, the almost-too-comfortable bus begins a climb into the mountains. The wind picks up. Snow begins to fall. The road narrows, and curves its way to the top, then down the other side. Once in the valley, we make our first stop. Never have I been happier to see a tourist trap on my horizon. (It is the only one we will visit.) It consists of a greenhouse where tropical plants are thriving (Iceland grown most of its vegetables in geothermally heated greenhouses like this.), a shop selling all manner of Icelandic souvenirs, and — miracle of miracles — a restaurant that sells COFFEE !! Sometimes there is God.
Back on the bus I am feeling nearly human again. We leave the mountains well behind, and enter an other-worldly landscape. Our tour guide tells us that American astronauts came to Iceland to prepare for their moonwalks. Lava fields stretch in every direction, and vegetation consists mainly of lichens and scattered scrub pine and willow bushes. After we pass the town of Selfoss, we see only scattered farms, occasionally a cluster of three or four houses. Small Icelandic horses roam the fields.
The road narrows again, and the snow outside falls in heavy squalls. Still the bus presses on. (In a car, I would have turned back.) Trucks appear, laying down crushed lava to provide traction for intrepid travelers.
By noon, we reach one of the highlights of the day, Gullfoss(the Golden Falls), Iceland’s most famous and picturesque waterfall. Here the river Hvitá drops nearly 100 feet in two falls. Flying sleet and snow cause the guide to caution us against a walk to the edge of the falls. Few of us pay any attention. I pull up the hood on my parka and lower my head in the wind, looking up only long enough to track my progress down the icy path. There are no protective railings at the edge. Our group reaches the promontory at the edge of the largest section of the falls. The roar of water drowns out speech. The mist from the falls freezes on my eyebrows.
Just seven miles down the road, we encounter another of nature’s extremes at Geysir, the place from which all geysirs in the world take their name. There’s no icy glacial river water here. Instead, we see about a dozen bubbling “cauldrons” in the earth. One of them, Strokkur, is one of Iceland’s primary attractions, spouting approximately once every three to five minutes, sending a column of super-heated water and steam 60 to 100 feet in the air.
After lunch at Geysir, the bus moves on again. The snow has abated by the time we arrive at Ingvellir National Park, an almost sacred historic site for Icelandic people. It was here, in the year 930 the Aling (Iceland’s Parliament) was established. It is the oldest Parliament in Europe.
Here also, we stand on the Great Divide. Here the North American continent and the European continent are drifting apart, and the visitor can see where the ground is sinking in the middle. Ages from now, this area too will erupt in fire and lava. We are in an awesome wilderness. Civilization seems worlds away. There is only the bus, we tourists, an enormous frozen lake, and flat scrub land as far as we can see. It’s starkness is its beauty.
The bus stops for refreshments, and later we visit a small cathedral built at Skálholt, the site of what, centuries ago, was the center of Iceland’s cultural life. By 6:30 we are back in Reykjavik. I am surprised at my stamina. Next time I’ll take a more daring trip, perhaps one onto the glacier, complete with an Icelandic buffet meal set up on the ice.
Iceland Resources (also from Reed Ide)
Transportation: From the continental U.S. Icelandair is the only airline flying to Reykjavik. Fortunately, it enjoys an excellent reputation — comfortable seats, above average food, and helpful staff both on the ground and on board. The airline flies from sever east coast and midwest cities, and offers special fares and arrangements for those visiting Iceland and then flying on to other European destinations. Their web address is: http://www.icelandair.is/global
Travel Information: The Iceland Tourist Board, with an American office in New York City, is extremely helpful in providing travel information and brochures. Their web address is: http://www.icetourist.is. Their address in New York is 655 Third Avenue
USA-New York, N.Y. 10017. Telephone: (212) 885-9747 or (212) 885-9700.
Information on gay Iceland: There are two web sites that will be of interest to the gay traveler. Samtokin ’78 maintains a site at http://www.gayiceland.com/reykjavik. The leather organization MSC has a web site at http://www.itn.is/~msc/index.html. For information on Lesbian life and activities, send e-mail in advance to Samtokin ’78 at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guide to Iceland: The best, most comprehensive guidebooks about Iceland are the Insight Guide to Iceland and the Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland available in bookstores or from either Barnes & Noble (www.barnesandnoble.com) or Amazon (www.amazon.com)
Staying Overnight: There are several fine hotels in Reykjavik, although most of them tend to be away from the center. The Hotel Borg, however, is located on Posthustraeti right in the center of town. It is the city’s oldest hotel and is spacious and comfortable. There is one gay guest house in the city. Room With a View is located at Laugavegur 18 (telephone: 354-552-7262), right in the heart of the gay weekend nightlife. (http://www.purpleroofs.com/listingpictures/r/roomwithaview.html)
(6) Pall Oskar, Musician
Páll Óskar: out of the closet at sixteen, Iceland’s top pop star at 25. Good looks. Engaging personality. Five CDs, all selling well. International performances. A bright future.
He grew up in a family that both encouraged his musical talent and taught him that adult relationships are abusive, that men are angry, unpredictable. The youngest of seven children, he spent much of his childhood singing in choirs and in media commercials. The rest of those years he spent watching his parents fight and coping with the taunts of his school-mates.
“My nickname was Little Palli,” he recalls. “And Palli was chubby, nerdy, someone who never got jokes right, who was afraid of other men.” Then came the knowledge that he held a fearsome secret. “I knew I was gay, or at least that I found other guys attractive from thirteen — the age I started jerking off and having fantasies … about other men!”
At 16, he found the courage to visit the sauna at one of Reykjavik’s public swimming pools. “I was 14 when I realized the sauna at the West End pool was gay,” he says. It took me two years to get there.” What he found dismayed him: “a bunch of older men desperately masturbating while I sat there. It pissed me off.”
It was the beginning of the emergence of the adult Páll Óskar. He came out to his family at once. “For the first day, there was nice talk of acceptance, though my father did raise his voice. On the second day, and the third, and the fourth, there was this terrible silence. They treated me like an alien.”
There was no holding him back. At 19, he began appearing in drag shows, earning the cheers and admiration of Iceland’s gays. He began singing again, something he had not done since puberty robbed him of his angelic soprano voice.
In 1993, Páll released his first CD, titled simply Stu. There have been four more since then. Collectively, they demonstrate the breadth of his musical range and interests, and include disco, house and tecno, ballads, Burt Bacharach-esque love songs, and traditional Icelandic songs.
In 1997 he was Iceland’s entrant in the annual 36-country Eurovision Song Contest. It is the region’s single biggest musical competition, broadcast live throughout Europe. It has been an important platform for artists like Celine Dion, Julio Iglesias and ABBA. Pall performed his song backed by four women dressed in latex, playing suggestively on a sofa behind him. His audacious presentation gained him wide attention, especially in gay enclaves. That attention allowed him to take his music beyond the shores of Iceland.
At home in Reykjavik, he often finds himself on radio and TV shows. He has a reputation for being brash, forthright, even rude when it comes to discussing gay concerns, especially gay sex. “He says things I could never say,” notes Matti Mathiasson, the Director of Samtokin ’78, the national gay and lesbian rights group. “But he is an exquisite addition to the gay voice in Iceland.”
And Pall’s personal life? “I have a lot of work still to do. I have had three relationships that, from the outside, looked picture perfect, I suppose. But they were actually quite rotten and false, abusive to me. What I am doing now is learning to fall in love with myself.”
Iceland seems a small place for a man of Pall’s ambition. He realizes that, “as a working place Iceland will be too small for me. Actually, it already is. But I am an Icelander. I will always keep a home here. My roots are so valuable to me. I wouldn’t change them for a sack of gold.”
(7) Another well known and respected gay Icelandic artist is the playwright Felix Bergsson, author of the play, ‘The Perfect Equal’ and a ‘kiddie’ celebrity on Iceland TV. He and the play are profiled by QX online magazine at http://www.anok.is/fb/reviews.html