(1) Gay Sweden: Stockholm’s Queer-Marriage Wonder Room

On the second floor of Stockholm’s huge brick city hall–looming tall and red over a shimmering waterfront–is a modest chamber, a circular room walled with rich embroidered tapestries, a polished marble floor and replete with a Baccarat chandelier. It’s a room like no other-outside Holland and Scandinavia. This is the city’s formal wedding parlor for Swedish citizens-gay or straight.

As half of an  American gay couple, I eagerly anticipated seeing this privileged sanctuary. I imagined the ascent up the gracefully wide marble steps as our own ‘down the aisle’ sweep toward ‘registered partnership’ status. In Sweden gay marriage is equal with straight marriage–a legislated right now extended to all Swedish gay and lesbian couples.

We were part of a small English-speaking tour group being escorted around the enormous art-nouveau chambers of city hall. The stunning cathedral-like city council chamber’s ceiling is open-beamed and soars nearly a hundred feet up to an ethereal sky-and-cloud painted ceiling. The cavernous entry hall with its huge painted murals–and nude figures–is the scene of the annual Nobel Prize award ceremony, one of the most prestigious awards in the world.

As we neared the marriage chamber, our very English-fluent red-headed guide announced in a sweet high voice, “and now we are about to enter a very special place,” as she pointed to the heavy arched oak doors ahead of us. “This is the room where couples come every week to say ‘I do’. Since there are usually twenty or twenty-five couples anxious to say those words they are only allowed to have a ceremony that lasts no more than three minutes!”

As our little group approached the door and my mind prepared to savor the romantic ambience, our serenity was scattered by the noisy bustling tromping of a hurried Japanese busload of eager and on-time tourists, each tagged with similar yellow baseball caps atop crops of jet black hair. This was obviously their Stockholm-on-Tuesday whirl, kept in tempo by their fast-paced fast-talking guide who clattered a brief description of the ancient tapestries and the chandelier (in Japanese) with, I assume, a cursory comment about the ‘marriage room’.

I doubt she mentioned, as our leader did after the whirlwind had moved on, that “here also homosexual couples can have a ceremony as well.” It was sweetly said yet deliberately. I noticed a slightly surprised yet approving reaction from others in our group (who appeared very straight and very married) as we left the colorful chamber. The moment was made brighter by October sunshine pouring in from the room’s only window overlooking a brilliant crisp morning on Stockholm’s harbor front ringed with storybook architecture.

It was, and remains, for me, a lighted moment, perhaps even noble, charged with bright optimism for the future of what LGBT people can aspire to and achieve when unencumbered by bigotry and racial, religious or political zealotry. A quiet room, a three minute ceremony before two witnesses attesting to the affection and communion of two lovebirds. The simplicity is both ‘palpable and mute’.

Afterwards, queer newlyweds usually go off to a bit of celebration and partying and then on to much domestic grinding away at the work of intimacy, problem solving, and the countless watch-maker details of maintaining compatibility across the bracing and withering years. Lovely images, eh? And a great place to start.

Gay Life and History

The marriage chamber was one part of our visit to Stockholm and the surrounding area before we headed out across Sweden, Finland and Norway in our peppy rented Renault. (See Gay Norway and Gay Finland on this site.) The country is a vast wilderness of forests, lakes and rivers in the north, with the majority of cities scattered mostly in the southern third of the country. From the bleak coal fields of Kiruna north of the Arctic Circle to the industrial automobile factories of Malmo far away in the south on the North Sea, the Nordic culture of Sweden has been among the most progressive societies in dealing with human rights.

One night we dined with a bi-racial gay couple, Pelle and Wilson, (right) in their spacious apartment in Stockholm. They also invited four of their best friends, two straight couples, and we spent the evening parsing out American and Swedish politics, sexuality, marriage and parenting. For each American homophobic law or policy there seemed to be a Swedish antidote that sounded so intelligent and fair: gay marriage is available with full spousal rights, gays in the military is non-issue, sex education includes gender-neutral gay and straight sex education in public schools. Homophobia is illegal and thankfully the protestant Lutheran church in Sweden is subject to the civil laws of the state so the anti-gay attitudes of the church hierarchy are well muffled.

The following night we were onboard the restaurant ship ‘Patricia’ for the weekly gay night. It was packed with groups and couples of all ages. Despite the smokey air the dining rooms were cheerily filled with boisterous conversation and bursts of laughter. The companionship was intense and it was hard to contrast my recollections of closeted Russia, only a couple of hundred miles away, to the over-the-top and comfortably-out city of Stockholm. In fact, we briefly talked with a young couple, Sasha and Leo, (below) from the northern Russian city of Archangelsk (in Russian Karelia). They were wide-eyed and giddy amid the energy aboard ship that night. They had come on student visas but their real course was to gain working permits that would allow them long-term status. “There is no gay life for us back home. We must be here for living a good life,” said Ilya. But of course that’s easier said than done.

The next day we saw them again in the upstairs library of the RFSL headquarters, the main LGBT organization in Sweden. They were meeting with a advisor for guidance on how to proceed with applications for alien residence. Despite the government’s strong stance in favor of human rights, the country cannot afford to contain every discontent foreign resident, gay or not. A major protest was mounted in 1998 when the courts refused asylum to a gay Iranian man, claiming that since he could hide his sexual orientation he was not in danger. (His boyfriend had been executed.) Because of the outcry and opposition to the decision a review was ordered and the man, Fahrad Miran, was granted permanent residence permit by The Swedish Aliens Appeals Board on 21 September 1999. See the news report at here (#1) on this site.

A few days later in Uppsala, the university city north of Stockholm, we dined on thick steak and potatoes with activist Bjorn Skolander (photo right) who was scornful of the inconsistent asylum policies exercised in Sweden toward foreigners, especially gay immigrants. “If you are harassed or your life is threatened by the Russian mafia you can’t get asylum here. But if the police–the government–threaten you, you can (maybe) get asylum. It is unfair and inadequate and discriminatory. It’s a policy about politics, not human rights. A life at risk is not the central issue–it’s who wants to kill you that they decide about!” We had met Bjorn first in Stockholm where he was the curator of the LGBT archives at the RFSL center. As a professor of linguistics and literature he had a rich store of knowledge about Sweden’s history and the development of human rights laws in Europe and Scandinavia.

In Sweden homosexuality was decriminalized in 1944 and has had gay associations since the 1950’s that were focused and well organized. This enabled them to lobby politicians that led to vigorous public debates in the 70’s about the rights of homosexual citizens. In the early 80’s a five year study was made regarding many LGBT issues which led to protective laws regarding domestic partnerships and discrimination. This reform momentum was also influenced by other Nordic countries, led by Denmark and Holland where liberal and democratic thought had been traditional for hundreds of years

Gay Sweden is a good story but of course not all stories are completely happy. Before we left Uppsala we went to the churchyard cemetery where Dag Hammarskjold is buried. He was Secretary General of the United Nations in the late 1950’s and was known in discreet circles to be gay. However he was killed in a mysterious plane crash in Africa in 1961. Some of his intimates claim his plane was sabotaged because of his sexual orientation. As is often the case in high-stakes politics the unacknowledged the truth was buried with him. A recent biography that acknowledges his sexuality can be read here.

(2) Gay Sweden through a Teen’s Eyes

They say that Sweden is the most Americanized country in the world, with the States as a worthy runner up. That’s true. Everything that you can get in the USA you can get here, including the fast food chain of your choice, and every thinkable American soap-show.

So how is it to live as a teenager in Sweden? Good. How is it to live as a gay teenager in Sweden? Good. Sweden has always been rather liberal, and gay people are fully accepted as a part of every day society. The National Swedish Society for Homosexuals and Bisexuals (RFSL) was founded in 1950, one of the first in the world. In 1944, homosexual relationships between people over 18 was legalized, although homosexuality officially was considered a psychological disease until 1979.

In 1978, the same age of consent (15) for both heterosexual and homosexual relationships was granted, and in 1987 a law against discrimination against homosexuals was introduced. And so at last in 1995, homosexual couples were granted the right to marry in a civil marriage conducted by a marriage conductor and includes the exchange of wedding rings. It’s called registered partnership. Today in 2010 if you wish you can also get a church marriage.

But rules and regulations don’t change the opinion of the common human being, so of course there are always people who dislike homosexuals and bisexuals and their rights and organizations. For example when the partnership registration case was voted for in parliament, the members of the right wing Moderates and the Christian Democrats unanimously voted against it.

And of course the church with the bishop in the lead disliked the whole thing. One of the politicians in the Christian Democratic Party, a woman named Chatrine Pålsson, said that the right for gay people to marry was an “egoistic right” (I guess she skipped her morning coffee and cigarette that day).

Of course, you still get some harassment, and some people have been tragically killed for their sexual preference, but with the new openness it’s getting better. Sweden is a densely populated country, and the cities are rather few. RFSL try to help all, with branches over the country, cafes and so on. They organize special events and evenings for youths or seniors, for example.

Everyone needs role models, and there are many famous people over here that have come out with their homosexuality, becoming “idols” to others who haven’t found their identity or don’t dare to come out. One of the most famous directors, writers and comedians, Jonas Gardell, is gay and together with his boyfriend, Mark Levengood, popular children’s TV and radio program leader, has achieved status as the “state queer couple” here in Sweden. Gardell’s latest film “Pensionat Oskar” (Boarding-hotel Oskar) stars Sweden’s most famous opera singer as he gets totally swept off his feet by a gorgeous young man! It’s currently showing at various film festivals in the USA and Canada.

We have actors like Rikard Wolff, who played a somewhat mystical man, at least bisexual in two films, that have become almost classics. He caused a small scandal when a song on his last CD was entitled “Vackra pojkar, vackra män” (Beautiful boys, beautiful men). Other artists includes the Group “Army of Lovers”, who became famous also outside Sweden, and one of the most popular female singers Eva Dahlgren. She caused a huge scandal together with Efva Attling (also singer), when Attling left her husband (also popular singer) to marry Dahlgren! They now live together. TV-personalities as the late Jacob Dahlin and children’s TV Karin Gidfors, famous writers as Anna-Karin Granberg and Louise Boije af Gennäs, who is also the co-writer to Sweden’s most famous soap-show, and the top-politician Andreas Carlgren have all contributed to help young people not sure of their identity have people to admire and follow. And they have also helped to contribute to the acceptance and understanding of homosexuality and homosexuals.

I hope you get a little clearer picture of how the situation in Sweden is. My column may sound a bit impersonal. Next time, I will have made room for a bit more of my own reflections and thoughts.

(3) Coming Out: Even in Sweden It’s Not so easy

The course of any society does not run smoothly in a continuous homogenous line. Coming out is rarely a delight celebrated by Swedish heterosexual families. So it was for young Johan, an Internet friend I encountered in the process of reaching out for his gay identity, gay friends and first puppy love. Here are some of his thoughts as he wrote in response to my questions.

Q: Have you told your parents yet? Who did you tell first?

A: Yea. I thought my mother would take it good but she didn’t…she wanted me to go
to a shrink…I didn’t have to but she forbid me to meet other gay persons. She first thought I was kidding but then she just thought I was having some puperty problems (don’t know if you spell it that way). She is not religious and doesn’t think I’m sinful (I hope). My mother and sister told me not to tell my father, not now anyway.

She respects homosexuality but not if her son is one. She told me that I wasn’t going to see them. Sometimes I said I was going to a party or sleeping over a friends house as an excuse but she found out I wasn’t. She said that my father wondered what I was doing. She said she had
high blood pressure that she was so worried.

If I told my father I don’t know what would happen….anything could. I don’t know what’s the best or worst thing my father would do but I wouldn’t be surprised if the threw me out. I think he would be very sad. He thinks HS people only are trouble–just as long they keep them to themselves.

(A month later Johan wrote:) Last week I found a web site where you look for friends and partners you like (in Swedish) mostly for gay persons. My father saw it when I went
with our dog to the vet and I left my computer on. Also he heard my mobile phone
and answered it. When i got back home my computer was turned off so I guess he saw it…(maybe he didn’t?).

Q: I’m a little surprised your father is anti-gay. I thought Swedish people were open to gay people.

A: No I don’t think it’s something in Swedish culture. I think it’s the
generation he’s from…back then it was something that didn’t really exist but
now it’s common and he doesn’t what to know about it.

Q: When did you first realize you were gay?

A: I first started to wonder about if I was gay in the 8th grade…hmmm…14-15 years old. I knew I’m gay because I’m attracted to men. The first one I told was my best friend and he is the only friend who knows and he didn’t care if I like boys. Our relationship didn’t change either.

Q: Are you afraid to come out because people might act badly to you?

A: Yes it does happen, gays are attacked, mostly by gangs or neo-Nazis. Sorry to say but we have a couple of those here in Sweden. I have not been teased because the only ones who
know are one of my friends, my mom and sister and those I have been with sexually. I know I’m gay because I’m attracted to men and I’m in love with one already.

Q: You are in love already?

A: Well I think I am. I met this wonderful person who I just can’t stop thinking about. It has been I while since I saw him last time. My parents are going away for a week in November so I will have the opportunity to meet him a lot without some mother coming in my way.

(At last report, three years later, Johan was going to college and living with his boyfriend in Uppsala.)

by Justin Lundsten
August 1997
©1997 Oasis Magazine

Also see:
Gay Sweden News & Reports 1999 to present
Gay Sweden Photo Gallery