The holiday edition of our interview series flies us to a place where it’s (almost) always winter. One of the most popular travel destinations, Iceland is famous not only for its jaw-dropping landscape, but - in our circles - also for ex-prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir,the world’s first openly lesbian head of state.
But let’s be honest, we don’t know much about the country, really. That’s why Ásta from Reykjavik is here to give us a taste of the real Iceland.
Thank you for being here, Ásta. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir and I live in Reykjavík, Iceland, with my girlfriend Ibolya. I'm a proof-reader and part-time teacher at the University of Iceland, I'm about to finish a PhD in Icelandic literature, with special focus on queer sexuality, and I also work with other lesbian and queer scholars on LGBTIQ+ history projects.
I did volunteer work for Reykjavik Pride for seven years, mostly parade management but I also organised educational events. Now I sometimes volunteer for Samtökin '78 (the National Queer Organisation in Iceland) and my special favourite is a book club we founded last spring!
Oh, I also love hiking and travelling. And my dog. And wine and coffee.
Travelling, animals, and coffee - I couldn’t argue with any. So, you live in Iceland, a country many people are fascinated by lately. Tell us about how it feels to live there as an LGBTQ+ person.
Icelandic society was very homophobic in the 1980s and early 90s, but for some unknown (probably several) reason it took a big U-turn and now it is very accepting, especially to gays and lesbians. Other groups, like trans and intersex people, still face prejudice and discrimination, but we see progress there too. We have good legislation for same-sex couples, the law on marriage has for example been gender-neutral since 2010, and same-sex couples have the same right to have children, adopt, etc. as others.
We are now waiting for a new legislation that will give protection and rights to trans and intersex people. The new government has promised to do it, so we hope for the best.
That sounds pretty great.
Yes, I think generally it is very good to live here as an LGBTIQ+ person, although I can only talk about my own experience as a lesbian. I've never really experienced violence or serious prejudice.
I face ignorance and conservative views, yes, and there are always some trolls online, but people are usually accepting. It is becoming more and more common to see people not automatically assuming that everyone is heterosexual, and that makes me happy. It also makes me happy that people are coming out earlier than before. I think the youngest kids in the youth group at the National Queer Organisation are around 11 years old!
Impressive. Now what’s the situation in Reykjavík?
In Reykjavík, and in Iceland in general, you often see same-sex couples holding hands and kissing on the streets, and I have a feeling that gays and lesbians, once they have come out, usually don't feel they need to hide their sexuality from their co-workers or school mates (I could be wrong though). There are more and more kids now who have two (or more) moms or dads and I think the generation that is growing up not will see that almost as a normal thing.
Things are much more complicated for trans and intersex people, of course, and bi and pan people too, but altogether Reykjavík is a relatively safe city.
Safe it is then, but how easy it is to socialize over there?
Hah, here it comes. Reykjavík may sound like a lesbian paradise, but when it comes to social life it is not! There are just 330.000 people living on the whole island, 2/3 of them in the Reykjavík area, and then there are tourists, but still this place is tiny. There is one queer club, and it's usually half-full of straight people, and no queer cafés or bars. Most cafés and bars are relatively queer friendly, which is good, but that does not help you find your people.
The best place to meet other LGBTIQ+ people is probably the National Queer Organisation, because they have events almost every night during the week. Or the Internet (Tinder worked well for me!). There are also other associations, for example Trans Iceland, Intersex Iceland, the queer student organisation, etc.
Finally, it is a major goal for qLit to help increase visibility for the Hungarian LGBTQ+ (specifically lesbian*) community, so we put a large emphasis on coming out. Can you share a funny, memorable, or inspirational coming out stories of yours?
I was 25 when I came out to myself. Until then I just thought I was an unfortunate and misunderstood straight woman. I had never been in a relationship (and never had good sex) and I thought I would probably be best off alone. Then one night I went to a party and later out to a bar, and at some point during the night I realized that I was feeling very weird about one of the girls who was there. It was like somebody just switched on the lights and it came to me: “Okay, so I'm a lesbian!” I dragged another friend to the bathroom and told her, and she was really happy and excited for me, and I decided that if I still felt this way when I had sobered up the next day, then this was probably happening. A few weeks later I started telling my family and friends about this new revelation. Nothing ever happened between me and the girl though, and she still does not know that she changed my life. I have so much to thank her for.
Coming out to my family was a bit stressful, even though I had nothing to worry about. It's just always hard to tell them something like this. You are afraid that they will misunderstand you and not be fully supportive and so on. And sometimes they are not, but often they just need time to process things.
Back then I lived with my grandma and my aunt on a farm in the North of Iceland, and I chose to tell them a couple of minutes before my friend came to pick me up. "Eeeerrrmmm... I have to tell you something. I'm a lesbian. OK, she's here, I need to go. Bye!" My aunt never said anything but she has always been nice and fully supportive. My grandma was also silent, but later that night I dared to ask her what she thought of what I'd told her. "Oh honey”, she said. "This could have been so much worse. You could have been taking drugs!" She meant this in the best possible way, and this is one of my sweetest memories of her. She was a little bit worried about my future, I think, but then she saw that I was happier and felt better than before, and she was happy for me.
Thanks a lot, Ásta. I am sure you inspired some of us in the community to pay you a visit in Reykjavík.
We have reached the last interview of 2017. I hope you enjoyed our journey all around the world, from Brazil, through Mexico, to the Netherlands and Macedonia. We’ll be back next year with new stories and new inspirations from all corners of the world.
Happy New Year! ¡Feliz Año Nuevo! Feliz Ano Novo! Gledilegt nýtt ár! Gelukkig nieuwjaar! Среќна Нова Година Boldog Új Évet!