It’s another of those foibles about the place that difficult to fathom, considering how conservative Icelanders tend to be about so much else. But in anything to do with sexual mores and politics, like much of the rest of the Nordic region, Iceland is pretty liberal and down-to-earth.
I now live in Britain and have seen the news reports of the hand-wringing and the bigotry over the issue of same-sex marriage bill that the House of Commons passed last week, albeit with many abstentions and a sizeable vote against, which throws the laid-back Icelandic attitude into sharp relief. This has been a painful process in Britain, as it has in France where there has been a similar backlash against proposals to put everyone on the same footing regardless of their orientation. It has divided political parties, caused uproar in the church and presented middle England with yet another vision of liberal hell. Anyone would think that this means the end of marriage as we know it, as with all those gays flocking to tie the knot, the traditional style of man-woman marriage will become debased and worthless.
Well, Iceland has been there already, and if Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells is reading this, let me assure you that that’s not the way it needs to be. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal in Iceland since the law banning homosexuality was repealed in 1940, almost thirty years before the same thing finally happened in Britain. Civil partnerships had already been in existence for a good while before same sex marriages became legal in 2010 and nobody really noticed. That’s not quite true… a lot of couples took the opportunity to tie the knot and have a party, even travelling from other parts of the world to be married in Iceland. It would be truer to say that hardly anybody turned a hair. It was all no big deal. There was no big debate when the bill on legalising equal marriage went before Parliament, and it was passed unanimously without any fuss or bother.
You can hear a woman say ‘I’ll ask my wife about that,’ and nobody takes a blind bit of notice, just as when a man might mention something about his husband. It’s accepted and entirely matter-of-fact. Again, no big deal.
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is the world’s first openly gay prime minister and while she’s not as popular as she was a few years ago, nobody makes an issue of her sexuality. When she was elected her orientation was well known and it wasn’t an issue. A female prime minister who’s married to a woman; so what? The foreign press made far more of it than anyone in Iceland did.
Reykjavík has a bustling, colourful Gay Pride march that takes over part of the city each August and has become a spectacle with a carnival atmosphere, fronted by the city’s straight mayor, normally in drag, complete with lipstick and carrying a handbag, but last year in a dress and a Pussy Riot mask. Confused? It’s not hard to be, especially if you’re a middle-aged straight bloke (like me) who doesn’t necessarily pick up the signals all that quickly – and maybe should think twice about writing on a subject he doesn’t know a great deal about?.
In fact, Iceland really is an remarkably gay place. For such a small city, Reykjavík has a nightlife and a buzzing social scene, with a visible pink presence that’s simply part of the landscape. It’s there but it doesn’t smack you in the face. It’s not that Reykjavík is an Arctic version of Brighton or San Francisco – it’s just that there’s a tolerance for all shades of orientation.
Icelanders and the other Nordic nations have a wonderfully tolerant attitude in these matters that others could learn a good few lessons from, and which Icelanders themselves might do well to apply elsewhere, but that’s another story.