“We received an incredible number of messages from people, both gay and straight, who were happy about the fact that a woman, who had a same-sex partner, had been chosen to lead a country at a very difficult time in its history.”
A new book about the relationship between former Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and her wife, writer and journalist Jónína Leósdóttir is out in Iceland. For almost thirty years the pair strived to keep their relationship away from the public eye, but now with the publication of the book, entitled Jóhanna and I (i. Við Jóhanna), the two have for the very first time decided to openly discuss it. We met up with Jónína, who wrote the book, and began by asking what made them open up after all this time.
“The book was Jóhanna’s idea, but I was easily convinced,” she explains. “It’s simply the story of our relationship, which began almost 30 years ago and was, in fact, anything but simple for a long, long time. It is the true story of two people who went through a lot of pain, but love conquered in the end. So, we hope it will be an encouraging read – maybe even a tiny bit inspiring to people who are going through difficulties, even if they are struggling with some other obstacles.”
What was it like writing such a personal book?
“Very strange. I’m not sure it was good “therapy”, as I usually don’t dwell much on the past and to write this book I had to revisit some painful moments. But our relationship would not have survived if there had not also been some powerful feelings and great times.”
Why did you feel a need to keep your personal life so private in the first place?
“When you are constantly in the public eye, like Jóhanna was as a politician, it becomes extremely precious to keep your private life exactly that way, private. Besides, not all role models have to be the same and we preferred to concentrate on our jobs and our family life, without making the fact that we were a same-sex couple a big deal in the media. Should the goal not be that it’s no longer “an issue”, in the media or elsewhere, whether a couple is gay or straight?”
Shortly after Jóhanna became PM back in 2009 the two of you got married. By doing so she became Iceland’s first female PM as well as the world’s first openly lesbian head of government. What did it feel like stepping into the limelight after being so private for so long?
“It is very peculiar to suddenly realize that people in all corners of the world are aware of your existence. But life goes on and after the initial surprise you just forget about it. As I am sure most of the people who were interested in news of “the lesbian PM” in Iceland a few years ago have also forgotten all about us now.”
What kind of reactions did you get at the time? Were there any surprises?
“The reaction was almost entirely positive. We received an incredible number of messages from people, both gay and straight, who were happy about the fact that a woman, who had a same-sex partner, had been chosen to lead a country at a very difficult time in its history. What surprised us most was how far this news reached. These greetings came from so many countries in far-away continents.”
Then the two of you just went full force, with you accompanying Jóhanna not only to The Faroe Islands, where LGBT people still face legal challenges, but also to China where matters are even worse. What prompted the decision to go?
“These visits were part of the PM’s Office protocol, as the leaders of these countries had visited Iceland before. So we didn’t actually pick them, per se.
The “ado” in The Faroe Islands was limited to a handful of men, and there have been many positive changes since we were there in 2010, for example an active LGBT society, Gay Pride etc.
And the official visit to China went really well, although some media reports claimed the Chinese had tried to “hide” me during the stay. I am sure they were not completely comfortable with a same-sex partner accompanying a head of state on such an occasion, but everyone showed me respect and I sat at the top table with Jóhanna and the Chinese PM during the honorary dinner etc.
But, of course, there is a long way to go for LGBT people in China. They have huge challenges to overcome and I wish them all the best.”
Was it a challenge for the two of you going together to China?
“Not at all. But we knew and felt that it was important.”
Looking back what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced together?
“Oh, there have been so many, especially during the first half of our relationship. Both external challenges and obstacles within ourselves.”
Do you think readers have been surprised by the book’s content?
“I know that already, as the mere fact that we’ve been together for almost three decades surprises most people. Only our families and closest friends knew how far back our story reached and how hard those first 10-15 years were.”
Now that the book is out, how do you feel about the good reviews it’s getting, from critics and public alike?
“I am extremely touched by the wonderful reception the book has had, right from the start. I keep running into people – often total strangers – who say they have already read the book and are full of praise. And today (Monday 11th of November) a newspaper published an editorial on the importance of Við Jóhanna and their top columnist also writes a very positive piece on the book today. So, I’m ecstatic.”
When will it be available in English or other languages?
“It’s early days, yet. The book has only just been published here in Iceland.”
Finally, what lies ahead for you two?
“Hopefully, a few good years of togetherness with less stress and more holidays and family time than we have managed during the last five years.”
And with that we thank Jónína for her time and wish her and Jóhanna the best of luck.
Editor’s note: It may be added that the book was publicized at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October, which is a indication it may be published in other languages. Hopefully sooner than later for those keen on getting a copy.