Dealing with differences is part of being human

In a meeting tonight, Samtökin ’78 the National Queer Organisation of Iceland, presented an action plan that aims to increase transparency and get more people to take part in an open conversation about where the organisation is heading.

María Helga Guðmundsdóttir, the newly elected president of the organisation, says that after the tumultous times within the organisation, it‘s the priority of the new board to get as many people as possible active in drawing up the future.

María Helga Guðmundsdóttir, the newly elected president of the organisation,
María Helga Guðmundsdóttir, the newly elected president of Samtökin ’78. The National Queer Organisation has introduced an action plan that aims to make the administration more transparent.

“The key aspects of our action plan are to keep the elementary factors of our work going, start an active conversation with our members, hold frequent meetings for all members, update our member registry and send out a survey to all members,” María Helga explains.

“We also intend to prepare a national gathering of queer people which will be held at the end of this winter. Last time a meeting like that was held was four years ago and we aim to look at how things have progressed since then and open up a discussion about what we will focus on for the next few years,“ says María Helga when asked what the forementioned action plan is all about.

She emphasizes that the board is only elected for a six-month term, so obviously the things they can accomplish will be limited by that time frame. “We have to stay focused,” she says. “We plan to emphasize the inner workings of the organisation and try to improve them as best we can. This first month in office we have been talking to all our volunteers and paid employees about what they would like to improve, what their needs and wishes are. We will also keep talking to the representatives of the various associations affiliated with the organisation and try to keep all lines of communication open.”

“The key aspects of our action plan are to keep the elementary factors of our work going, start an active conversation with our members, hold frequent meetings for all members, update our member registry and send out a survey to all members.”

What about the battle for legal rights of trans people, adoption rights, etc.? Will you put that on hold?
“There is a general election for Parliament in a month’s time, so legal discussions are largely on hold for now. Of course we aim to engage with the political candidates before the election, and when a new Parliament starts working we aim to keep the conversation going. We will have to wait and see how that conversation develops.”

According to María Helga, the new board will stand for any drastic changes in the way the National Queer Organisation functions, but of course there are lots of tasks that need to be undertaken. “To be honest these last six months have been difficult and the organisation has been consumed by unforeseen matters that have taken up a lot of time, money and other resources. So at the moment our main task is to keep going and stay the course while we work to resolve these conflicts.“

There has been a heated discussion within the organisation following the general meeting that was held last spring.

Is the main purpose of this action plan to make the administration more transparent?
“Yes, totally. That has been the direction of the board for the past few years but, as has become apparent over the past six months, there has been a shortfall in trust and communication between elected officials and some parts of the organisation’s membership. In our opinion, an essential element of building that trust is to make the administration more transparent and make all information easily available for the members. I am here for two hours every week to talk to people and I urge every member to come and talk to me.“

Does that include the people who were against the changes and fought against the new board?
“Yes, of course! Maybe especially them. That‘s when the discussion gets fruitful. I have had lots of conversations with people who are against the new direction the organisation is taking, for instance by establishing formal ties with the BDSM association, and that has often been enlightening and fruitful. All the members of the National Queer Organization have to have the same access to the members of the board. That‘s essential. Regardless of the type of office you hold, you have to keep the conversation with the electorate open.“

Do you think the new board will be successful in bringing on some kind of reconciliation between the opposing forces within the organisation?
“I hope so. We within the new board are determined to do our best to make all members feel at home within the organisation and meet their needs through its work.“

“… I have had lots of conversations with people who are against the new direction the organisation is taking … and that has often been enlightening and fruitful.“

Is it not a possibility that the people who left the organisation in this last fight will form their own organisation and not come to work with Samtökin ’78 again?

“I can not speak for them, obviously, but we have already been in contact with people who disagreed with us in these matters to try to find ways of working together. We will keep doing that and hopefully some of them, at least, will continue to work with us.“

How many people have left the organisation since last March?
“The numbers have fluctuated considerably. Between 80 and 100 people left the organisation last spring, but many rejoined to be able to vote at the general meeting in September. Since the general meeting, about 20 people have left the organization. As of October 1st, 2016, we have 718 registered, paying members; for comparison, a total of 501 person paid dues to the organization in 2015.”

This fight has been rather vicious at times. Did that surprise you?
“In a way it did, yes. But one has to keep in mind that everything that has to do with the National Queer Organisation revolves around deeply personal aspects of people’s identity and that means that big emotions are quick to come to the surface. It has to be expected that people can get really hurt and angry when arguments arise about matters that people have poured their hearts into. That

“I hope so. We within the new board are determined to do our best to make all members feel at home within the organisation and meet their needs through its work.“
“We within the new board are determined to do our best to make all members feel at home within the organisation and meet their needs through its work,“ says María Helga.

“… people can get really hurt and angry when arguments arise about matters that people have poured their hearts into. That applies both to those of us who are most active now and the people who gave the organisation their all ten, twenty or thirty years ago.“

applies both to those of us who are most active now and the people who gave the orginisation their all ten, twenty or thirty years ago. It‘s very important that we who hold elected office within the organisation realize that these feelings are strong and natural. Even though we will sometimes be on the receiving end of anger and hostility, we are ill-advised to take it too personally. All we can do is be considerate of each other’s feelings, as in all communication with other people. Dealing with differences is part of being human and we just have to handle that with dignity and respect.”

It‘s a safe assumption that you will have a rather rough time as the president of the organisation in these times. Did you never hesitate to run for office?
“Oh, yes, I did hesitate. This is not how I pictured that things would go when I ran for a seat on the board last spring. I never pictured myself as a candidate for president, and maybe I still don‘t. But someone had to keep the work going. Those of us who’ve been on the board since last spring work well together and have forged strong bonds during these tumultuous times, so I decided to give it a go and do my best for the organisation. The task now is to do my job with an open mind and total dedication.”

María Helga was elected president with 55% of the votes. She admits that the group that did not vote for the new board is large and that it will be a challenge to bring opposing parties together again. But she is optimistic that the new board will make good progress towards that goal, even if the time is limited.
“I don‘t think it‘s wise to consider it a short-term project to achieve reconciliation in an organisation like ours. I seriously doubt that we will have achieved eternal harmony by the next general meeting. Working through disagreements like these takes a long time and much work. It has sometimes been said that Samtökin ’78 is like a family to its members, and we all know that conflicts within families can be hard to solve. But I am optimistic that we will be in a better place six months from now and an even better place a year from now.”

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