The event “The Birth of the Icelandic Lesbian” – a discussion about the first openly gay women in Iceland in the 1980s – is hosted by Samtökin ’78, the Icelandic National Queer Organisation, and will take place at Suðurgata 3, Reykjavík on 9 March at 8pm. Speakers will be Lana Kolbrún Eddudóttir, first female chair of Samtökin ’78, and Elísabet Þorgeirsdóttir, one of the founders of the “Iceland/Lesbian Society”.
Elísabet Þorgeirsdóttir, social worker, was a single mum in the mid-eighties, a published poet and journalist and by taking on the job of editor at the national fishermen’s journal was already challenging the traditional roles of the patriarchy. But she didn’t stop at that; she came out as lesbian and became one of the first openly gay women in Iceland and was a founding member of the Iceland/Lesbian society, story of which she’s going to tell on Thursday evening.
“The idea of this event came about because of a study by Íris Ellenberger, about the Iceland/Lesbian Society. She interviewed us about these times and that’s why we started reminiscing about them. The article was published in Saga, the History Society Journal, and was an interesting read, where Íris is looking at the Icelandic lesbian who basically came to light in the mid-eighties. That’s when we started referring to ourselves as lesbians and begun coming out.”
The Iceland/Lesbian Society was formed in 1985 and operated in the Women’s Centre in down town Reykjavík. “That was a radical move, to make us so visible there, where we could hold our events. We were hoping the Women’s Centre would become a vibrant place, pretty much like the one in Copenhagen and other metropolitan cities. There was so much energy in feminist activism in those years. The Women’s Alliance had just been formed with all-female candidacy and there were other feminist groups operating in the Women’s Centre too. It took a bit of gut to include us in the Centre but it was our way of making ourselves seen.”
“… we have never really talked about our history, this is the first time we’re looking back at what we did and talking publicly about it … perhaps it’s the beginning of something bigger.”
Elísabet says that the aim of the society was to bring homosexual women together so they could actively support each other and seek support and inspiration from elsewhere, through literature and art abroad and so on, and to empower them and strengthen their self-identity. For her, coming out at this time was an absolute liberation.
“I was 29 when I came out but I had known I was lesbian since I was 16. We were finally blossoming, coming out of our shells. There was a much publicised interview with two lesbians, Lára and Lilja, in an Icelandic newspaper in 1983 and for many of us, it just blew our minds. That was the first time that two women went public about the fact that they lived together and loved each other. I came out a few months later and a year after that we formed the Iceland/Lesbian Society.”
The society was active for 3-4 years and Elísabet remembers those years fondly. “I thought they were fun times; there was so much energy going on, we were breaking free and creating a community.
But they were difficult times too; around this time, AIDS was spreading and there were a lot of prejudice because of that.
There was also a lot of drinking and I think for some people those were painful times. But for me, personally, they were empowering because I finally got to be who I really am.”
She says that it might have been easier for lesbians to come out than gay men because they were branded as being sure victims of AIDS. “But we had different obstacles. My girlfriend at the time and I both had children when we came out, we were two single mothers who set up a home with our children. That was unheard of and a lot of prejudice regarding whether lesbians and gays
were capable of raising children so we put a lot of effort to showing that we could be just an ordinary family. There was a lot of energy that went into that, just living as an openly gay person and proving that we were ordinary people too.”
“… we felt that … we would be helping others by being so visible, to show people what our lifestyle was like and that we weren’t much different from them.”
Elísabet says that fortunately, she herself didn’t experience much prejudice, her family and her son’s father were understanding. “But we felt that as pioneers, we could contribute something by being open about our lives, that we would be helping others by being so visible, to show people what our lifestyle was like and that we weren’t much different from them.”
But even so, gay rights were almost non-existent back then and when asked what’s been the greatest achievement in the fight for LGBTI+ rights, Elísabet laughs. “They’re all great achievements, you can’t compare the two, now and then. The right to have a child by adopting or having an IVF, the right to get married, all the legal rights. No, I can’t name one thing, it’s everything!”
It’s been over 30 years since Icelandic lesbians came to light and claimed their space in Icelandic society. Does Elísabet feel that young lesbians of today understand what the older generations of lesbians did for them? “I honestly don’t know because we have never really talked about our history, this is the first time we’re looking back at what we did and talking publicly about it. It will be fun to see whether they have any interest at all; young people tend not to dwell on the past and perhaps they don’t see the point. We’ll just have to wait and see on Thursday, whether the young women will show up. We’re merely doing this for fun but perhaps it’s the beginning of something bigger.”
Main photo: Guðmundur David Terrazas