We have to expand the concept of equality

Þorsteinn Víglundsson is the Minister of Social Affairs and Equality in Iceland‘s new government. He means to keep up the work of his predecessor, Eygló Harðardóttir, and improve the situation of queer people in Iceland. GayIceland paid him a visit and grilled him about his intentions and his knowledge of queer issues in Iceland.

It’s clear that Iceland has fallen behind when it comes to queer rights and in his speech at the national assembly of the queer community Þorsteinn said that it has become necessary to expand the equality laws. What exactly does he mean by that?

“Everyone should have equal rights, regardless of sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc. That’s the bottom line. Otherwise there is no equality,” says Þorsteinn Víglundsson, Minister of Social Affairs and Equality.

“What I mean is that when we talk about equality we have to talk about equality in the broadest sense; we have to take it beyond gender equality, in the traditional meaning of that definition, and make sure that equal rights apply to everyone, regardless of original nationality, religion, sexual orientation, sexual definitions etc. I think that is one of the first things we can and have to change when it comes to equality.

It is worrying that despite all the important milestones in the fight for rights in Iceland, it seems that after the law on marriage equality was passed nothing much has happened. It‘s like we have lost a bit of our awareness in these matters and it’s time to sit down and find out where we have fallen behind our neighbours, when it comes to laws regarding queer rights. It’s odd that at the same time that we top all international lists in terms of gender equality we are falling behind on queer rights. We have to have the same ambitions there.”

Existing laws do not forbid discrimination against minority groups, including queer people, in the workplace. Are you aiming at having the laws changed?

“Yes, draft for a new bill that deals with discrimination in the workplace will be presented to parliament this spring. If the bill gets passed in parliament we‘ll have a framework for these matters in future.”

Will you personally make an effort to have this bill passed?

“Yes, I will do that. Definitely.”

In your aforementioned speech you said that there was a lot of work to be done in the fight for equality. And you specifically mentioned queer health. What were you referring to?

“It has been proved that young queer people suffer worse mental health than their straight peers,  especially in schools. They suffer more anxiety and depression. And that‘s just not acceptable. We have to try to find out what‘s causing it and how we can respond to it. It has been pointed out that despite the fact that “tolerance“ towards queer people has grown tremendously they still don‘t have an equal status to non-queer people, and that could be one of the reason for these health issues.”

“To me it’s obvious that we have to look at the equality legislation first. We not only have to expand the laws but the concept of equality itself.”

Talking about health, the law in Iceland still demands that trans people get a certificate from psychiatrists saying that they are mentally ill in order to be defined as trans. Do you mean to change that law?

“Yes, that is one of the things we have to look at. It should be the right of every individual to define themselves, the state should not be a part of that decision. And I agree that laws about trans rights are very old-fashioned and need to be worked on thoroughly.”

The chairman of your party (The Reform Party, Viðreisn), Minister of Finance and Economics Benedikt Jóhannsson, said in his election campaign that it has become urgent to modernise the laws. For example he said that the party wants to make genital surgeries on intersex children illegal until they can decide for themselves what they want to do. Do you agree with his views and do you mean to have the laws changed?

“Obviously we need to enforce the rights of queer people to make their own decisions, as I said before. Sometimes it is necessary to operate because of health complications and I’m told that nowadays those are the only operations done on intersex children. I hope that’s true.

Women‘s March in Washington, DC In some places the rights that women, queer people and immigrant have gained now are being taken away again.

A child‘s gender should not be a decision of its parents or doctors. We have to make that absolutely clear in the law that each individual has the unconditional right to make decisions over their own bodies. It’s a basic human right.”

Your predecessor appointed a committee that was given the task to draft a comprehensive action plan to improve the situation of queer people in Iceland. When can we expect to see some results from the committee?

“The group is working on the last chapters of their report, where they define the most pressing issues and what needs to be done first. We will use that report to draw up a bill that will be put before the parliament. All the work has been done in cooperation with people from the National Queer Organisation, Samtökin ´78, and they will also have a say on the final bill. I hope there are only a few weeks till we get the drafts from the committee and can start working on a bill. I do realize that the queer community is getting a bit impatient to see the action plan, but I really think we‘re almost there.”

Being new to this job have you decided what your first actions will be regarding queer rights?

“To me it’s obvious that we have to look at the equality legislation first. We not only have to expand the laws but the concept of equality itself. This ministry will make equality issues a priority on a broad spectrum. Most people associate the concept equality mainly with equal rights of the two traditional genders, but I want to look at these matters from a much wider viewpoint. Everyone should have equal rights, regardless of sex, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc. That’s the bottom line. Otherwise there is no equality.

“… drafts for a new bill that handles discrimination in the workplace will be presented to parliament this Spring.”

We live in a very different society from a decade ago and many things have evolved for the better, but in these matters the work is never done. We can never sit down, pat ourselves on the back and say: “See now everyone is equal”. It’s a constant battle and we have to be very aware of that.”

Looking at the international scene it seems there is a backlash in these matters, that the rights that women, queer people and immigrant had gained are being taken away again. Are you afraid that could happen here?”

“Yes, there is a big backlash in some countries, especially regarding the rights of immigrants and queer people. That is very worrying and I have said that we have to answer this by expressing our viewpoints even firmer and do everything we can to expand equality and rights for all. We have a history of leading other countries in the battle for gender equality and my dream is that we can do the same in matters regarding queer people and immigrants. I think we are on the right track and it makes me very happy when my children don’t see it as an issue at all whether someone is queer or not. That’s what we have to strive for and I’m really looking forward to working with the queer community on making this an equal society for us all.”

Quick fire quiz 

Before we let Þorsteinn off the hook we have prepared a quick fire quiz to see what he knows about the queer society in Iceland. He calls us “mean”, as he is new to the job and still learning, but all the same he is ready to play the game and the quizzing begins.

A) Whats the address of Samtökin ´78?
“Sorry, I don’t know. I’ve not been there yet. But I’ve got an invitation so I’ll find out soon.”

B) In which month is the Reykjavík Pride held?
“Eeehhh, it´s always on a lovely summers day. It´s in August, no?”

C) Who is the president of Trans Iceland?
“No idea.”

D) What does “bear” mean in the gay society?
“Absolutely no idea!”

E) What is Pink Iceland?
“It’s the queer travel agency. They are doing a splendid job.”

TF-GAY belongs to the Icelandic Airline, Wow air.

F) What Icelandic airline owns a plane that’s registered TF-GAY?
“WOW air.”

G) Which Icelandic athlete played in rainbow shoes to support queer rights?
“That was Guðjón Valur Sigurðsson.”

H) Are gay men allowed to donate blood in Iceland?

I) What year did the law granting same-sex couples the right to marry pass through parliament?
“Ooops! I don’t remember. I only know that it was far too short a time ago!”

Right answers for: a) Suðurgata 3, Reykjavík c) Alda Villiljós d) Bear is a gay slang term. It describes a hairy, heavy-set/muscular) gay or bisexual man. i) In 2010.

Main photo: HAG

Á. Óskarsson
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