Guðni Baldursson, one of the founders and the first chair of the National Queer Organisation Samtökin ’78, has passed away. His is one of the big names in the history of the Icelandic queer battle for equal rights and many remember him with deep gratitude for his tireless work for that cause.
Guðni was chairman of Samtökin ’78 from 1978-1986. He was also the first Icelandic openly gay person to run for parliament and played a huge part in Icelandic legislative reforms for the rights of queer people.
Guðni was born on the 4 March 1950, had a degree in business and worked at Statistics Iceland for almost 40 years. His life partner was Helgi Magnússon who died in 2003.
GayIceland asked some of Guðni’s co-workers and friends to tell the readers about this remarkable man and fighter.
“HIV Iceland (formerly Iceland AIDS Organisation) was founded in 1988. Guðni Baldursson was one of the founding members, and was asked to sit on the first board of the organisation. Subsequently he was a member of the board for almost thirty years, which benefitted the organisation greatly. It was invaluable to have such a clever and experienced campaigner working with the organisation. Guðni knew how things worked after his pioneering fight for the rights of gays and lesbians the years before. There was strength in the presence of this humble and dauntless man in the painful times when the AIDS epidemic was spreading. The situation in those years was indescribably hard when young people had to meet death in the shadow of prejudice, banishment and fear.
There are many of us that owe a great debt to Guðni. He was the first chair of the National Queer Organisation, Samtökin ’78, and the part he played in the campaign for equal rights and the visibility of queer people in Iceland was am major one and must not be forgotten. The stamina, courage, enthusiasm and perseverance of those who faced the battle in those years was so great that it will be remembered for times to come. All this may have taken a greater toll than people realised. Guðni’s health worsened over the last years of his life, he was lonely, had trouble with his drinking and disappeared from the spotlight. He missed his late life partner, Helgi Magnússon, a great deal.
Guðni and I knew each other for decades and were also connected by family ties. We sometimes had a chance to chat and when Guðni was in a good mood he told really good jokes and then we rolled about with laughter.
“There are many of us that owe a great dept to Guðni … the part he played in the campaign for equal rights and the visibility of queer people in Iceland was a major one and must not be forgotten.”
I know I am speaking on behalf of many people when I say that Guðni, this benevolent guy, will be remembered with respect and warmth and will be thanked for our mutual journey.”
Einar Þór Jónsson,
A good man and a remarkable frontrunner
“When I arrived on the scene of Samtökin ’78, in 1987, the first chair of the organisation, Guðni Baldursson, had retired. When his name was mentioned it was with respect but deep down I could sense that the ways had parted. After working for the organisation for seven years Guðni had left the field, weary of the battle. He was a thinker and a loner and it did not suit him to run a social centre. With unfailing political vision as his weapon he took on the role of a chairman in the tiny movement of queers in Iceland at a time when queer people had absolutely no rights and gays were beaten to a pulp just for existing.
Politics was important to Guðni and soon after he became chairman he took the parliament on. He ran for a seat in parliament, the first openly gay man in Iceland to do so, for the party Alliance of Social Democrats party in the early eighties. The silence was broken and the issues of queer people were discussed in parliament. First one bill was presented, then another, and in 1993 the Prime Minister st up a committee to investigate the situation of queer people in Iceland and make suggestions for change.
As fate would have it that was where I got to know Guðni Baldursson. For almost a whole year we met every week, attended meetings with the committee and worked every weekend in Guðni’s office at Statistics Iceland. This was before the time of the internet and the only way to tackle this humongous project was to imitate the mouse who ate the elephant; take one bite at a time. But the
results were among the best in the world: registered partnership and protective laws for queer people became law on 27. June 1996. The shy, silent man who preferred to speak little and quietly in public, opened up little by little in our private talks, told jokes and squeaked with laughter with a boyish glint in his eyes. This was his home field where he was working on the matter that meant most to him, equal human rights for everyone regardless of sexual orientation.
That amber burned in Guðni’s mind til his dying day. He lost his life partner, Helgi Magnússon, far too young, only 48 years old in 2003 and the last years were without doubt very hard for Guðni.
Uppermost in my mind now is gratitude for having known a good man and a remarkable frontrunner, and I send my deepest sympathy to his family and friends. Icelandic queer society has a lot to thank Guðni Baldursson for.”
Lana Kolbrún Eddudóttir
He kept up a tireless battle
“The place where many of us got to know Guðni Baldursson did not look impressive – a windowless room in the basement at Garðarstræti 2 – but in the minds of us who went there it was still the brightest room in town, a sanctuary full of bright hopes and battle mood. This was the first location of Samtökin ’78 and there Guðni greeted members with kindness and friendship and the battle mood was in big part thanks to him.
Guðni was the first chair of the National Queer Organisation, worked hard for it and opened his home to members so at times it resembled a social centre. He was well read and eager to learn and followed developments in the fight for equal rights abroad closely, bought educational books on the matter and subscribed to many magazines that were nowhere else to be seen in Iceland.
“Guðni never tired of writing educational articles in Icelandic news papers and always reacted when queer people were discriminated against or met with violence.”
Guðni never tired of writing educational articles in Icelandic news papers and always reacted when queer people were discriminated against or met with violence. He did not hesitate to stand for the cause in his own name and with his photo published, which was in no way given in those days. A clear sign of what the situation was is clearly demonstrated in the fact that when Guðni ran for parliament for the Alliance of Social Democrats, being the chairman of Samtökin ’78, many people in the party opposed it strongly.
Guðni was a courageous fighter. Not only was he the chair of Samtökin ’78 from the start and till 1985, but after he quit the job he kept up a tireless battle in the committees which the parliament founded and sat on the board of HIV Iceland for almost thirty years.
Now when we say goodbye to Guðni Baldursson foremost in my mind is gratitude for all his hard and unselfish work. The memory of a good man and comrade remains.”
We all owe him a dept of gratitude
“I have a lot to thank Guðni Baldursson for, both personally and as a common citizen of this society which he played such a big part in changing for the better.
When we got to know each other, within the Alliance of Social Democrats in 1983, I was shamefully ignorant about queerness. The pioneers within Samtökin ’78 with Guðni at the forefront, had however been working for several years to open Icelanders eyes to the fact that gays and lesbians were not just some strange creatures abroad.
“This looks no different from a normal home!” a journalist exclaimed, who visited Guðni and his partner Helgi at their home. Guðni told me about this smiling his prankish smile but of course it was a sad thing and showed in a nutshell what they were fighting against.
The journey that the pioneers in the National Queer Organisation started in 1978 was therefore not exactly a fun run. The slope was stony and steep, not a field for the faint of heart to play on.
Guðni led the journey in the early years on the way to a more open and more just society. He was in fact a leader of a revolution though he certainly did not come across as one – he was a soft-spoken and well-behaved man. Under the quiet surface the fire of passion for justice kept burning and he was tough enough to follow the matters he fought for to the end, that was the key. His intelligence and logic also made him an obvious choice as a spokesman.
We are lucky to have had Guðni. We all owe him a debt of gratitude, both queer people and all Icelanders. He leaves a deep imprint, which leads upwards and in a positive direction.
Thank you, dear Guðni. I think of you fondly.”