He is often called the most charming man of the thousands that participate in the Reykjavik Pride parade every year. He lights up peoples´ spirits and his grace goes above and beyond. He sure knows how to live life to the fullest and is surrounded by friends wherever he goes. Those who know him don´t ever want to cut him loose.
He never noticed me as there are thousands participating in the Reykjavík Pride parade, and I was just one of the admiring faces in the crowd. He, however, got all of my attention. Þórir Björnsson is probably the oldest man to participate in the parade. He is now 92 years old and told me on the phone when I contacted him that he had been at the rehabilitation center all morning, has recently gotten a pacemaker and was planning a trip to Edinburgh in Scotland. His voice is like that of a much younger man. He has this youngish, musical voice and every now and then he thanked me for calling him. An extremely polite Þórir was born in 1926 so he was brought up during the Great depression years. He still remembers the day the British army arrived in Iceland.
“We should never put people in specified groups or boxes. It doesn´t matter what gender you find attractive. We are all human beings.”
“That´s when my interest in men in uniforms started,” he says and smiles at the memory, the day when we meet at his home. “When I was 15 years old, I met the first love of my life; a man from Scotland wearing a Scottish kilt. We were drawn to each other like magnets. I didn‘t understand what the attraction was, but I just played along.
At first I had a guilty conscience when it came to my feelings for this man. I worried that everybody would know about it, but the guilt soon surpassed and has never troubled me since. We had great times together, but soon after he left Iceland I got a letter from his mother telling me that he had died in the war. I felt really, really sad, but didn´t shed a tear.”
In love for the second time
Þórir found a new love. An American doctor who worked for the army. Inside the doctor´s office was another room where they made love and the doctor gave Þórir lots of presents.
“But I couldn´t bring them home, as I could not explain where I had gotten them. Where could I have been able to get American outfit? The relationship between me and the doctor lasted for a year and a half. My mother and I never discussed the fact that I was gay, even though she knew long before I did,“ he says laughing cheerfully. “We never spoke about this; that was our silent agreement. My mother was one of those people you couldn´t argue with. She would use the silent treatment. My father and I would sometimes argue but when it was over, we were best friends again. But my mother was like the elephant, she remembered everything.“
He tells me that the American doctor was a real gentleman and always sent a car to pick Þórir up and drive him to the hospital.
“But of course I could never stay overnight. Just imagine the mood during these times; in the middle of the war, when even nowadays people don´t dare to come out of this so-called “closet”. Many of my friends were homosexual and married to women, so their whole life was a secret. These men just wanted to have sex with other men, and those of us who knew, almost had to lay our hand on the Bible and swear never to tell. Many of them are still alive – amongst them is the greatest love of my life. He was one of those people who wouldn´t dare stand up for himself, be who he truly was. Instead he chose to marry a woman and have eight kids with her. Our love affair lasted for 20 years and it hurt me deeply when it ended. But as strange it may seem in a small city like Reykjavík, I have never met this man again; never even seen him on the street since.
Still, I´ve never had a truly broken heart over another man. I was born with a good temper and a nice one, and a long time ago I learnt that life just turnes out like you want it to. I´ve always lived alone and I like it. I have a great group of friends and frequently have people over. I did drink alcohol for a while – but I never abused it. I used to love going dancing or partying but since being diagnosed with diabetes, I don´t drink alcohol anymore. But just take a look at my bar,” he says and points to a fully stocked bar. “Many of my friends come by on weekends and I always offer them a glass of wine, but of course there is never any party noise here in a house for senior citizens.”
A lover at his grandmother´s friends´ house
Our conversation goes back to the war and Þórir tells me that during that time he knew many girls as well as men. “What we, the gay ones, had in common was looking for an escape from the narrow world we felt we lived in. Many of the men in the army were very cautious, most of them had wives waiting for them at home, so they kept their homosexuality a secret. I had gay friends who got married and lived in a lie all their lives. As I was not allowed to go out after dark, I figured out a trick so I could spend a night with a man I was really into. I invited one soldier I was dating to my grandmother´s friends´ place, because she lived in the countryside. No suspicion arose: Just two friends travelling!”
Þórir‘s appreciation for uniforms didn´t diminish. In 1953 he went to Canada were he attended preparation unit (boot camp) for the Canadian army and a year later he became part of the armed forces with a Canadian passport.
“I wasn´t escaping Iceland,” he says. “I wanted adventures and travelled with two of my friends. For a while I worked at the NATO offices in Germany, but I broke my ankle so badly that the foot has never regained its full strength. Therefore my commitment with the army was over, but I stayed in a hospital for six months, as the doctors couldn´t fix the ankle. They put a nail into it which was not removed until 1978 here in Iceland. I stayed in Germany until 1957. I almost got hooked a few times in Germany because when we left the station we took off our uniforms and dressed very nicely. That night however I failed in some way, but got away with it. We made sure to be extra careful so no one would realize we were gay. One of my friends got caught, and he was sentenced to six years in labour for homosexuality.”
MSC: A widespread misunderstanding
Þórir has travelled a lot and spent considerable amount of time in the United States, London as well as Germany. But Edinburgh is his all time favorite city.
“I went there after being in London and stayed with friends who ran a hotel I worked at their hotel as well. I still go to Edinburgh every year to attend the so-called “Burns evenings” dedicated to poet Robert Burns. I also like Brighton and more and more gay people have chosen to live there. There are maybe ten houses side by side on a quiet street, in one house live 2 women, in the next 2 men etc. Brighton is very gay friendly and I really like visiting it.”
Þórir is an honorary member of MSC in Scotland and England and he often visits the countries. He rented a house in London with a friend and that´s where he first heard of MSC.
“It´s been a widespread misunderstanding that this club stands for sex. We are a form of brotherhood. And we want men to be manly dressed. I have often been on the MSC car with my friends on Pride parade day, but few years ago we decided it was not wise to drive such big cars down Laugavegur, the main shopping road.”
He tells me many great stories and I ask him if it is correct that some gay people can give others bitchy remarks?
“I can tell you one good story about that,“ he says and smiles. ,,There was a tailor who had lived in Copenhagen for a long time and after he moved back to Iceland he was invited to a big party at an “upper class man´s” house. At the party, the host´s brother-in-law walks up to the tailor and says: “So, I´ve heard that you are a “sodo”.”
The tailor didn´t bat an eye and answered without a hitch: “Then we should shake hands because I´ve been told it takes one to know one.“
We both like this story, except we don´t like the word “sodo”. Þórir on the other hand says he is fine with being called homosexual, homo, same-sex or gay.
“We should never put people in specified groups or boxes. It doesn´t matter what gender you find attractive. We are all human beings. It makes me sad knowing that gay people had to flee Iceland because of their sexual orientation. One of them was Hörður Torfason, acclaimed singer and actor, but fortunately he came back to Iceland and, alongside of him, myself and a handful of other people founded the Samtökin ´78, a gay rights organization and a safe place for gay people. On the other hand I do not like it when gay men are called female names. It became a local trend and for a long time I was called Tótan, which is the female version for Þórir. This has always irritated me. I find it disrespectful towards people if they can´t be called the name they were given and even more disrespectful if they´re being changed for derogatory purposes.”
Unbelievably many gay men attractive and sexy
Tell me, who are the most attractive men in the world?
“My, oh my!” he says smiling. “This is a good question. I think there are attractive men all over the world. It just depends on who you meet. You can sit outside a café wherever in the world and see extremely handsome and macho men walking by. It´s also common to see a really handsome man with a not-so-attractive man, but you can see their happiness beaming. A few years ago I was at the Jumbo Center in the Canary Islands and I saw two men, a couple. They were in their eighties and nineties. They were holding hands and the love that surrounded them was like they were just teenagers. They were so happy they were glowing. Fortunately I was born that way and have always maintained that to me all people are equal. Be it their nationality, colour, gender, orientation – and I don´t know any racists. It has never been an issue for me whether my lovers are tall or short, slim or fat – it´s heir eyes I fall in love with.”
Wishes he had been born 30 years later
Þórir says he has been happy in his life. He is now 92 years old and has recently gotten a pacemaker.
“I have been heathy all my life. It was just the broken ankle and diabetes and now I´ve got a pacemaker. This is all very normal for a man of 92 years, I can tell you! I´ve always loved being surrounded by people and I often have friends and acquaintances over for a glass of wine on weekends. I worked until I was 70 years old for Loftleiðir (now Icelandair) on both of their ticket offices downtown. After that I worked for a wholesaler and my last years on the job market I worked for an undertaker. That job gave me great fulfillment.”
“It´s been a widespread misunderstanding that this club stands for sex. We are a form of brotherhood. And we want men to be manly dressed.”
As said before however, it is Þórir´s opinion that his life has been a good one.
“I have hundreds of friends now (106 guests came to his birthday party when he turned 85 years old) and I can easily say that I have been lucky in my life. For years I had a dream to spend my golden years in Scotland where I have many friends. I miss my old house in West Reykjavik and I find it to be too much light in these new houses. Not cozy at all. But I have decided against my old dream to move to Scotland. Home is the best place to be at.”
He says that if he could change anything about his life, he´d have chosen to be born in 1956 instead of 1926.
“In the sixties and seventies, few men were in their private demonstration; they stood up for themselves and did what they saw as the right thing to do. It´s always best if people don´t feel the need to live a lie and I´m really glad how much the gay community has grown and blossomed in the past years. My life changed a bit after I stopped drinking alcohol due to my diabetes. I don´t miss it at all as I always find drunk people boring when I´m sober! I´m constantly being invited to dinners and parties, and if I wanted to I could use my apartment only for sleep!“ he says with a big smile. “But I like also to be alone. I still read a lot like I´ve always done, even though I have only one good eye now. Fiction is my favorite read now but as a child and young man I mostly read poetry. When I was a child I used to frequent the City Library and I am sure that no children´s book published in Iceland wasn´t read by me!”
Asked if he has a life motto, something to live by, he answers:
“I have been very lucky with the good temper I was born with. However, I have been told that I sometimes have gotten angry after drinking alcohol, having said my piece about some topic but more often than not it wasn´t neccessary. Then I have other friends who tell me they don´t like me so mellow! I´ve always had my convictions, but it was not always the right time to argue them.”
Don’t bother please
At the time when this interview was conducted, Þórir was very busy. He was going to Edinburgh for three days. “I´m always doing things I enjoy. One Christmas and New Years Eve I spent with friends who own an apartment in Berlin. From there I went to Scotland for “Burns´ night“. I have taken part in London´s Pride parade alongside millions of people, and I also went to the Brighton Pride. And of course I take part in the Icelandic Pride parade, even though the MSC members no longer have their own float. This year I may just be a bystander, who knows?
Asked who will accompany him to Scotland on his trip he bursts into laughter.
“Escort me?! I go on my own as I have always lived my life. I don´t have any assistance at my home since I don´t want anyone to worry about me or make a fuss. I´m glad I got the pacemaker so I can live longer and enjoy life. I´m not dead yet.“