Meet the two women who inspired companies in Reykjavík to raise rainbow flags during the visit of U. S. Vice-President Mike Pence to Iceland.
Iceland made international headlines at the beginning of September when U. S. Vice-President Mike Pence was greeted in Reykjavík by a sea of rainbow flags.
Pence has a record of opposing LGBT rights both in Congress and as the former governor of Indiana, and has even been accused of supporting gay conversion therapy.
Upon Pence’s arrival at Höfði House, where he met with the Icelandic president and the prime minister of Iceland, the IT company Advania had raised a row of rainbow flags at their offices across the street.
When Pence left Höfði, he was surrounded by even more rainbow flags.
Inspired by the action by Advania, two Icelandic women decided to take it upon themselves to hang as many rainbow flags in the area as they could to protest Pence’s views on LGBT rights.
“It wasn’t planned, it was kind of a spur of the moment thing,” says graphic designer and LGBT activist Tótla Sæmundsdóttir. “We had this idea that it would be amazing if not just the flags were flying in front of that company, but the whole circle around the building where they were having the meeting.”
“It wasn’t planned, it was kind of a spur of the moment thing.”
Tótla and her friend, lawyer Katrín Oddsdóttir, called around to source as many flags as they could and then began going around to all the businesses around Höfði. In the end, they convinced a number of businesses and government buildings in the area to raise the flags on their poles. They also hung flags in the windows of nearby restaurants and offices.
“We were kind of racing, trying to get them up before he would leave the building,” says Tótla. “So he went in and there was one flag on the pole and then he came out and they were all around him.”
“Tótla was very strict about getting permission. I would have just gone and put those flags up, because those poles were asking for it,” Katrín says with a laugh.
“So we got the permissions for it, and the most beautiful part of the story is how everyone said yes,” she says. “We didn’t expect everyone to be so positive.”
“We didn’t expect everyone to be so positive.”
The two did encounter some difficulties raising flags on some poles closest to Höfði, says Katrín, because of the high level of armed security that Pence brought with him to Iceland.
“That was also part of the frustration of the Icelandic people,” says Katrín. “You know, this guy comes here … they close off streets and stuff like that, and he arrives with an army plane, and everything about it is so invasive and intrusive.”
“And then he holds these medieval views about gay people and women’s rights and climate change — everything,” she adds. “We’ve reached this point in Iceland where we have reached a consensus about many things. Obviously you’re always going to find the odd one out who disagrees. But mostly we have agreed about being peaceful and celebrating diversity and stuff like that. So it’s sort of cool to go to companies that are run for profit and people inside those companies say yes to stuff like this, even though maybe it would be harmful for their business.”
Katrín says she thinks their actions resonated with everyday people who may feel helpless when Pence and other people who wield political power are actively trying to restrict the rights and liberties of minority groups.
“People are stuck in this capitalistic, crazy world at work and they feel like they can’t really do anything,” she says. “They can show up to the protest that same afternoon, but he’s not going to be there to see that. He’s not going to feel that, he’s not going to give a shit. I’m sure there are protests everywhere he goes. The domestic media might cover it, but nothing is going to come out of it. So this might be the next step. We can try to make him aware of the fact that we don’t agree with his crazy ass views.”
In addition to all the rainbow flags that were raised, Katrín says she felt there were a few other “rays of hope” during Pence’s visit to Iceland. In particular, she points out that the Icelandic president and his wife both wore rainbow bracelets during their meeting with Pence, that the mayor of Reykjavík biked to his meeting with the American vice-president, and that the Icelandic prime minister set the agenda of her conversation with Pence to focus on minority rights.
“I think without being overly insulting to him, there was resistance on every front,” Katrín says. “We were polite and a little bit naughty but not completely insulting. That was the tone. And I hope he got the tone. I would be very frustrated if he didn’t realize that we were trying to show him that this is what’s going on in Iceland.”
“I hope he got the tone. I would be very frustrated if he didn’t realize that we were trying to show him that this is what’s going on in Iceland.”
With political developments across Europe and the United States, where Tótla says it seems there are more steps backwards rather than forwards when it comes to human rights, she thinks it’s important for Icelanders to speak up.
“You see it happening everywhere, and you see this nationalism on the rise around Europe and in the States,” she adds. “You really want to take a stand against it and make it known that we’re not part of it.”
When asked if they would plan a similar action if another member of the Trump administration visited Iceland, the two women don’t rule out the idea but say they have nothing planned.
“We are just two friends … We don’t have a whole organization formed yet,” Katrín says. “I just hope that everyone who sees this thinks that they can also affect change.”
“I think that everybody should feel like they can do something in regards to fighting something that’s obviously unjust.”