Jóhannes Þór Skúlason, managing director of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association and former advisor to a Prime Minister, on coming out as bisexual.
Over a cup of coffee Jóhannes begins to tell me about his background and participating in a Samtökin ‘78 panel (The National queer organization of Iceland) of bisexual men. On the panel, the subject of labels and representation came up. Jóhannes mentions that although a lot of people would like to live in a world without labels, the labels themselves can be vital. “Isn’t the point to be moving toward a society where no one has to have these labels? Well no, sometimes you have to bring out the color. A lot of these identities tend to fall between the cracks, so to speak. Visibility is low.”
“For some people, it’s a journey. From my personal perspective, it took me a long time to realize exactly where I was on the spectrum.”
At the event, he says “there were three of us doing an hour chat about the realities of being a bisexual male in Iceland.” Participating in the panel was eye-opening for him. “It was a bit weird that none of us had been in a room with two other bisexual men before, that we knew of. Afterward, I realized that there were at least five in that same room in Norræna Húsið (The Nordic House).”
Jóhannes has only been out for about three years. He hopes his story will bring more visibility and pave the way for other bisexual men to be open and proud. “We know bisexual men are out there. There’s a lot of them. But they seem to kind of not, whether they choose to or not, move into the limelight,” he says.
Though he agrees that all bisexuals don’t have it easier, Jóhannes thinks it’s easier for society to accept bisexual women. “I think its different for bisexual men than bisexual women in some ways. I think it’s easier for straight guys to accept bisexuality in women; perhaps it’s got to do a little bit with projecting a mirror image on your friends of the same sex. Straight guys can see the attraction with bisexual women because they’re attracted to women. But they can’t see attraction toward men because they’re not attracted to other guys. Maybe it’s just that simple, I don’t know. It’s kind of become part of the background of the society we live in I guess,” says Jóhannes.
Though they may not be as visible, Jóhannes thinks this is also changing. He also says for him, it wasn’t a typical coming-out story. “For some people, it’s a journey. From my personal perspective, it took me a long time to realize exactly where I was on the spectrum. I was never a brooding teenager needing to come out of the closet. I never had that angst story. It just kind of gradually dawned on me,” he says. “From when I was about 19 or 20 years old, through university and on… it took nearly 10 years to realize, just understand what bisexuality was. Am I a straight guy who just likes guys too, or? What does bisexuality mean? Is it either-or?” he clarifies.
“We know bisexual men are out there. There’s a lot of them. But they seem to kind of not, whether they choose to or not, move into the limelight.”
Like many others, Jóhannes says he was first open about his sexuality in certain groups, but not all. “In many ways, it didn’t make it harder or easier [to come out] it just made it different. As time moved on I kind of realized where on the spectrum I was. I got very comfortable with that. To the point that at the advanced age of 46 I had been out in certain circles, maybe groups of friends who knew.” He also says it’s something that he wasn’t hiding, but that he didn’t really bring it up either. “It was never any secret. If someone asked then yeah, sure. I never really took the step of sitting down with my parents and discussing a ‘coming out’,” he says.
What really changed Jóhannes’ mind was being labeled as the straight guy in a group. “So the thing that broke it or kind of pushed me over the edge to take that step was being invited onto a radio show Vikulokinn (End of the Week) on Rás 1. It was a week before Pride. It’s a show that kind of discusses the news of the week, what’s been happening and what’s going on next week. An easy-going talk show about the news. So I was there talking about something that was happening in tourism and then two other guests were Hanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir and Þóra Krístin Ásgeirsdóttir. Both are outspoken activists for queer rights. As the discussion moved toward Pride it became very obvious who I represented in the group. I was marked as this cisgender heterosexual guy with the two lesbians. And that kinda did me in, I just got tired of being put in the wrong box. It had been irking me for some time but that pushed me over,” he says.
From there, he decided to be a lot more open about his bisexuality than he had been before. “On pride the following Saturday I called my mom, called my sister, and put it out on Facebook and I got tremendously positive feedback.”
Most reactions were good, but Jóhannes says there were some typical overreactions. Some of his friends thought that he’d be separating from his wife. “It’s funny that when you [come out] you get all kinds of reactions. There was a group of friends that were at a different party than we were and I heard that when they saw it on Facebook it was like “gasps!” All the people started worrying about if my wife and I were going to get a divorce. Things like that. My mom was mostly worried about if it would affect my job in some way. It was kind of stuff like that where I could see the things that a lot of people, perhaps most people, have to face when they come out as queer. In different magnitudes of course. I was very lucky, it was very small.”
“We’ve come a long way [in Iceland] but there are still pockets of people who just do not understand these things. I kind of expected to hit some walls along the way but I’ve had a very positive story,” says Jóhannes.
When asked if coming out has changed his view on politics or the public persona he has, Jóhannes says “no I don’t really think so. I haven’t felt any change from the outside. I don’t think that coming out has affected my public persona in any way. I don’t think it harms or comes between what I’m trying to do at work.”
For him, coming out has allowed him to do and say things he wouldn’t have before. “It’s little things like posting on Facebook about bisexual Superman, small things like that that fill in who you are as a person. It’s not like I didn’t do a lot of those things before I came out. Like when I was in politics I was never afraid that this would harm my work or not fit into the parties I was working for,” he says.
After all, he was working for one of the more “old-fashioned” political parties in Iceland. “There’s always a lot of tolerance and openness in all of the political parties in Iceland. I think most political parties in Iceland are most open and tolerant. Even the one that I was working in last, Miðflokkurinn, is looked at like a very un-open party but when you really get to know the people it’s just a person here a person there just like in every other political party,” he says.
More so than the party’s positions, Jóhannes says it was his job that held him back from maybe saying whatever he wanted. “There are lots of people on the queer spectrum working with parties and there’s never a problem within that. At the time [I was in politics] it was more the position I was working in. Working directly with the Prime Minister, a party chairman, everything I said no matter what it was, got interpreted as the official position of the person I was working for. So because of that, I self-censored a lot of the stuff that were my personal opinions publicly. I had a certain job and that had to take precedence,” he says.
“There was a lot of other stuff I didn’t voice my opinion on because of that position. It was about a lot of other things, not just being bisexual. Having come out, people know why you were saying these things. They connect what you say with who you are. Which I think is important for everyone,” says Jóhannes.
For Jóhannes being in the closet as a bisexual man was quite easy. Or he says it was at least easy to not bring the topic up. “I understand completely why a lot of bisexual men choose to not come out when they’re in that position. It’s a very easy place to be. It’s a comfortable, warm closet to be in. When you’re in a heterosexual relationship and it looks like you’re straight and you just fit into the norm of society it makes a lot of things easier for you rather than if you choose to voice that you’re not actually part of the “norm” of society.”
He also contemplates if bi people in heterosexual relationships have, in a way, an easier time than other members of the LGBTQ+ community. “For bisexual people, it can be comfortable, it’s a choice you can make. Perhaps easier than most other people in the queer community actually have. That’s part of why I’d like to see more bisexual people out there because there’s a huge difference in the ratio of bisexual people in the community and the small ratio of the ones you can actually see. One part of it is that you can just not tell anyone, keep it private and just go through your life,” says Jóhannes. “For us in that position the choice to not be out can be easier than for those with other queer people who do (or even have to for safety reasons) choose to not come out of the closet.”
“When I was asked to be on that panel I thought well I’m not important in any way now but the position I’m in kind of pushes me into the cameras, into the news cycle. I actually have a voice in certain things even though a lot of people don’t always like what I’m saying (laughs). That just comes with the job. It just got me thinking. It’s a little bit hypocritical saying “there is no representation out there” and then actually being in a position where you can BE the representation in the news,” he says.
Becoming this representation is what Jóhannes wants to do to pave the way for other bisexual men. “That’s kind of part of why I’ve let myself be a bit more visual (on social media, doing things like this interview). Maybe there’s somebody out there who will think “well that guy can have a job with a big organization like that and his sexual orientation doesn’t fit into it or doesn’t harm it.”
Jóhannes also says that maybe bisexuality isn’t exactly what he is, but it’s the identity that fits him best. “When I was first trying to figure this out, what is bisexuality, where do I fall within the spectrum… this idea of pansexuality started to rise a bit, and that there was a difference. The discussion of trans rights and trans recognition comes into it. The thing is for me they’re exactly the same thing. Bisexual is my word for it. It kind of describes me. I generally don’t like the idea that you can only be attracted to these two sexes, one or the other or both. It’s like putting everything in black and white. Life is gray. It’s not either-or,” he says.
“I generally don’t like the idea that you can only be attracted to these two sexes, one or the other or both. It’s like putting everything in black and white. Life is gray. It’s not either-or.”
“What hit it perfectly for me was David Rose’s speech from Shitt’s Creek for liking the wine, not the label. That’s exactly how I feel I was like “yeah, that! That, that, that!” Sometimes people say this is being attracted to the person, not their gender. You know when I was working through all of this bisexual is the word that was used. If I was maybe 20 years younger perhaps I’d identify as pansexual, I don’t know. For me, the word bisexuality describes myself, not the people I’m attracted to if that makes sense,” he continues.
When it comes to representation, Jóhannes says he hopes more bisexual characters are portrayed in media, without being cartoons or aliens. “Talking on the panel we were trying to figure out why this was and going into the reasons and the effects. I mean you don’t see a lot of bisexual men in media, you don’t have a lot of role models. When I thought about it, you often have to go to science fiction or fantasy to see it, it’s like Loki. It’s a lot in science fiction because you can imagine whatever you want. But if you look at stories that are based on today, realistic stories, there’s a lot less. You can count them on one hand. Like Rosa in Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”
With his coming out Jóhannes hopes to change the little representation he sees. In stepping forward and opening up about his bisexuality he’s changing the conversation in Iceland for the better and increasing the visibility the community here needs.