Stories from Americans Living in Iceland, Feeling Relieved.
Since the time I moved to Iceland my experience as a member of the LGBT+ community has been a tale of two roads. On one side, I moved away from the US just as Trump was taking his oath of office. I was happy to be leaving as I saw the storm of hate brewing on the horizon while planning the move. I wasn’t necessarily running away from the storm I saw coming, but was happy to be on my way out the door anyway. It’s suffice to say I never thought Trump would uphold the dignity of the office, nor any of the LGBT+ protections that were fought for in the US over decades. The other road I saw was the new path I began on, life in the progressively queer capital of Reykjavik.
This is the story of these two roads from the perspective of culture in both Iceland and the US during the last 4-5 years. With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ inaugurations January 20th comes an overwhelming sigh of relief for an inordinate number of LGBT+ community members all around the world. Now the true work of undoing the last 4 years begins. I originally wrote this piece only from my perspective as a gay American man. I then heard the stories of many, many more LGBT+ Americans living in Iceland and included their voices as well.
-Meet Michael, Your Friendly Neighborhood American-
I was born and raised in New York, moving to Iceland four years ago. In researching the island, I came across troves of information on how LGBT+ friendly Iceland was. The writing was on the wall and it was plain to see that I’d have no problem moving to Reykjavik and being open about my identity as a cis gay man.
In fact, once I arrived I found that it was annoying how little people cared about my sexuality. I was shocked to find most Icelanders just nodded, agreed that yes the sky was blue and continued on with their day as if it didn’t matter to them at all. Conditioned over years in the US to expect conversational turmoil when my sexuality was brought up, I was left dumbfounded to see Icelanders couldn’t at all. In a way, I wanted them to care one way or another to get a rise out of them.
It’s clear why Icelanders didn’t react, Iceland has been defending queer rights since 1996 when the Icelandic parliament Althingi “passed a law recognising the registered partnership between individuals of the same sex (no. 87/1996)”. The same year Althingi “passed amendments to clauses §180 and §233 of the general penal code, relating to discrimination on grounds of nationality, colour, race, religion or sex, adding the words “on grounds of sexual orientation” (for more see www.gayice.is).” This continued in 2006 when same-sex couples gained access to adoption and IVF. Then Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir took office in 2009 as the world’s first openly gay head of state in modern times. By 2010 same-sex marriages were legalized unanimously in parliament. And of course there’s Samtökin ‘78, Iceland’s National Queer Organization founded in 1978. Iceland’s relationship with queer rights has been a short one in the saga of a young nation; Icelanders didn’t have many protections before the cultural wave of LGBT+ acceptance crashed over the island quickly. Just as many other cultural movements in Iceland, this shift happened rapidly because of Iceland’s small population size.
During a typical year, Reykjavik Pride is a huge family-friendly event attended en masse by members of the community and allies from across the nation. Before moving I had heard that even a mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr, had shown up to the parade in full drag.
These examples I saw during my move were in stark contrast to the mood coming from the LGBT+ community in the US at the beginning of Trump’s administration. From the very first day, we knew that Trump would potentially cut away at LGBT+ protections and rights. Conversations of overturning the supreme court case that gave the US marriage equality, Obergefell v. Hodges, were discussed.
Mike Pence’s record on LGBT+ anything looked terrifying. In 2000, while running for his congressional seat Pence was quoted saying “congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” After that, he went on to casually endorse gay conversion therapy by including it in one of three items in his “guide to renewing the American Dream.”
Item 1 of this dream? Gay marriage is in no way the legal equivalent of heterosexual marriage. Item 2 expanded this view to say gays and lesbians weren’t even minorities that could be discriminated against like women or people of color. Really queen, are we a figment of your imagination? The third item made it clear, with Pence suggesting that federal dollars should be funneled away from ‘those who spread HIV’ and funneled toward assistance to change “sexual behavior.”
“Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
For most Americans, this seemed controversial, just as controversial as it was when the case was settled and marriage for same-sex couples was legalized in the US in 2015. By then most of the US and much of the developed western world had come around to the idea that LGBT+ people were discriminated against in some way and deserved at least partial protection under the law. I’m confident that Pence and his religious chums weren’t happy the day same-sex couples married across the US under Obama’s watch. After all, in their view, sexuality or gender identity is not something predefined, something you’re incapable of changing. To them, it’s simply a deviant behavior that can be eradicated with enough work.
Once working with Trump, LGBT+ issues only hit Pence’s radar if he and his administration were attacking them, not defending them. The list of these actions is extensive; in a mere four years, the 45th president managed to roll back decades of advocacy work and true legislation protecting our livelihoods.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, primary candidate and openly gay man Pete Buttigieg said it best when he poised VP Pence with a religious quandary: “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade,” said Buttigieg. “And that’s the thing I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me — your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.” This growing religious fanatacism against the queer community is what kept me from returning to the US. Although I came from socially liberal New York, I had lived in the south and knew the culture of right leaning extremists well.
In September of 2019, I was elated to see the outpouring of rainbow flags and bracelets that appeared when Pence visited Iceland to meet with President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, who both mentioned LGBT+ rights as one of their priorities. The two also wore rainbow bracelets as a casual defiant message to Pence’s agenda.
The most not-so-subtle message during Pence’s visit to Iceland was when computer company Advania decided the day of his visit was a great day to celebrate diversity and changed their flags out in support. Ægir Már Þórisson, the CEO of Advania, explained “Why is this day different from other days? We support the fight for gay rights every day, not just some days.” Other companies along the Borgatún financial district then followed suit.
When asked about Pence’s visit Jenna Gottlieb, an ally of the community from New York, said “I felt like it was a nice gesture. It showed Iceland’s tolerance, and celebration of its LGBTQ+ citizens. I felt sick that Mike Pence was on Icelandic soil, but at least he was met with rainbows.” Other Americans in Iceland took it a bit further: “Mike Pence is a despicable human being who deserves no respect. I would have been happy if the Prime Minister spat in his face,” says Björn Jóhann Ólafsson, a gay American from South Carolina. All of this animosity culminated in a protest forming outside of Icelandic Parliment against his visit.
Even during their week before leaving the White House the Trump administration used their final minutes to roll back protections in health and welfare programs run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. During his four years in office the Don took radical action against the LGBT+ community despite his personal views of the community being more progressive than his party. In short, his supporters and fellow Republicans pushed his stance on the issue further than he even cared personally. The Human Rights Campaign kept a full timeline of the administrations hateful actions with the first being the removal of all LGBT+ issues from the White House website on their first day in office in 2017.
The Biden administration is playing the same game now, only in reverse. On January 20th the White House contact from was changed to have a drop down menu for pronoun selection. This is among a host of actions the new administration took on day one and two to reverse Trump and Pence’s work.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson says he felt forms of anxiety, stress, and anger during the Trump administration because of his sexuality or identity: “Trump repeatedly targeted courts to legalize discrimination against gay people. One case (argued in November 2020) hasn’t been released, but with the Republican majority SCOTUS, it is very likely that legal discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation will appear once the court rules. I don’t feel that I will be able to have a family in the United States due to this,” says Björn. The main question in the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case is if LGBT+ families should have the same rights to adopt.
Sæþór Benjamin Randalsson, a gay man living in Iceland for 14 years, sees it differently. In his opinion the traditional democrats are part of the problem. “Watching the mass delusion that [Trump] was responsible for queer-phobia that relates to the entire superstructure of the US society, which Biden, Pelosi, Obama, and the Clintons have far more to do with. Watching Trump get the blame alone was infuriating, it means we don’t collectively understand the fight we are in and can be distracted by propaganda. Trump should have been laughed off the stage in 2016, alongside with Hillary Clinton who argued against gay marriage in front of congress in pearls and a hammed up southern accent,” says Sæþór. “The man who built a trans mecca in Vermont in the 80’s and never hesitated to advocate for our rights should have been the nominee, and he would have won the general,“ hey says, speaking of Bernie Sanders.
Other queer Americans in Iceland say the descrimination varies between countries. Derek T. Allen, a gay man from Washington state, mentions “with regards to my sexual orientation, I’ve faced much less discrimination, harassment, etc. here in Iceland than in the US. That being said though, I feel like discrimination is actually quite visible in the LGBT+ community itself here in Iceland, more so than in the part of the community that I was mostly surrounded by in the US. As a gay man of color, I feel that especially little time is taken to understand these identities in Iceland and that gay white men here have a tendency to brush our issues under the rug or even just straight up gaslight us when these things are brought to their attention. Not to say that this doesn’t happen in the US (it does as well), but there are at least enough gay men of color around so that you can find a listening ear. There are hardly any of us here though, and that makes finding a listening ear much more difficult.”
Descrimination takes many different shapes and forms. For trans members of both the US community and Icelandic community, it’s even harder. Andie Sophia Fontaine from Baltimore, Maryland says “taking into account that things vary from state to state, I feel far more comfortable being openly trans and gay in Iceland than I would in the US. Not just because Iceland has legal protections for us in place that are still being debated in the US, either. Socially, transphobic violence is extremely rare in Iceland, with most of the transphobia happening on rather low-key, subtle levels. That needs to be fought against, too, but the most rabid transphobes in Iceland are not in a position of power.” Andie Sophia elaborates, “in a broad sense, life is indeed easier for an LGBT person in Iceland than the US. This depends, however, on where in each country we’re talking about. A queer person in San Francisco, for example, might have an easier time of it than if they lived in a smaller town or village in Iceland.”
“No, I find most [people in Iceland] don’t care. I’m treated very normally, and I believe that is related to two things: activist efforts and a lack of wealthy sociopaths making homophobia their wedge issue here like they do stateside,” says Sæþór. People in Iceland just don’t have the cultural stomach for prejudice in politics; “Homophobia in the USA was created and inflamed, it isn’t natural. That same tactic doesn’t work here. A good example was Sigmundur Davíð trying to oppose a trans law change and everyone groaning because it was so ignorant for the Icelandic social market, no one took the bait in numbers for it to be a useful political foil.”
An overwhelming feeling most everyone from the US in the group has is survivor’s guilt. For many it’s difficult to watch the US take actions against the community when they have LGBT+ friends and family back home experiencing it. Andie Sophia explains “I still have many queer friends in the US and I was stressed and worried for them. The policies of the US President, for better or worse, legitimises policy positions in other countries too, so that was a worry as well.”
For Nicola van Kuilenburg it came to taking legal action against the Trump era descrimination. When asked about anxiety, stress, and anger during the Trump administration Nicola pointed out that “as the parent of a trans kid that was forced to become an ACLU client in order to be themselves at school after the Title IX guidelines were pulled back in 2017, yes. Absolutely.” The reality for many trans Americans is that taking action in court is one of the only resorts left. The Department of Education has recently claimed Title IX protections didn’t apply to LGBT+ students. Defending the everyday rights of trans kids and adults in the US often requires more than protest; it takes organizations fundraising to support legal counsel and defense from many different sectors of the US government.
In Iceland the fight isn’t too different but life for trans and non-binary folk got a bit easier in 2019 when a gender determination law was passed alowing a third gender marker on official documents. Instead of “M” or “F” for passports, drivers licenses, etc. Icelanders are now able to have “X” for non-binary. Although the community Trans Iceland was overjoyed that the legislation was finally passed, it took the National Registry nearly a year and a half to actually put the law into practice. Then changing this gender marker on official documents comes at the cost of 9.000 kr for anyone applying. Trans Iceland is reasonably against the fee sharing on their Facebook page that “Trans Ísland urges the National Registry of Iceland to abolish this fee as soon as possible. An inquiry has been sent to the Association ’78 and we are awaiting an assessment. If the fee is not abolished, Trans Ísland encourages trans people who cannot afford to change their gender in the National Registry to contact Trans Ísland. We will meet people and ensure that trans people can access this change unhindered.” Trans Iceland later updated with another post detailing a reply from the National Registry deferring the responsibility for charging a fee at all to the Treasury. If anything, the process from protest to final implementation shows how complex, difficult, and time consuming it can be to change legislation in favor of LGBT+ folk.
-So, What’s an American to do?-
One action the Americans living in Iceland can still take part in is elections. And boy, oh boy did we feel strongly about voting in the 2016 and 2020 elections! In the Facebook group for US Citizens, a feverous amount of posts brewed surrounding the election, voter registration deadlines, and mail-in-ballot procedures. Everything from whether a pencil or pen could be used on an absentee ballot was scrutinized as most members of the group wanted their vote counted correctly with dire passion.
Among a massive disinformation campaign (from Trump himself) surrounding the legitimacy of the 2020 election and ballots via post, Yankees living in Iceland even went to the lengths of sending ballots using DHL instead of Posturinn, paying exorbitant costs to track their envelopes and ensure their arrival.
Since the votes rolled in on November 3rd, and 4th… and 5th… celebration broke out among the LGBT+ community worldwide. Many queer Americans living in Iceland mentioned they weren’t ecstatic about Biden’s win, but they’re definitely more content than with another four years of Trump. Kolbeinn Dalrymple, a Virginian living here for eight years mentions “I voted for Bernie Sanders in both the 2016 and 2020 primaries because of ambitious, social democratic policies. He was also decades ahead of the Democratic Party on LGBT issues. Economic and social issues are deeply connected and I felt he was the only candidate to understand that genuinely.”
Other Americans agree with Bernie’s progessive stances; “I did vote in 2020 in both the Primaries and the General Election. I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Primaries as I felt that he was more “for the people” than the others. I am okay with Biden winning, as he isn’t Trump and I can appreciate that he has a historic Vice President. That said though, I am still going to be quite critical of Biden as I am of all politicians. I especially hope that all of the social justice virtue signaling isn’t just for show,” says Derek T. Allen.
After January 6th’s riot at the Capitol building and the death of 5 people, Biden has a lot of work to “restore the soul of the nation.” It’s no small feat. Certainly even before LGBT+ protections everyone wants the Covid pandemic addressed in a comprehensive way so the world can return to some state of normalcy. Biden didn’t waste any time during his first week, signing a total 30 executive orders tackling the pandemic, climate change, racial injustice, and yes, us queers.
To start there was talk from Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken who proposed undoing a host of Trump era policies to promote queer and transgender rights not only in the United States but abroad, pledging to allow embassies to fly rainbow flags again. Hopefully this means a rainbow flag will fly outside the freshly constructed US Embassy on Suðurlandsbraut in Reykjavik.
Then there was the appointment of Dr. Rachel Levine to Assistant Secretary of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, the first time a transgender person snagged a high ranking position in a presidential administration. Hell, even potential Transportation Secratary Pete Buttigeig took a moment at his confirmation hearing to shoutout his husband Chasten. The cultural tone surrounding all LGBT+ topics from one administration to another has shifted dramatically.
As the ink dries on this article the Biden administration is not only allowing trans people back into the military but they’re seeking out those affected by the Trump ban to re-examine and offer support. Biden signed the order saying “what I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform and essentially restoring the situation that used to be before, where transgender personnel — if qualified in every other way — can serve their government in the United States military.” In a statement Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley resounded “I fully support the President’s direction that all transgender individuals who wish to serve in the United States military and can meet the appropriate standards shall be able to do so openly and free from discrimination.”
-So, We’re Good Now? Can we go back?-
All of Biden’s work points in the right direction. However, many Americans in Iceland see a mountain to climb and much more progress to be made beyond reversing the decisions made by the old administration. They also believe more work is needed here in Iceland.
When asked if the US was even salvageable after the attack on the Capitol, Jóhann Valdimar Ásgeirsson wasn’t so optimistic: “I feel a race war is coming. It will take a lot of time to fix what [Trump] did.”
Sæþór Benjamin Randalsson agrees: “It would have been a great time to realize that it’s capitalism as a system at the root of the US’s shitty human rights. It’s wealthy politicians who lie for votes, whether that’s “I’ll bring back coal jobs” for the red team, or “I’m about human rights” from the blue team. Had Sanders gotten the nomination and then won, I’d say yes it’s salvageable. With Biden as president? absolutely not. He will hasten its demise by providing no relief to normal people but flooding companies with money,” says Sæþór. “The possible recovery is completely outside the lane of electoralism and involves street action and revolution – against the biden/harris administration and against the Pelosi/schumer/McConnells of the senate and house,” he continues.
Derek T. Allen was a bit more sanguine saying “of course the US is salvageable! We all need to work together and take care of one another. It’s not quite that simple, but it’s a start, at least.”
Overwhelmingly many in the group are still worried about queer friends and family stateside. Andie Sophia Fontaine clarified that she “still has many queer friends in the US, and I was stressed and worried for them. And the policies of the US President, for better or worse, legitimises policy positions in other countries.”
Gina Wright, a lesbian from Buffalo, NY, a grees: “My wife is Spanish with dual Spanish/Icelandic citizenship. We were married in the US, and worried that our marriage would be de-legitimized [during Trump’s presidency]. We had a back up plan to get married here. I have 3 gay siblings in the US and I really was worried about their rights as well.”
When asked the most important question, if they would ever move back to the US, most Americans said they preferred island life. Björn Jóhann Ólafsson won’t be returning any time soon: “My American family has made it clear that I am an outsider to them. The most radical members of my family are avowed fascists and the moderates tell me to hush whenever I speak up for myself.” After all, even if Biden changes the highest office he can’t change our families.
For many, it’s simply a matter of safety; Sæþór explains “I stay away because of the violence. Iceland is the safest nation in the world. The US has a rape in it’s prisons every 2 minutes, a weekly school shooting, a black man is murdered by the police every day, and every week there is a mass shooting.”
I have to agree. After four years in Iceland, I don’t see myself going home. Not only am I established with work and family here, but I quite like living in a nation where being queer is as normal as the sky is blue.