Recently a national conversation on bullying brought to light that homophobic bullying is sadly still a thing in Iceland and a recent survey shows that one-third of LGBT+ youth feel unsafe at school in the country.
Hrefna Þórarinsdóttir explains why safe spaces for queer youth are vital and tells the story, goals and challenges of Hinsegin fèlagsmiðstöð, the queer youth center she’s been running since 2016 in Reykjavík.
What is Hinsegin félagsmiðstöð in a nutshell and how does it translate in English for the few of us who dare not to speak a word of Icelandic?
“It is a safe space for queer teenagers to develop and find their place under the queer umbrella, to give and get support.
We want to create that “home away from home” feeling in our center. We want it to be a place where queer teens can find others that share the same experiences and mindset. And most of all a place where they feel welcomed, can have fun and forget about all their worries and problems or, on the contrary, talk about them with people who are trained to tackle those issues.
We have currently one permanent staff member and I, plus two temporary staff members due to increased attendance. Otherwise, the program is mainly staffed with volunteers from The National Queer Organization, Samtökin 78.”
“I’ve been noticing increased interest from even younger kids (6-13) so it may be time to create a safe space for that age group as well.”
When did you create the center, and where can it be found?
“The center was greenlighted in 2016 and we opened in September that same year after a few months of brainstorming and planning in Spennistöðin youth center, Barónsstígur 32 A, Reykjavik 101.”
Didn’t Samtökin 78 have their own youth program at the time?
“Samtökin had indeed their own youth program called Ungliðahreyfing Samtakanna 78 for many years and it was very popular and successful. But in 2016 the age range was becoming too wide. And as we know, a 13-year-old can have a very different mindset from a 20/25 old or even an 18-year-old. So, Samtökin asked Reykjavík city to help them find ways to make the program take that more into account.
That is where I came in the picture. I had worked in youth centers for many years and was at the time working for a leisure center in Reykjavik which is now known as Tjörnin. I’ve had good experience working with different groups of young people and was asked to join this project so I just jumped in! We decided then to create a youth center for 13 to 17-year-olds so we could give that age group the specific attention and support it needs.”
Is it the only center of this kind in Iceland?
“I think this is the only youth center that focuses on queer youth in Reykjavík but there are others in municipalities like Keflavik and Akureyri if I remember correctly.”
Let’s talk a bit more about the teenagers who come to the center. How many of them gather on a regular opening?
“Around 80-110 teens gather on a regular opening and the numbers are always growing! It is kind of crazy since we had around 20-25 when we first started in 2016! Try to remember 80-110 different names and pronouns – it’s hard but not impossible!”
Have you noticed trends or patterns amongst those who come: age, gender, sexual preference, social background?
“No, not exactly, but I’ve been noticing increased interest from even younger kids (6-13) so it may be time to create a safe space for that age group as well. We will be taking the first steps in that direction in the next weeks and hopefully we can offer some kind of opening for at least a part of that age group as soon as possible.”
Does the center host informal hangouts or do you schedule meetings, events, etc.? Both perhaps?
“We are able to open once a week and we always have something planned. We offer different kinds of activities: a TV room, a board game corner, a good recording studio – karaoke is a very popular activity, a cozy corner and so much more. It’s hard to list everything. Mostly the kids just come here to hang out with their friends and other kids who may going through the same experience. Some also look for guidance from our staff.”
What are the highlights of the year?
“We take part in Reykjavík Pride each year, that is a big deal for us. Last time we had around 70 super excited teens join in our Pride float. Queer Role models is definitely another one: a few times a year we invite queer people that the teenagers consider role models to visit us and talk about everything, from the color of their toothbrush to their experience of coming out. Last year we also had a super successful Queer Prom for the first time, and we are planning the next one already. So as you can see, we do all kinds of stuff!”
What do the parents think about it? Do they play some role in the center?
“There are some very supportive parents, and we are very grateful for them. They have helped with our participation in Pride for example. Some kids come without their parents knowing and we respect that, but we would rather be always in touch and of course in good terms with the parents.”
How did Covid impact the project?
“Covid hit us pretty hard. During the first wave we had to close down, just like the other youth centers in Iceland. The second wave took Pride away. And during the third wave we had to close from October to mid-January although we tried to hold some events online then. But the kids always prefer to meet in person and that is very understandable. In mid-January we opened again with limitations and are very excited to be able to reopen the center without any limitations as soon as possible.”
Any other challenges you had to face?
“In youth work the most common issue is always funding and I think that is the main reason why projects like this one fail. It is sad but true. We are always in the endless journey of looking for funds and even had to close temporarily at one point because of funding problems. But I don’t give up easily.
I think visibility is also very important. The more people know about us, the more people are willing to fight with us to keep this youth center open and growing.”
“Imagine that you can only go once a week to the very place where you feel welcome and are able to meet your friends. That is not fair to these kids. ”
What would you dream Hinsegin félagsmiðstöð to be in, like, 5 years?
“Wow, I have so many dreams. First, my dream would be that we can open more often, like other youth centers in Iceland. As of now we are only able to open once a week and that’s not enough. Imagine that you can only go once a week to the very place where you feel welcome and are able to meet your friends. That is not fair to these kids. I also dream that we have enough funding to pay our very important volunteers. Another dream I have is that we can offer a program for younger kids as I mentioned earlier. The fourth and maybe the biggest one is to open similar youth centers in other municipalities in Iceland.”