“Can I say this is who I am?”

Reykjavik City Councillor Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir on coming out, activism, and identity.

Many know Sanna Magdalena for her work in advocacy and politics. Although she’s a relatively young politician, she’s established herself as a leader in the campaigns against racism and poverty in Iceland. However, what most people don’t know much about is a part of her identity less publicized: pansexuality.

Around the most recent municipal elections in May, Sanna penned a comment on a post in Hinseginspjallið (The Queer Chat Group on Facebook) asking how many candidates for office were queer. In her first “public” statement about it beyond close friends and a family member, Sanna wrote “I am pan, in the Socialist Party. I told my mom a year ago May 17 and have told the closest around me : ) But yes, hi, I’m saying it here.”

The comment was a breakthrough moment for Sanna, though it came with some hesitation. “I really thought “should I comment?” I wasn’t sure,” she says. At that point, Sanna had told a few people privately. “I told my close friend. I told her before I told anyone else. I remember telling her like I told my mom and everything went well. It all went well. Then I told my friends and I kind of burst it out like “Hey, have I told you I’m pansexual?” and they were like “Oh, ok. What’s that? Ok, cool.”

Sanna’s mom took the news well too. “The city had a reception at Höfði house and there were these rainbow flags on the 17th of May, the International Day Against Homophobia. I remember thinking like “ok, the universe is telling me something. I got to tell my mom. This is gonna be the day, I’m going to call her today and she’s just going to have to deal with it.” So, I told her and the whole time I was thinking that if she can’t accept this it was going to kind of be her problem, but she took it so well! She said “oh wow, I love you so much, I want you to be able to tell me everything” and she’s been so supportive.”

She explains. “I mean there was a time where I wasn’t allowed to get my ears pierced, so that was maybe why I was scared telling her; that she’d say ‘no, no, no.’ But she’s just been so wonderful. She joked one day ‘isn’t someone waiting for you, a prince… or a princess?’ She’s realizing she should say something different, right? She said when I came out like ‘just be prepared Sanna you might get some nasty comments;’ that’s so sweet of her you know saying ‘I will be there for you, I’m going to be here for you’.”

Am I pansexual?

Coming to terms with her new identity wasn’t the most straightforward process for Sanna, who mentions how her background in anthropology helped her gain a better understanding of society’s “boxes”. “I didn’t really figure it out myself, I’m still figuring out a lot about myself, but this didn’t really happen until a couple of years ago. I don’t see this as something that I’ve always felt.”

Then I told my friends and I kind of burst it out like “Hey, have I told you I’m pansexual?”

“My journey started when I was studying anthropology because that’s when I started to put a critical lens on everything. I started to question a lot of things that had just been put forward as normal for me. I remember just thinking ‘why do we have the gender binary?’ It was just so eye-opening. This isn’t the truth even though society puts so many things forward as the truth, the way that it has to be or should be,” she says.

This critical lens really opened a pandora’s box of questions for Sanna when it came to the labels she’d been told. “It kind of built from there and I thought about how I wished I was a person who was not only attracted to men if that makes sense. I remember thinking on top of those thoughts I was having that it was so messed up that I’m already socially classified as a woman. I’m just supposed to be attracted to men and that’s just the way it is. It’s difficult to describe but hope I’m making sense,” she laughs.

Analyzing these rigid social norms added to the confusion. “At the same time I was also thinking that’s not me, I’m just attracted to men. It didn’t make sense, it didn’t add up, but I came to the conclusion that I was just attracted to men because I hadn’t really felt anything different before. Then over time, it kind of just happened. Maybe I was just opening up to the fact that this was me.”

Asked how she feels about the recent attack against the queer community in Oslo, Norway, Sanna says  the unity against hate is so important, standing together. “I saw a comment from a friend online that really got me thinking, it was about how the officials in Oslo were referring to what happened as a terrorist attack whereas it looked more like a hate crime. Tt got me thinking just on the importance of addressing things correctly and where we stand in that matter,” she says, adding that she’s glad that queer community in Iceland is standing together.

This is really me

A tipping point for Sanna came when a family member was discussing her orientation. “There was a family event I was at and I don’t remember exactly what was said but someone was talking and asked about my sexuality like ‘oh, is she gay?’ referring to me. And I remember standing there and my mom and uncles and grandmother were there and I remember shouting ‘no, no. I only like men.’ Just saying it out loud so they wouldn’t misunderstand something. But at that moment I thought to myself that’s a total lie, I just lied to myself. Like wow, why did I lie about this, this isn’t correct. That just made me realize like ok, something’s off here. Why did I react so harshly? You have to do something about this,” she says.

Sanna also didn’t want to lie and moreover didn’t want to lie to herself. She says “I’m not a person who doesn’t tell the truth. So when I realized I lied to myself and them I figured ‘ok this is really who you are’ because you realized you lied. Ok, this is really me.”

Opening up to the identity

As it is for many people coming out has been a journey for Sanna. “I’m still trying to figure it out,” she jests. Part of her questions the validity of her new identity since she wasn’t connected to it in her youth: “even saying this out loud I’m thinking how can I be this person like wasn’t I this person all these years before? Or did I just finally open up towards it?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘am I sure this is who I am?’ and ‘how could I have just become this?’ ya know. When you hear many others talking about their coming out process so many have been so sure for such a long time. So I kind of felt like a fraud, like can I say say ‘this is me’ if I’m coming out at 29?” she asks.

When you hear many others talking about their coming out process so many have been so sure for such a long time. So I kind of felt like a fraud, like can I say say ‘this is me’ if I’m coming out at 29?

This hesitation and questioning eventually gave way to acceptance. Someone she crossed paths with helped her realize that pansexuality was really what she was drawn to. “My eyes really opened up when I was speaking to a person and got to thinking ‘wow this person is really interesting,’ having a conversation and ‘I’d really like to get to know this person better.’ After we chatted I thought ‘I have no idea how this person identifies gender-wise but that doesn’t matter.’ I don’t need to try and figure it out, I don’t need to try and understand. This person is really interesting in that kind of way and if I had the chance I’d like to get to know this person better.”

Can I say I’m pansexual?

Sanna says she also feels conflicted about her pansexuality since she hasn’t dated anyone beyond men. “It’s also just new to me,” she says, “because I’ve only been with men it’s like ‘can I say I’m pansexual?’” While assuring her that no one has to prove their orientation for it to be valid, Sanna elaborates “but I feel this need to like ‘prove it’ so no one can say ‘are you sureeeee?’ It’s just in my head.”

Although she’s not dating anyone at the moment, Sanna isn’t in a rush. “When I first meet someone I’m thinking ‘do I like this person?’ ‘do we have good conversation?’ ‘do I feel attracted to this person?’ ‘Can we get to know each other better?’ Like what are we talking about when I’m talking to you not thinking ‘I wonder what this person looks like without pants on,’” she laughs.

Beyond attraction, a person’s outlook on the world matters a great deal to her. “It goes in the other direction as well like maybe I see someone that’s super attractive and see this person seems to be like working on something cool, and I’m attracted to this person. Then I hear that person talk about their political beliefs and what they stand for and the person just starts looking like worse and worse and worse,” she says.

Sanna’s coming out process has not only helped her come to terms with her identities but has made her realize she can be a role model for others. Photo / Sandra Dögg

A conflict of identities

Part of Sanna’s timid approach to coming out comes from the established work of activists that fought for LGBTQIA+ rights in the past. “People have been fighting a lot of battles and struggles for their rights and been through a lot of ugliness and then I’m like ‘oh yeah, this is me. I haven’t faced any discrimination, I’m out. Hi, this is me’.” This viewpoint may come from her background fighting for many other marginalized groups where she knows the communities well.

A daughter of a single mom growing up, Sanna experienced poverty in Iceland at a time when the island was full of prosperity. “I grew up with a single mom who was working in a kindergarten, a low wage job. It was really difficult to try and make ends meet. We were in the rental market and it was really difficult to try and find something affordable, so we were really struggling. At the time she also had a part-time cleaning job on top of her job at the kindergarten. She was really just using all the money she got from both of these jobs just to get what we needed and still didn’t have enough to last until the end of the month. It was just really difficult, we weren’t even buying all the basics. We experienced poverty in just not affording food to eat. I’m so proud to be the daughter of my mother though. This myth of Iceland being a feminist paradise doesn’t trickle down to the poor women who are doing this kind of work in the care sector and the schooling system.”

“It’s always important to share your experience and now that’s what I’m doing.”

Eventually, all of her identities will gel together nicely, but it hasn’t been without a bit of confusion first. “My identity has been for a long time has been ‘Sanna who is fighting poverty and talking about racism’ because in my master’s thesis I was researching how mixed-race individuals face belonging to a community. It’s something that I worked on in activism before politics. Now I have this identity. How does it like fit? Ok, you have this identity as Sanna anti-poverty and Sanna anti-racism and now you’re going to be talking about this? How does it go together?”

Things are looking up

Although she’s been recently reelected to the Reykjavík City Council and there’s much work to be done, things are bright for Sanna. Her coming out process has not only helped her come to terms with her identities but has made her realize she can be a role model for others. “It’s always important to share your experience and now that’s what I’m doing is talking about it so that always helps instead of making this worse,” she says.

Plus another socialist party member was elected to the council too, so she’s finally got someone to share the workload with. “I think it’s going to be easier now that I have someone else with me in the city council. So I need to focus on saying to myself ‘ok, you’re going to stop working at 6 or 7 pm and just stop and have a life.’ I think I need to open up more and say to myself it’s ok to have a bit of a life outside of the office and open up towards that.”

Main photo: Sandra Dögg

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