New safe space for queer youth well received: “Definitely a need for this”

In 2022, young people seem to be more in touch with the rich spectrum of life. They’re more ‘woke’, more concerned about the environment and more accepting of differences. For many older folk, they would probably assume that being a teenager today seems to be a wonderful experience, but it’s not without its challenges.

Despite the outward awakening we see on the internet, bullying is still a major issue affecting kids and teens all over the world, including Iceland. Although Iceland is a nation with significantly higher levels of equality than other nations, homophobic bullying still exists. Even now, roughly 33% of LGBTIQ+ kids in Iceland feel unsafe when going to school.

In recent years, the conversation around LGBTIQ+ bullying eventually led to wider discussions about safe spaces for young queer people. In 2016 a queer youth centre was opened in Reykjavík. Hinsegin Félagsmiðstöð was opened to fulfil an important need for young people, however there wasn’t really anything available outside of Reykjavík’s bustling city centre. There hasn’t been anything available for kids in the suburbs.

This has now changed. Around 12km outside of Reykjavík is the district of Grafarvogur. It’s a small area that is actually one of the largest residential regions in Iceland’s capital. Grafarvogur is also now home to an LGBTIQ+ youth project operated out of the Sigyn Youth Centre.

GayIceland recently had a chat with Þórhildur Elínardóttir Magnúsdóttir, the assistant director of the youth centre, about how this project began and why it’s necessary to have something like this outside of bigger cities.

GayIceland: “So tell us a little bit about yourself.”
Þórhildur: “My name is Þórhildur and I‘m 21 years old. I‘m from Kópavogur and am currently the assistant director of Sigyn Youth Center for 10-16 year old’s in Grafarvogur. I am pursuing a master’s degree in Leisure studies from the University of Iceland, and I also serve as the international officer on the board of Samtökin ‘78 – the National Queer Association of Iceland.”

Þórhildur Elínardóttir Magnúsdóttir, the assistant director of the youth centre.

GayIceland: “How did you get involved with the project?”
Þórhildur: “Last year I organised get-togethers for LGBTIQ+ kids in the youth centre that I am now assistant director of. In conversations with staff in other youth centres in the neighbourhood I surmised that there was a definite need for something similar at those youth centres as well. We decided to apply for a project grant from the city of Reykjavík to offer the bi-weekly get-togethers for all young queer people in Grafarvogur as well as organizing instruction on the LGBTIQ+ community for all teachers, all youth center workers, and all young people in the neighborhood.”

“By starting this project in the neighborhood, we can ensure that most, if not all, queer young people in Grafarvogur get the chance to meet other young people in a similar situation.”

Currently eight schools, five youth centres and one recreation centre are involved in the project and have committed to educating their staff and young people on LGBT+ matters.

As Þórhildur mentions, this project is made possible thanks to support from the City of Reykjavík. Svandís Anna Sigurðardóttir is the LGBTIQ+ and Gender Equality Advisor to the city of Reykjavík and she explains that the city gave their support because they recognised the need.

“We need queer specific spaces”

GayIceland:“How did the City of Reykjavík help get this project off the ground?”
Svandis:“To create a better environment for queer youth in Grafarvogur. Þórhildur and her coworkers received funding to educate staff in schools and the youth centre on queer issues, which is being done with the Rainbow Certification amongst other things.”

GayIceland: “Why was something like this important to the City of Reykjavík?”
Svandis: “We follow the Reykjavík City Human Rights Policy, there is also the national curriculum as well as legislation on gender equality which specifies teaching children about LGBT+ issues. The latter two things are of course more connected to schools, but can be applied to the youth centres. There is also a policy about recreation within the city that lists possible actions, two of which are to create an environment that is inclusive and prevents social isolation of LGBTIQ+ youth.”

According to Svandís the people involved with the project recognised a need to create a specific queer space within the youth centers that were already up and running in Grafarvogur (run by Reykjavík City) and were lucky enough to have staff onboard that had an understanding and knowledge about queer issues and could therefore set it up.

Svandís Anna Sigurðardóttir is the LGBTIQ+ and Gender Equality Advisor to the city of Reykjavík.

“I think this example shows us how we both have to do better in terms of creating queer inclusive spaces, but also that we need queer specific spaces. Places where queer youth can come together in a safe space, be themselves, get support and understanding and just take a breather within a space that is theirs,” she says.

“Focusing more specifically on the district of Grafarvogur it’s important to understand the local community and what they specifically needed in regards to queer youth.”

Þórhildur: “There are LGBTIQ+ kids in Grafarvogur just like there are LGBTIQ+ kids everywhere else in this country, and in the world. Me and my colleagues in other leisure centers in Grafarvogur noticed that young queer kids in the neighborhood often felt out of place and faced prejudice from their peers in school.

“Too many kids learn the word gay as a slur before they actually learn what it means.”

We wanted to give those young people a chance to meet up and get to know each other. Often times young people who have recently come out of the closet or have recently discovered that they are queer feel alone in their situation and like there is no-one else like them. Meeting other young people in similar situations can make them feel less alone and more secure in themselves. We have already seen beautiful friendships blossom at the get-togethers which is great!”

A different reality for youth living in the suburbs

Asked how life is different for young LGBTiQ+ people in places like Grafarvogur to those living in the centre of Reykjavik,  Þórhildur says that the main difference is the proximity to the Queer youth center that Samtökin ´78 and Tjörnin recreation center run in the center of Reykjavík. “For many young queer people in the suburbs of Reykjavík, travelling to the city center by public transport can take a long time. Not everybody has parents that can drive them to the centre every week. Even if they did have parents that could theoretically drive them, many don‘t even tell their parents where they are going due to the fact that they are not out of the closet as queer yet and maybe even fear the reaction of their parents to this news.”

The lack of efficient public transportation in some neighborhoods like Grafarvogur also means that these kids have a harder time travelling to see friends or other queer young people in similar situations.

“That is why it is important to offer these kinds of get-togethers in more places than just the city centre,” says Þórhildur. “By starting this project in the neighborhood, we can ensure that most, if not all, queer young people in Grafarvogur get the chance to meet other young people in a similar situation. Having people they can relate to can make them feel less alone and more secure within themselves.”

Gay Iceland: “What can young people do at the get-togethers?”
Þórhildur:“For the last couple of weeks we have unfortunately not been able to meet up due to the pandemic but in the past we have baked cakes, played board games, roasted marshmallows, gone rock climbing and before Christmas we assembled and decorated gingerbread houses.”

Gay Iceland: “Are there events planned for the future?”
Þórhildur: “For the next planned meet-up we’re going to watch a movie and have a cosy time together. The teenagers who show up to the get-togethers decide on the agenda of the hangouts so what we do in the future is up to them!”

“This project would not exist on the scale that it does if it weren’t for funding from the city of Reykjavík.”

Gay Iceland: “What does having funding from the city of Reykjavik mean for the project?”
Þórhildur: “This project would not exist on the scale that it does if it weren’t for funding from the city of Reykjavík. The youth centers would of course do their best to offer something for the young queer people in the neighborhood, but generally funding is essential for these types of projects.”

“We have already seen beautiful friendships blossom at the get-togethers which is great!”

Pilot project for queer youth aged 10-12

As Þórhildur says, funding is often the key to success for initiatives like this, so does the City of Reykjavík plan to continue supporting similar youth based projects?
Svandís:“We have a queer youth centre in the city centre which is very popular, but we are still working on making sure the funding is secure and sufficient.
The number of teens that turn up there each week shows that there is definitely a need for this kind of space. It would be great to be able to create queer spaces in other neighbourhoods, as has been the case in Grafarvogur, just in terms of making it easier for the kids to get there.

We also need to work on ensuring that the youth centres we already have are inclusive and welcoming to queer youth. There is a pilot project planned with a centre for queer youth aged 10-12. There is definitely a need for that age group.”

“The number of teens that turn up there each week shows that there is definitely a need for this kind of space.”

Svandís also mentions that the issue of queer kids feeling safe extends even further beyond the funding of youth centres. “I would just add that this is something that needs to play out and be organised as a whole, the recreation department along with the school system and other organisations (sports etc.) doing their part – along with families. This means teaching and talking about queer issues, from kindergarten age onwards.

While there are many great examples of this, we are on the whole lagging behind. We don’t have teaching materials about queer people and queer issues (which is such an easy fix!) and too many kids learn the word gay as a slur before they actually learn what it means.

We still seem a bit shy, insecure or even frightened to discuss these things, especially with younger kids. While queer spaces should be created and sustained, it shouldn’t be because queer kids don’t feel safe or can’t be themselves elsewhere.”

Both Svandís and Þórhildur raise a valid point. It’s great that queer spaces exist, it would be nice if they weren’t the only place queer kids could feel safe. Before we let Þórhildur get back to work we had one final question.

Gay Iceland:“What can parents do to help queer kids who are experiencing bullying in school?”
Þórhildur:“Parents of LGBTIQ+ children who are experiencing bullying in school should start with contacting the school and seeking help with the situation. If the school does not respond appropriately then Samtökin ’78 are always ready to do whatever they can to help in situations like this.

Checking whether the school has provided education on LGBTIQ+ matters for both the staff and the children in the school is also important because a lot of the times prejudice and bullying stems from ignorance. Some kids simply don’t know better, and it is important to start correcting those ideas from a young age.”

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