Icelanders Get Angry Over “Grandparent”

Crowds gathered at Austurvöllur to show solidarity with Norway.

The National Queer Organisation of Iceland (Samtökin ’78) is asking the public to help it coin new Icelandic words to reflect the reality of queer people, including a general neutral term for grandparent, which exists in English but not in Icelandic. The competition is being held for the third time but has sparked harsh reactions as many believed its intention was to replace the Icelandic words “grandma” and “grandpa” with a gender-neutral term. National Broadcaster RÚV has been criticised for its coverage of the controversy, which many assert did not clear up this misunderstanding and made room for bigotry towards queer people.

Only want what English and Danish already have

The English language already has a gender-neutral alternative to the words “grandma” and “grandpa:” the word “grandparent,” as do many languages even more closely related to Icelandic, such as Danish. Although Icelandic, like English, does have gender-neutral terms for other family members, such as parent (foreldri) and sibling (systkini), the Icelandic language currently only has the gendered terms afi (grandpa) and amma (grandma) to refer to the parents of someone’s parents. (You can also build gendered compound words to refer to grandparents such as móðurmóðir, mother’s mother.) The Queer Association’s competition calls on the public to submit suggestions for a gender-netural term such as grandparent that could be adopted into the Icelandic language. It also asks for submissions for other terms that are lacking in Icelandic but exist in other languages to reflect the lived experience of the LGBTQ+ community.

No intention to replace “grandma” and “grandpa”

An article on the competition engendered some 1,000 comments on social media, many in protest of the initiative. A closer look revealed that many authors misunderstood the nature of the competition and believed the Queer Association was looking to replace the words “grandma” and “grandpa,” amma and afi, in Icelandic. “This isn’t about changing the way people talk,” Ásta Kristín Benediktsdóttir, one of the competition’s judges and an Assistant Professor of Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland told RÚV. “It’s just about the language needing more words.” Asked why she thinks the competition has received negative reactions, she stated: “I think it’s about some sort of fear that someone’s trying to change the language without people being able to have a say in it.”

RÚV criticised for not correcting misunderstanding

Ásta later criticised RÚV’s editing of her interview, however, saying it had left out the key points she made on the issue. Others from the queer community criticised RÚV’s coverage of the issue as well, pointing out that the broadcaster prioritised asking people on the street what they thought about the competition rather than clarifying what it was about and prioritising expert analysis. “It is not especially responsible, especially now that there is a backlash against queer rights, to use news space to talk about the reactions rather than using the opportunity to correct a misunderstanding that seems to have made a lot of people quite upset,” stated Samtökin ’78 Vice-Chair Bjarndís Helga Tómasdóttir.

‘Of course they are lying’: Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Under Fire for Comments about LGBTQIA+ Asylum Seekers

Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús Gunnarsson has come under fire for comments he made on his Facebook page concerning asylum seekers who apply for international protection in Iceland on the basis of their sexuality. Vísir reports that the comments were made in the wake of an interview with lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva, who said he believed the incident reflected consistent governmental bias, namely that the government routinely assumed that asylum seekers were lying about their sexuality in their applications.

‘Is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?’

In the interview, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva revealed that the government accused his client of lying about his sexuality and had refused him asylum on that basis. Helgi asserted that the accusation was indicative of a pattern of unfounded accusations and asylum application rejections and indeed, the district court later reversed the government’s decision in his client’s favour. The interview, which was published by Vísir on Thursday, was shared on Facebook by Deputy Director of Public Prosecution Helgi Magnús.

“Of course they are lying,” wrote Helgi Magnús in a now-removed post on his Facebook page. “Most people come here in search of more money and a better life. Who wouldn’t lie to save themselves? Apart from that, is there any shortage of gays in Iceland?”

Screenshot of Helgi Magnus Gunnarsson’s Facebook post

It bears noting that this is not the first time Helgi Magnús has come under fire for inflammatory public statements. In 2019, he was investigated in Stundin after expressing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, both online and in a speech given at an international conference on human rights and migration in Berlin. In 2021, he was criticized for liking Facebook posts that call into question the testimony of women who say they’ve been the victim of domestic abuse.

Confirmation of systemic prejudice

Álfur Birkir Bjarnarson, chairman of Samtökin ’78, was quick to respond, emphasizing that Helgi Magnús’ comments were indicative of systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people in Iceland’s judicial system.

“I don’t know that there’s a shortage or excess of redheads, gays, men, or women,” he wrote. “These are just people, and we take them into society as they come.”

Álfur Birkir continued by saying that the Deputy Director’s comments say more about him than asylum seekers, as well as underlining some painful realities about the justice system in general. “This is just confirmation of what we’ve experienced first-hand—that there is most assuredly prejudice within the system and [that] systemic prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people, immigrants, and other minority groups is quite evident within the system. This is yet one more confirmation for those of us who have experienced this and are moved to examine it.”

‘Really likes gay people’

In a follow-up interview after his initial post, Helgi Magnús repeated his position, saying that it was neither abnormal for people to lie about their sexuality in asylum applications, nor for the government to investigate their claims. He said he was not commenting on a specific case, but more generally. He also questioned whether a person’s sexuality should be a factor in their receiving asylum over someone else.

Asked to speak to his comments about there being “no shortage of gays in Iceland,” Helgi said he really liked gay people and had never had anything against them. (At time of writing, Helgi Magnús had added a ‘Pride 2022’ frame on his Facebook profile photo.) He said he didn’t want to comment further on the matter because there was no reason to. The fact that his comments had aroused significant comment and coverage in the media was simply a result of a series of slow news days in Iceland, he said, and could hardly be considered real news.

Álfur Birkir was circumspect about Helgi Magnús’ response, saying that it was all well and good to hear that the Deputy Director had nothing against gay people but that it was time to see that in action.

“It’s good to hear,” he remarked, “I only wish him well with that, but it would be good to see that in action, then. As an arm of the system, he has a great responsibility—not only to show ‘ahostility,’ but also literal affection as part of the system.”

Proving sexuality ‘something that heterosexual people would never have to do’

Left-Green PM Jódís Skúladóttir has since spoken out on the matter, not only against Helgi Magnús’ comments, but also against the injustice of making asylum seekers prove their sexuality.

 “These are extremely depressing comments that in reality, completely condemn themselves,” said Jódís. “It is, of course, a serious matter that people in positions of power, all the way from the bottom to the top in our system, give themselves permission to speak this way. I take this very seriously.”

“How unfortunately worded, that there’s no need for more gay people here,” she continued. “I don’t think we need any more white, heterosexual, middle-age men in management positions.”

In the interview that incited all this commentary, lawyer Helgi Þorsteinsson Silva also noted that LGBTQIA+ asylum seekers often have to go to great lengths to prove their sexuality, which is frequently called into question even if they are in a relationship or married.

Jódís spoke to this as well, saying, “It’s obviously crazy that people have to—at any time, for any reason—prove their sexuality, which is, of course, something that heterosexual people would never have to do.”

“I want to point out that here, in our society, which is considered progressive and tolerant in many respects, there are a lot of people who are reluctant to be open about their sexuality,” Jódís continued. “People are ostracized, rejected, subjected to violence—and that’s in this good, open society. Just imagine being a refugee, from a country where a death sentence might even await you. [Imagine] being in mortal danger if you are open about your sexuality. It’s obvious that you’re not going to advertise it on social media, that you haven’t publicly admitted it.”

One in Twenty LGBTQIA+ Students Have Been Physically Assaulted

Pride Rainbow Reykjavík

One in twenty LGBTQIA+ students has been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual characteristics Vísir reports. This was among the findings of a recent survey conducted by Samtökin 78, the National Queer Association of Iceland, on the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ youth in schools.

“We need to do a lot better when it comes to LGBTQIA+ young people,” stated Tótla I. Sæmundsdóttir, Educational Director of Samtökin 78. “They endure physical harassment, verbal assault, and physical assault in schools.”

A third of students surveyed reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. A quarter of respondents said that they skipped school at least once in the previous month and a third avoid locker rooms and physical education classes in general due to feelings of discomfort or unsafety.

Just under 46% of respondents said that school staff never intervene when verbal slurs or degrading terms are directed at LGBTQIA+ students in their presence. It is fellow students, says Tótla, who tend to intervene on the part of their LGBTQIA+ peers. But this inaction on the part of teachers and school staff sends the message that such language and conduct towards LGBTQIA+ students is acceptable within the school environment.

The first step in correcting this state of affairs is, says Tótla, better education. “We want education for students and education for teachers. We want LGBTQIA+ students to be better safeguarded at school.”

“We also want to see educational materials that reflect their realities and society,” concluded Tótla. “[Students] reported in the study that there is little to no course material that reflects LGBTQIA+ people in a positive light.”

Reykjavík Pride Events May Be Cancelled, ‘But Pride Never Will Be!’

Saturday would have marked the twentieth anniversary of Iceland’s Gleðigangur, or Pride Parade, Fréttablaðið reports, but although the parade had to be cancelled this year for obvious reasons, organizers, activists, and LGBTQIA+ people in Iceland are finding other ways to mark the occasion.

Parade organizers made the decision to cancel the event right after social distancing regulations and gathering ban limits were set in place, knowing that it was simply too large an event to scale down in any practical way. The Pride Parade draws up to 80,000 attendees annually.

Although August’s regular schedule of pride events can’t go on as planned this year, organizers have encouraged people to observe the occasion in their own ways. “We’ve kind of put it in people’s hands,” remarked Reykjavík Pride president Vilhjálmur Ingi Vilhjálmsson. “To be active on social media and to try to be as visible as they can. We also plan to hold onto the educational and cultural events that can be postponed and put them on in the winter when hopefully, the situation has improved.” Pride organizers are encouraging people to use the hashtag #hinseginheima, or #Reykjavikpride in English, to tag their posts this month.

“Although planned events will be cancelled,” reads the Reykjavík Pride website, “Pride will never be!”

Making the LGBTQIA+ experience visible

“The parade has been so important for LGBTQIA+ people who aren’t in it themselves, people who maybe haven’t come out of the closet, or haven’t found themselves yet,” continued Vilhjálmur. “These people don’t necessarily have many opportunities to see themselves reflected in the media, nor in the streets. Our reality isn’t all that visible.”

Vilhjálmur says that people have been creative in how they are celebrating Pride Month this year. “I know one family that plans to bake rainbow cakes with their kids and read LGBTQIA+ kids’ books. A lot of people plan to go on their own pride walks with family and friends and be visible with their flags—I expect there will be a number of micro pride parades around the city.”

Strætó, Facebook

‘Plenty of Room for All Genders’

Strætó, the company that operates city bus service, is marking Pride month by dedicating a city bus in honour of trans people in Iceland. Transvagninn (‘the trans bus’) is adorned with the trans flag and the inscription “Plenty of room for all genders.”

“Trans people’s struggle for their rights has been quite evident in recent years and the latest breakthrough in Iceland was the law on gender autonomy,” remarked Guðmundur Heiðar Helgason, the PR representative for Strætó. “It only made sense to us that the Reykjavík Pride bus would be dedicated to trans people in Iceland.”

See Also: Iceland’s Gender Autonomy Act is a Step Forward for Trans and Intersex Rights

“The visibility of trans and LGBTQIA+ people is more important now than ever before,” said Trans Ísland chair Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir. “Even though Iceland has made it to the relative forefront of the struggle for [LGBTQIA+] rights compared to some other countries, there’s still prejudice and discrimination in most parts of Icelandic society. The struggle is nowhere near over. So it’s great to see a clear message from Strætó about trans people and our struggle for our rights and we welcome this excellent and prominent initiative.”


European Court of Human Rights Backs Icelandic Court in Hate Speech Case

European Court of Human Rights

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a complaint from Carl Jóhann Lilliendahl, who was convicted for homophobic hate speech by the Supreme Court of Iceland. Carl Jóhann made homophobic comments in response to an online article in April 2015 and was eventually fined ISK 100,000 (around €800 at the time). The ECHR unanimously declared Carl Jóhann’s application inadmissible.

Comments Ruled “Serious, Severely Hurtful, and Prejudicial”

In April 2015, the local authorities of Hafnarfjörður, Southwest Iceland, approved a proposal to strengthen education in elementary and secondary schools on lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender matters in co-operation with the National Queer Association (Samtökin ‘78). The decision led to substantial public discussion which Carl Jóhann became involved in. The case concerns comments he wrote in response to an online article on the issue, expressing his disgust and using derogatory words for homosexuality, namely kynvilla (sexual deviation) and kynvillingar (sexual deviants).

Samtökin ‘78 reported Carl’s comments to the police. Following an investigation, he was indicted in November 2016 under Article 233 (a) of the General Penal Code which penalises publicly mocking, defaming, denigrating or threatening a person or group of persons for certain characteristics, including their sexual orientation or gender identity. Though he was acquitted at first instance, in December 2017, the Supreme Court overturned the court’s judgment and convicted him, fining him ISK 100,000.

The Supreme Court found that the applicant’s comments were “serious, severely hurtful and prejudicial,” and weighing up the competing rights at play in the case, ruled that it was justified and necessary to curb the applicant’s freedom of expression in order to counteract prejudice, hatred and contempt and protect the rights of social groups which have historically been subjected to discrimination.

Argued Freedom of Expression Was Breached

Carl Jóhann lodged a complaint with the ECHR alleging that the Supreme Court’s conviction had breached his freedom of expression. The ECHR has now rejected the complaint, finding, like the Supreme Court of Iceland, “that the comments had promoted intolerance and hatred of homosexuals,” according to a press release from the Court. The release goes on to say that, although the comments did not amount to the “gravest” form of hate speech as it was not immediately clear that they had aimed at inciting violence, they fell under the court’s definition of “less grave” hate speech, which the court has previously held that states were allowed to restrict.

The ECHR found that the Supreme Court of Iceland “had extensively weighed the competing interests at stake, namely the applicant’s right to freedom of expression against the rights of homosexual persons to private life. The Court therefore found that the applicant’s complaint […] was manifestly ill-founded and rejected it as inadmissible.”