Walk This Gay
It takes a tremendous amount of care must be taken for an organisation to represent an entire community to international visitors. And a notoriously outspoken community, at that. But the members of Pink Iceland, a travel organisation serving the LGBT community in Iceland, execute their role with precision. The organisation provides a comfortable space for anyone and everyone who braves the six flights of stairs that lead to their colourful Laugavegur headquarters.
Gay couples, straight couples, curious wanderers, and a couple of nosy reporters gather in Pink Iceland’s living room while a tour guide serves us coffee. We are about to embark on the Pink City Walk—a guided introduction to the great 101.
The tour guide begins with a spiel on “how we got here so fast.” The guide spits out a couple of quick statistics to emphasise the complete 180 that Reykjavík has taken over less than half a century. In 1975, he notes, Reykjavík was so bigoted that any sexual orientation which dared challenge “hetero” was essentially forced to flee. Last year the Gay Pride parade attracted over 100,000 people. “That’s nearly a third of the population of Iceland,” he nods approvingly. From this introduction, and the nature of the organisation, I step onto this tour thinking I am about to get a dose of the “history of gay Reykjavík.” I’m thinking gay bars, sites of political triumph in gay rights, sites of political scandal in gay rights, and more gay bars.
Our first stop is against the railing at the government office building on Lækjargata. Some facts and figures spill out of his mouth. I’m sure they are very important in the history of Iceland and the shaping of the current political state, but all I can think about is how carefree the kids on the bikes look weaving around the clusters of tourists on Austurstræti.
The Juicy Scandal
We continued on the Austurvöllur and circled up in front of the Parliament building. More on politics, a bit on education, and a smidge of religion. Everything he was saying was interesting. For example, did you know that everyone in Iceland is signed into a religious denomination at birth, and the amount of money each church receives is based on how many people are signed up with that religion? That’s an interesting tangle of church and state. But I was still waiting for that juicy scandal that went down in the basement of Parliament, or the riot of self-righteousness by the church over gay marriage.
Before we depart Austurvöllur the tour guide spins around and points out Hótel Borg. During the American and British occupation, he tells us, the soldiers frequented Hótel Borg. It was their spot, where they’d go to party and to get down with ladies, fellows, whatever. No questions asked. Check! Queer happening number one. Scandalous soldiers at the Hótel Borg.
We continue the tour through the city theatre, Iðnó, which smells like cake and has an aged decadence to its interior that makes me nostalgic for a glamorous era that I was never a part of. A plane flies unsurprisingly low overhead, completing the scene.
Just beyond Iðnó’s patio is the pond and the group leans up against the railing so the guide can do some more efficient pointing. “That’s Fríkirkjan,” he tells us, motioning at the idyllic little church across the pond, “the free church. I changed my affiliation to them because they were the only church that allowed for gay marriage.” This detail caught my attention more than the rest. At this point the tour guide wasn’t just pointing at things and naming them for what they were, he was placing them in connection to himself. By drawing this personal attachment, the little white church, as quaint as it looks, would be nothing more to me than a quaint little white church with a fact figuratively tacked to its roof. “These are the ducks,” he says, pointing to some ducks. “This sculpture here,” he says turning back toward the land, “is a symbol of the anonymous servant.” The sculpture carries a briefcase and walks casually with a giant concealing rock over its head. “That’s my friend Neil,” he says, waving at a man on the bridge, “hi Neil…”
The tour lasted exactly two hours, and I saw more Reykjavík landmarks than I ever knew existed. We traversed 101 from City Hall to Harpa, down the oldest street, through the oldest neighbourhood, over to the National Theatre, and even stopped for a well-timed coffee break somewhere between. As a whole, the tour was well put together and much more interesting than I anticipated after the first two stops.
I later realised my disappointment in the lack of ‘queer’ was a bit naive. It may have been fun to learn just how gay Reykjavík really is, but it wouldn’t align with the poise of Pink Iceland. They are there to celebrate LGBT culture, not to separate it from the rest of the community. To over exaggerate it would be a misrepresentation, but to let it go unacknowledged, well that would be no representation at all. With their Pink City Walk, Pink Iceland demonstrates that while there is a thriving gay community in Reykjavík, what’s more important is that there is a community in Reykjavík, a strong one at that, and the LGBT community is just one essential piece of it.