1 An Icelandic Battle of Wildlife Versus Voltage 7/02 (background story)
July 16, 2002 – New York Times
An Icelandic Battle of Wildlife Versus Voltage
by Donald G. McNeil Jr.
North of Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland – This is Europe’s second-largest wilderness, a high plateau of lakes and virgin rivers, jagged canyons and snowy former volcanoes linked by swards of treeless tundra inhabited by thousands of reindeer and geese. It is also the alpine spillway for billions of gallons of glacial melt that Iceland’s national power company plans to use in the $3 billion Karahnjukar Hydropower Project, an undertaking so big it equals nearly a third of the country’s gross domestic product. The wildlife-versus-voltage battle has been fought on the banks of many of the world’s rivers. But it is being played out here on epic scale across an extraordinary landscape.
The power plant to be built will have one customer: an aluminum smelter owned by Alcoa, the world’s largest aluminum company, which is considering investing $1 billion. Alcoa entered the picture only in April, and is hoping to conclude price negotiations with Iceland’s government and national power company this week so that work can begin next month, during the short summer. But schemes to dam the area for hydropower have been in the works for decades and have been fought in a see-saw battle for just as long. Asked why Alcoa would want to enter such a fight, Jake Siewert, an Alcoa spokesman, noted that the company had found "a broad coalition" welcoming it to Iceland. It had considered other locations, including India, Brazil and Vietnam, he said, adding that it would meet opposition anywhere.
"Where’s the clean project?" he said. "Do you know of one that has no political impact and that environmentalists are all for?"
Hydropower, he added, would at least be cleaner than a coal-fired smelter somewhere else. For Iceland, which has only about 280,000 people, the project is a grand experiment in social engineering. The test is to see whether dying towns can be repopulated and virtually an entire region’s economy redirected from fading fishing industries and skittish tourism. The smelter is to rest on Iceland’s wind-swept eastern fjords, with a view to creating 2,000 construction jobs and 600 to 1,000 permanent ones in a region that Icelanders are deserting in droves. When and if the project is finished, 80 percent of Iceland’s electricity will be dedicated to making aluminum.
Other projects, like the Three Gorges Dam in China, cover more landscape and displace more people. But Iceland’s endeavor is remarkable for the way it shifts around the basic elements of a fragile ecosystem in pursuit of economic revival. Outraged environmentalists say Iceland is selling its wild birthright, damaging its eco-tourist image and risking its credit rating to benefit a $23 billion American conglomerate and to win a mere handful of jobs. Prime Minister David Oddsson, who backs the plan, counters by saying that Iceland has profitably taken big risks to attract smelters twice before, that it must keep its rural areas populated and that it will still be able to establish a stunning national park, as environmentalists desire. "We’ve calculated that the damage is relatively small," he said in an interview. "And even 600 jobs in this part of Iceland is very important."
The present plan was approved by 44 of Parliament’s 63 members, including 12 members of the opposition. In a poll, 47 percent of Icelanders who responded supported the plan, and 30 percent opposed it. The chilly tundra north of Vatnajokull Glacier is Europe’s second-largest wilderness area, after Svarlbard Island in the Arctic. The latest plan calls for damming up two of the area’s three virgin rivers, draining them through 24 miles of tunnels, and then pouring the water through turbines to generate 700 megawatts of electricity.
Last August, environmentalists declared victory when Iceland’s State Planning Agency killed the plan, saying that the dams would do too much environmental damage and that the economic advantages were vague. But the agency decision was reversed in December by the environment minister, a member of the Progressive Party, which strongly advocates repopulating eastern Iceland. Environmentalists cheered again this April when Norsk Hydro, the Norwegian aluminum company, backed out after having problems raising money. Its chief executive also said he had doubts about finding enough workers in the east, which has only about 11,000 residents.
But the government vigorously pursued a new customer, and Alcoa’s chairman, Alain Belda, told local papers recently that there was "a good chance" it would step in and build a smelter in Reydarfjorur, for the export market. The actual price at which Iceland will sell Alcoa its hydropower is still being negotiated, and will not be made public. But Norsk Hydro was known to be negotiating for around 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, half the rates in the United States and less than a third of some in Europe.
An outspoken opponent of the project, Kolbrun Haldorsdottir of the Left-Green Party, said the government was "not even begging on its knees to the aluminum companies any more: they’re amputated; we’re on stumps." The country, she said, only bothers to do environmental impact studies because of European Union pressure, and its secretiveness over the price "makes us a banana republic."
Mr. Oddsson, who has been prime minister for 11 years, bristled at this and said: "My opposition has gone bananas. This process is very transparent." Members of all parties sit on the board of the national power company, Landsvirkjun, he said. A Russian company has also expressed interest, but both the government and environmentalists note that Alcoa says it can coexist with a national park and has a relatively good environmental record. The chief of the American branch of the World Wildlife Fund sits on its board, though she says she has recused herself from anything to do with this project.
There is another plum for Alcoa in the deal. Because Iceland is so pollution-free – 98 percent of its buildings have geothermal heat and hot water – it negotiated an exception to the Kyoto accord on greenhouse gases, so Alcoa will not have to pay penalties for the carbon dioxide emissions that its smelter will produce. The company has agreed to do the dirtier parts of its operation overseas. It may switch to new low-carbon dioxide technology and will supply the plant by ship rather than truck.
Environmentalists remain hostile, but less to the smelter than to the dams. The current plan calls for eight of them across tributaries of the two rivers, Jokulsa a Dal and Jokulsa i Fljotsdal. The small, high-altitude reservoirs on the Fljotsdal would drain through tunnels into a huge new reservoir on the Dal. It, in turn, would drain through a 24-mile-long tunnel over the edge of a plateau, through the turbines, and then back into the bed of the Fljotsdal where it widens into a lake.
There would be, environmentalists complain, a multitude of effects. Helgi Hallgrimsson, 67, who has opposed the project for decades and calls it a potential "world-famous example of short-sighted politics and subservience to foreign capital," contends that 100 waterfalls between 6 feet and 130 feet high will be lost. Honnun, the engineering consulting firm that coordinated the environmental impact study, contends that only three will be lost. But they only include waterfalls submerged by dams, while Mr. Hallgrimsson includes those dried up when the stream above disappears.
Dimmugljufur, the Dark Canyon, a cleft in the earth full of troll’s caves and basalt columns that the power company’s own brochures call "Iceland’s most dramatic canyon," will itself be dammed at its entrance and bone dry in all but the wettest months of the wettest years. Disgusted opponents say the waterfalls will be turned on and off like spigots when tourists are expected in the brief July-August hiking season. The new Halslon reservoir behind the dam would cover 22 square miles, much of it vegetation where 1,500 reindeer graze. As a result, environmentalists argue that a third of the reindeer will die, though Skarphedinn Thorisson, a wildlife biologist who has studied them since 1979, was more cautious. "There will be some mortality," he said, "but I can’t estimate how much." It is hoped that the geese who nest there, who are not endangered and whose flocks have been increasing, will find new nesting areas.
The damming is also likely to make Lake Lagarfljot, an east Iceland landmark already milky white from glacial silt, become browner from mud, affecting trout and arctic char. It may also shift the common delta that both rivers share, which may affect harbor seal herds. Environmentalists are angry that the power company has already graded roads and built tourist overlooks with billboards describing the dam, even before it had permission to build. "If you live here, it’s very difficult to say you’re against it," said Karen Erla Erlingsdottir, a member of the Organization for Protection of the Eastern Iceland Highlands, who lives in Egilsstadir, on the Lagarfljot Lake. "All the politicians like it and say it’s the only thing that can save the area."
Gudmundur Bjarnason, the mayor of Reydarfjorur and two other coastal towns, says 90 percent of his 3,000 constituents want the smelter. "We can’t live on tourism," he said. "The season is short and the jobs pay very low. Smelter jobs pay well, and they need 60 percent high school graduates. We need to get our young people back." The Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which is the World Wildlife Fund’s local partner in fighting the project, has sued to overturn the environment minister’s ruling, and another environmental organization, Landvernd, is lobbying aluminum companies, trying to get them to shy away from the project.
Each side has had economists produce studies showing that the venture can or cannot be profitable. Both depend on assumptions about the price of power that has not yet been set. Arni Finnsson, director of the Conservation Association, said hydropower is not "renewable energy" as its defenders claim. "That dam will fill up with sediment, and future generations will have to deal with it," he said. "It’s like mining: it’s not sustainable." Prime Minister Oddsson called the environmentalists "pessimists" forever predicting disaster and demanding new studies. "There are endless numbers of flowers you can count," he said, "but most people admit that this is finally close."
Gay Iceland–travel story
The great gay poet Wystan Auden—aka W.H.Auden—used to tell people that he was descended from the Vikings. Many centuries before, he personally assured me, a marauding ship full of Icelanders attacked the east coast of England, and before exiting scattered their DNA all around the neighborhood. Leading, eventually, to him. Back in 1936 Auden went so far as to pay a visit to his putative ancestral land of Iceland along with hetero English poet Louis MacNeice. Together they penned ‘Letters from Iceland’ a peculiar hodgepodge of a book filled with, yes, letters, musings, sayings, and several very long poems, including Auden’s witty “Letter to Lord Byron’ in honor of another famous Euro homo poet.
Back then, otherworldly Iceland was a boat trip of several days from nearly England. Auden told me that before WWII, Iceland was—how can I put it—not as sophisticated as it has since become. Going there, he said, was like trekking to Antarctica or Inner Mongolia—by no means an everyday sprint.
Not any more: Now you can e-mail Icelandair for a jet ticket, and depending on connections you can be there in half a day. World War II and the U.S. Air Force presence in Iceland, a strategic Atlantic Ocean port, changed everything. Today Iceland is a desirable European and American vacation destination for three quarters of the year, and for good reason. The island nation combines the comforts and advantages of a city life with superb outdoor activities like glacier sledding, volcano climbing, and whitewater rafting beneath giant waterfalls in crystal-clear air amid astonishingly beautiful scenery, only hours away from world-class museums and dining. Where else can you go where the first language everyone learns is Viking, where every resident under 50 speaks English, and the guys sport names like Thor, Leif, and Baldur (“Call me Val!”)
Auden wasn’t sure what he’d find in Iceland, and while much has changed in seven decades, many misconceptions remain about this remarkable country and its people. To begin with, it’s not that cold. This past summer temperatures were near 90, making it typically warmer year-round than Boston, Minneapolis, or New York City.
Reykjavik, the capital, literally means "smoky bay," referring to the steam from hot springs that the Vikings first saw sailing into the long, deep harbor with its hilly, rolling prairie to the south, and enormous, protective headlands to the north. Neither the first nor even an early settlement for Iceland, Reykjavik’s history is a few hundred years old. It is small, with a populace of 140,000-half of Iceland’s citizens-and it’s the gay and lesbian center of the country. Heimir Mar Petursson, head of Iceland’s gay pride parade (called Different Days because the Icelandic word for different can also be used to mean queer), told me the 2004 parade hosted 40,000 people-"mostly straight"-making it the third largest event in the country.
Laugavegur Street runs east-west into the older part of town and is, as a banner proclaims in English, THE MAIN SHOPPING STREET. That’s where you’ll see the gay and lesbian folk. A few tourist traps jostle pizza parlors, a student pub ("Beer Always on Sale"), fashion boutiques, Rolex watch shops-with one restaurant, cafe, and bakery after another. shopping is great, with art, antiques, and even year-round Christmas store.
A good place to meet the locals is Samotokin ’78, the gay center with a library and a bar on the fifth floor of a Laugavegur Street building. Its name means ‘lets’s get together,’ and that’s what gays did openly for the first time that year (it seems easier than rioting). Other than at gay pride, don’t expect to see femmes, baby dykes, or flamboyant drag queens on the street of anywhere except around the few gay bars and clubs. And even then mostly on weekends. Gays fit themselves nicely into Iceland’s homogenous society. And if you want to know someone’s gender, check the name” you’re either a son (Thorsen) or a daughter (Eriksdottir), though no one ever explained to me what sex changes do namewise.
Most houses in Reykjavik are two stories high, built a century ago with bright vertical tin walls. Outstanding architecture includes a perfect 19trh century church high on a hill behind a statue of Leif Eriksson donated by the United States, and the Hallgrim Church, an art deco cathedral where I heard a world class recital by a Dutch organist. The 21st century dominates harbor side and suburban apartment complexes, and construction cranes fill the skyline. But the president and prime minister live in ordinary houses and have offices in a hutlike structure that once housed the jail.
The world’s first parliament, the Thingvellir, erected around 1000 A.D., is now a museum outside of town. Humble Reykjavik is hardly in-your-face about being a capital city. The rest of Iceland is agricultural, rural, or wild–80% of its barren land is unpopulated. Keflavik International Airport is 50 minutes away, the surrounding landscape is ethereal in solidified lava, courtesy of the island’s volcanic makeup; it sits above a thin hot spot in the earth’s mantle. An hour south is the Blue Lagoon, a lake with steam vents that has been developed into a beach, healing bath, and beauty spa with deck chairs, a bar, a cafeteria, massages, mud packs, and even a gift shop.
A two-hour drive west leads to the sights of the Golden Circle: Gull (golden) Falls is the height of, but half the width of, Niagara Falls, and equally as noisy. Yet due to its bucolic setting it’s gorgeous. The tour bus I took had an openly gay guide, Thorbjorn, who was refreshingly humorous with an edge. Noting the many Americans aboard, he talked about the 11th century "war" between Iceland and the United States. "Thorfinnur led a party to Vinland and came upon natives, whom his men immediately begin killing. Unlike the English and the French, the Vikings soon got tired of killing natives and returned to Iceland."
Not far from Gull Falls you can climb Langjokull glacier, or a bit farther on, Hofsjokull. Four-wheel-drive vehicles help as the interior is periodically overrun by rugged lava spotted with phosphorescent green lichen; amphibian buses easily cross seasonal ponds. Horseback riding is popular and stables are numerous, but the horses must be imported as the Icelandic ponies I saw were short and squat with Shetland manes and tails. We joked that the ubiquitous small sheep could be carried under an arm like a wooly purse. Heading southeast leads to Myrdalsjokull glacier, where you can ski or snowmobile year-round. Over the hills are active volcanoes spouting lava fields, and a guide or guided tour is recommended. Hiking, mountain climbing, and rock climbing are good all over Iceland but are best in the north where the weather is sunnier, especially between Iceland’s second-largest town, Akureyri, and spectacular Lake Myvatin, prime freshwater fishing country. To get there or to the huge Vatnajokull glacier requires an overnight stay in a hotel, B&B, or–through a tour company–in a local farmhouse.
Some short time spent in a small place and everyone knows you, for good or for bad-what you do and who you do. I was told to expect "very little anonymity, even in Reykjavik." To compensate, people are cool (though not cold) to strangers and are never intrusive or nosy.
??If you’re hommi (gay) or lesbian you are, like it or not, the new one to watch. In one gay bar people knew who I was with before entering. Later the action moved to a priivate leathery venue: MSC Iceland is in an open concrete courtyard. The men are very friendly. Both lesbians and gay-friendly people went up the street to Cafe Ugavegur to Dillon, one of the night establishments. To me Icelanders are among the world’s most beautiful, ‘aftig’ (blond or dark-haired) with perfect rainy-weather complexions. They have been independent thinkers for centuries. Gunnora Hallakarva, who researched Viking attitudes toward women, explained that "if a husband complained of his wife’s lesbian relationship, she could simply divorce him." Yet Icelandic women were legally barred from dressing like men and restricted from taking mens jobs.
Still, Icelandic history is replete with legends about women, like the 17th-century orphan who not only dressed as a man and went to sea with men but ended up captaining her own herring boats, which conferred high status. She married several men for children, divorcing them after the children were born, and lived happily alone. She was called "kynvilla, or ‘perverted,’ " Samtokin ’78 archivist Hrafnknell Tjorvi Stefansson told me. "But she was feared and respected, and everyone in the province attended her funeral." Even now, younger Icelandic women and men usually hang out in same-sex groups on Saturday nights in Reykjavik, roaming from club to club to restaurant until well after dawn. They can do this because few work on Sunday and Icelanders love to drink and hang out–if only to sing Elton John songs a cappella in a doorway.
Also "no one in Iceland takes religion seriously. It never really caught on," says Arni Einarsson, co-owner and manager of Reykjavik’s chic gay hotel, Room With a View.
Auden had told me once that in Iceland the sex was "uninhibited" but that he saw few signs of homosexuality. That has changed. Thorir Bjornson, an early "out" Icelander now in his 70s, says that during World War II "you could always meet uniformed men during the afternoon at the Hotel Borg, which was semi-gay then. When NATO arrived, there were gay parties everywhere."
Even so, because of how small and family-oriented the country is, most gays remained closeted. Akureyri, the second largest city, has only 12 official members of its gay center, according to Thorvaldur Kristinsson, who heads up the Reykjavik Gay Center. "It was only with the arrival of AIDS in the mid 1980s that homosexuality became a national topic." Then, surprisingly, everyone decided not only that it was OK but that everyone had to keep their gay friends and family members healthy and happy.
That was when gay-friendly legislation began. The age of consent dropped to 14 (for both gays and straights) in 1992. In 1996 the legislature passed a law authorizing lesbian and gay domestic partnerships equal to straight marriages. And in 2000 foreign gay couples could register as domestic partners. But there are still laws banning in vitro fertilization for lesbians, and a law preventing gay partners from adopting a child that is unrelated to them (although second-parent adoptions are allowed).
Gay spokespeople feel that those laws will change soon too and that everyone will fully relax about being gay.
Socially it’s already happening among the young. Many young gay men now take advantage of the relaxed attitude and cruise hetero clubs like Pravda and Rex to pick up straight guys. That’s a social problem W.H. Auden would have found totally unexpected. But if the poet were alive today, I think he’d be visiting Iceland often. He always remarked how it was the geologically youngest country on earth–and that fresh, youthful energy pretty much sums up the Iceland of today too.
Picano wrote about homoerotic Florence for our Fall 2004 issue.
(Dial 011-354 before all phone numbers)
=Close to Laugavegur Street, the Guesthouse 112 (Ingolfsstrceti 12; 692-9930; $40-$110) is made up of six first-floor rooms.Two apartments above share a bath and kitchen on a side street near the MSC Clubhouse and gay center.
= Felicia’s Flat (Skolavordustig 35; 552-3622; $170$260) is a bottom-floor flat in a historic building operated by a lesbian couple, with room for four and modern conveniences.
= Room With a View (Laugavegur 1 8; 896-2559; $125-$300) has 14 flats, including penthouses with tenraces and a hot tub above Laugavegur Street. It has excellent service and amenities, including the gay-Reykjavik advice of Siggi and Ami Einarsson, who own and operate it.
Moderate to High
= Star Trek fan alert! Hotel Borg (Posthusstrceti I I; 55 1-1440; $300-$450), an art deco beauty in downtown’s central square, has a no-guest policy after 10:30 RM.
= Hotel Nordica (Suthurlandsbraut 2; 444-5000; $250-$350), owned by Icelandair; is svelte and contemporary with a five-star restaurant and harbor and mountain views.
= Gay-owned and operated, inexpensive Jomfruin (La:kjargata 4; 55 1-0 1 00) has a wide variety of Danish open-faced sandwiches and Viking brown vodka with a large beer chaser.
= Vegetarians take note:The very inexpensive A Nrestu Grosum (Laugavegur 20b; 552-8410), named after and run by a single woman, offers great vegan soups, stews, casseroles, and sandwiches.
= Another gay-owned pricey fish place with superb food is Humarhusid ("lobster house") (Amtmannsstigur I; 561-3303) in an elegant 19th-century building.
= Dear but worth it for ambiance and food (amb and fish) is Sk61abru (Sk6labru I; 5624455) near the tourist center and Internet cafe.
= Most like a U.s. gay bar is John Forseti (Athalstrceti 10; 5 I 1-0962). It is Reykjavik’s main GLBT hangout, with weekend entertainment that includes inventive drag shows. All are welcome.
= Leather Club MSC (Bankastrcedi II, just off Laugavegur Street; 5621280) is for men only and has a speakeasy ambiance with an active backroom.
= Cafe Cory (Austurstrceti 3; 5 I 1-1033), up the block from Forseti, is favored by women and for after-hours.
= Dillon Bar (Laugavegur 30; 511-2400) is a jazz and rock club now popular with lesbians.
Offering discount gay holiday packages, Icelandair (800779-2899) is the only way to go!
13 December 2007 – ssonet.com.au
Iceland’s Queer Hotspot
by Cathy Anderson
The country most well-known as the birthplace of Björk is a seldom-visited island for Australians. But for any traveller on a European jaunt, Iceland is a welcome relief from the ABC tour (another bloody church). Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, has its share of historical architecture, but the country’s wealth and building boom make it a far more modern proposition. Outside of the capital, should you have time, is a smorgasbord of natural beauty and incredible landscapes. From hard, cracked lava fields, volcano rims that stretch 1km across, deep fjords, ice caps and a lagoon filled with floating icebergs, it’s deeply impressive. Travellers with only a long weekend spare can find plenty to do in the city, with natural attractions close by. The Blue Lagoon geothermal baths, the Stokkur geyser and Gulfoss waterfall are only an hour or two away.
Almost two-thirds of the population live in the capital, Reykjavik. It’s a distinctive city, with colourful square buildings and an open harbour populated by whales (which can be viewed on tour boats or tasted in some Icelandic restaurants). During the summer, the sun only just dips beyond the horizon, which means partying till dawn takes on a whole new meaning. The city is fairly quiet during the week, but each weekend its inhabitants hit the streets for the weekly runtur, or pub crawl. The action kicks off at 11pm as locals and tourists alike drink their way through the city’s plethora of pubs and daytime cafés-turned-bars.
The gay scene in Iceland is, like its population, small, but extremely active. The queer lobby group Samtökin 78 was established in 1978, three years after the first Icelandic gay man went public with his sexuality. Iceland has some of the world’s most progressive laws. Registered partnerships for same-sex couples were passed in 1996, as was an anti-discrimination act; it was the first country in the world to legalise joint custody of children brought into gay relationships and is currently reviewing IVF bans for lesbians. Samtökin 78 has a small space in the heart of the city with a library and café. The first Gay Pride event, including a march through the centre of Reykjavik, was held in 1999 with 1,500 people. In 2007, Pride attracted more than 60,000 people – the biggest ever. Following a successful fight against the use of homophobic language in Iceland, the word “hommi” (from the Greek “homos”) is used for gay men and “esbía” (from the Greek Lesbos) for lesbians. The only gay bar in Reykjavik is the newly opened Qbar. The sign on the door says “straight-friendly” and the crowd is around two thirds “queer”. It’s a modern, classy venue with huge mirrored walls on one side, features work by a local gay artist and has a bright, sparkling bar area.
The main downside for Australians travelling to Iceland is the cost. An average beer, any one of eight made by Icelanders or a limited variety, will cost around AUD$15. As most of the Icelandic landscape is a combination of desert, ice or volcanic lava fields, there’s not a lot of agriculture, so food is pretty pricey too. Accommodation choices are varied, from the network of hostels to farmhouses which open their doors through summer to hotels in the capital. A night in a double room could cost you up to AUD$500. Hotel Odinsve is a gay-friendly hotel right near the heart of Reykjavik. The service is warm and friendly, there’s free internet access and spotlessly clean rooms with heavy drapes so indispensable for keeping out the midnight sun. The hotel’s restaurant is home to Icelandic chef and TV personality, Siggi Hall, who is renowned for his unique recipes using Icelandic seafood and lamb.
4th April 2008 – PinkNews
Gay rights group pays tribute to Bertie Ahern
by Tony Grew
Politicians from across Europe have spoken about the impact departing Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern had during his decade in office. His tireless work and legendary charm helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, and like his close friend Tony Blair he led his country through a period of economic growth and prosperity. But for some Irish people, his commitment to equality for his gay and lesbian fellow citizens marks him out as one of the most important of the country’s political leaders.
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) is Ireland’s oldest gay rights group, and Bertie Ahern showed his support for their work in the most public way imaginable exactly two years ago yesterday, when he opened their new Dublin premises. GLEN board member Christopher Robson told PinkNews.co.uk that the Taoiseach’s involvement was unique. "It was certainly one of the very few if not the first occasion when the Prime Minister of any country actually came and officially opened the offices of a gay and lesbian organisation, and made it into a big media event attended by many politicians, parliamentarians and senators from all parties across the whole community. It was the fact he wasn’t sidling into the organisation," he said. "It was exhilarating to see someone stand up and set the seal on a lot of the work we’ve been doing. We’ve been working more or less non stop for twenty years and still are working on partnerships."
The GLEN opening was a major public event, at which Mr Ahern stated beliefs about gay people that would have been unthinkable in Irish politics a decade before. "Our sexual orientation is not an incidental attribute," he said. "It is an essential part of who and what we are. All citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, stand equal in the eyes of our laws. Sexual orientation cannot, and must not, be the basis of a second-class citizenship. Our laws have changed, and will continue to change, to reflect this principle."
In 1993 the Republic of Ireland became one of the last western European countries to legalise homosexuality. Since Ahern came to power in 1997 he has overseen a number of reforms that have given equality to Ireland’s LGBT community. "He made sure the whole equality legislation, the employment equality acts, the equality authority and equality tribunal legislation was all brought back and he made sure that it progressed rapidly when he became leader," said Mr Robson. "On an overall view, he’s been very successful in terms of opening up the country of increasing the economy under his rule. Over the last ten years the number of people in work in Ireland has almost doubled, which meant the old curse of emigration, which disproportionately affected gay and lesbian people who wanted to get out of the country for a variety of reasons, has all stopped. Also the number of people who have come into Ireland, including gay and lesbian people has increased. There is an increased acceptance in a much wider, more vibrant economy, meaning companies such as Microsoft have made clear their commitment to gay and lesbian equalities and this is one of his legacies. There is a new culture here of acceptance of diversity. I’m not saying he’s perfect, he is of course flawed like all other politicians, but he has done a lot of good."
Bertie Ahern’s transformation of Irish attitudes is the more remarkable given that the party he leads, Fianna Fail, is probably the most socially conservative. "The changes are a credit to him because I think his own instincts would have been cautious on these matters, but he does recognise the importance of diversity and treating people equally and was prepared to stand up and say so," said Mr Robson. I should say he was an exceptionally friendly man and when he was talking to you he gave you his full attention. A lot of what he has achieved is because of his ability to listen to what people were saying."
Perhaps Mr Ahern’s greatest legacy will be the Civil Partnerships Bill, which the government he will continue to lead until May 6th is due to publish next week. Some gay rights activists want full gay marriage, but the government are concerned about a possible constitutional issue. "In terms of marriage, I think between himself (Bertie Ahern) and the Greens, who have been very important, it will be introduced at some point," said Mr Robson. " Support for it seems to be coming in stronger and we hope it will be strengthened further. Ideally we want the system to be very close to the scheme in Britain. It does seem unlikely that it will be achieved in this parliament but we’re all united in wanting to see marriage as the proper option."
Ireland has been transformed by Bertie Ahern’s time in office, and no matter what conclusions history comes to about his involvement in corruption scandals, for the lesbian and gay community he will always be remembered as a friend and an ally.
Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern TD, at the official opening of the new offices of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) on 3rd April 200:
"I would like to thank the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network for inviting me here today to officially open their new offices in Fumbally Court and to launch their Work Programme. Fumbally Court is now shared by a number of organisations ranging from design companies, international architects such as Murray O’Laoire and national organisations like the Disability Federation of Ireland and GLEN. This type of development reflects the ongoing rejuvenation of The Liberties. The Liberties are at the heart our thousand year old city. Today, these historic streets are again on their way to becoming one of the most successful, vibrant, diverse and liveable communities in Dublin. Given the positive air of change here in The Liberties, it is particularly appropriate that GLEN has located its new offices here. I am delighted, as Taoiseach, that our gay and lesbian community are taking their rightful place at the centre of our capital city’s cultural, community and civic life.
The most successful cities in the world are those that foster cultural diversity. This success manifests itself economically as well as socially. A touchstone of this diversity is the manner in which gay and lesbian rights are respected. We all want Dublin to be viewed as a successful city, a city where all our citizens, including our gay and lesbian citizens, are fully respected. As a trailblazing, independent, non-governmental organisation, GLEN aims to achieve gay law reform based on equality, as well as broad-ranging anti discrimination legislation. It is good to see that you are a rapidly expanding organisation today. One year ago, you had one full time employee. Now you have four and that is soon expected to reach eight. You have been a courageous leader for the equality agenda in Ireland. Enormous credit is due, in fact, to a small number of people who, when it was difficult to stand up and be counted, were not afraid to say that they were gay or lesbian.
I pay tribute to these people. I acknowledge their courage. Their fight against the prejudice and ignorance has challenged our community. It has changed our culture and it has led the transformation of public opinion in Ireland today. Our sexual orientation is not an incidental attribute. It is an essential part of who and what we are. All citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, stand equal in the eyes of our laws. Sexual orientation cannot, and must not, be the basis of a second-class citizenship. Our laws have changed, and will continue to change, to reflect this principle.
Ireland today enjoys a comprehensive legislative framework to protect people against discrimination both in employment and in other important areas of life. The Employment Equality Acts 1998 and 2004 and the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2004 prohibit discrimination in employment and the provision of goods and services on nine separate grounds. These include sexual orientation. These significant legislative measures, introduced during my time as Taoiseach, are helping to deliver practical results for lesbians and gay men.
Recently the Government introduced an amendment to the Parental Leave Act. This extends force majeure leave to employees in respect of persons, with whom they have a relationship of domestic dependency, including same-sex partners. GLEN’s five-year work programme now seeks to advance equality around legal recognition of relationships. Important issues raised include equal access to civil marriage, equality in legal recognition of de facto relationships, as recommended by the Law Reform Commission, and equality in other proposed models of legal recognition such as civil partnership. I want to state clearly today that the Government is unequivocally in favour of treating gay and lesbian people as fully equal citizens in our society.
Giving effect to this principle in legislation is necessarily complex and challenging. Legislating for civil partnerships requires thinking through a host of related matters. The British Civil Partnership Act, 2004 has 264 sections and 30 schedules. Moreover, our written constitution gives rise to complexities that did not arise in the British case. This challenge, however, is one that the Government is determined to meet. We are committed to legislating on this issue. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has recently established a Working Group on Domestic Partnership, chaired by Anne Colley, to progress work in this area. Relevant Government Departments and Offices, the Equality Authority, the Family Lawyers Association, economist Finola Kennedy and, of course, GLEN are represented.
The Group is charged with preparing an Options Paper for presentation to the Minister by October this year. It will provide an analysis of the categories of partnerships and relationships outside of marriage to which legal effect and recognition might be given, consistent with constitutional provisions. It will identify options as to how and to what extent legal recognition could be given to those alternative forms of partnership, including partnerships entered into outside the State. Civil partnership models in place in other countries will be taken into account.
I welcome the fact that the Group is now up and running and inviting submissions from interested parties. The All Party Oireachtas (Parliament) Committee Report on the Constitution, as well as the deliberations of the Law Reform Commission, will also inform its work. I understand that the Human Rights Commission is also preparing a report on protection under international human rights law for unmarried couples. This work appears to complement the ongoing review by the Law Reform Commission. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is also currently working on an Immigration and Residence Bill. A discussion document, entitled ‘Immigration and Residence in Ireland’, was published in April 2005. Among the issues the document identifies for consideration are non-marital partnerships and same sex relationships. Work is continuing on the Bill and it is intended to bring proposals to Government later this year.
Furthermore, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is currently preparing regulations to implement the Council Directive on the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States. This will provide certain entitlements to the partner of a Union citizen where there is a durable and duly attested relationship. The procedures that will operate in this area are currently being developed. Of course, legislation alone will not address all the issues facing lesbians and gays – a lot of the focus is on services and how they are delivered. The National Economic and Social Forum published a report entitled Equality Policies for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People: Implementation Issues in 2003. The active involvement of representatives of the gay and lesbian community in the preparation of the report contributed immensely to its quality.
This report is a useful examination of lesbian and gay issues across a range of government activity. For example, the Garda (police) authorities have since established a National Advisory Panel, which includes members who represent the gay perspective. They assist and inform the Gardaí on matters relating to the community. Designated Gardaí have received special familiarisation training and have been appointed as liaison officers to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. The Government agreed that each Department should take steps to implement the relevant recommendations and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has overview responsibility in relation to implementation. GLEN and the Department have established a structured relationship to follow up on this Report. And the Department has provided a grant to assist GLEN in recruiting a research officer to support it in its work with Government Departments.
Although there is a growing climate of equality and support for anti-discrimination action, I also recognise that members of the gay community still face isolation, abuse and victimisation on the basis of their sexuality. In its ambitious five year work programme, ‘Building Sustainable Change’, GLEN aims to advance progress under three key areas: legislation and policy; education; and building community capacity. This approach recognises the significant progress that has been achieved and focuses on practical further steps required to deliver improvements across key policy areas. I must compliment GLEN and acknowledge that they have proved themselves a knowledgeable, competent and business-like organisation in their dealings with Government, while maintaining their independence and their own strategic vision.
My presence here today on behalf of the Government, is to congratulate GLEN on their success to date. I look forward to an ongoing, successful partnership in the future. The issues of equality, of fairness and of esteem that you champion are issues that go to the heart of the kind of community that we are. They are issues that I care deeply about as a politician. In a short time, we have made substantial progress. Now we have the opportunity to do more – and we will. I wish you every success as you embark on an exciting and challenging programme of work from this wonderful base in Fumbally Court.
January 27, 2009 – PinkNews
Icelandic politician may become world’s first lesbian Prime Minister
by Tony Grew
The President of Iceland has asked Social Democratic party leader Ingibjorg Gisladottir to try to form an interim administration. It is reported that Social Affairs Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir will be named as interim Prime Minister. If chosen Ms Sigurdardottir, 66, will become the first openly gay or lesbian person to become a head of government. She has been an MP since 1978 and was recently voted the most popular politician in Iceland.
Yesterday the country’s Prime Minister stood down and the entire Cabinet resigned. A general election has been called for May 9th. The government was toppled by the financial crisis, which severely affected the Icelandic banking system. The International Monetary Fund began a $2.1bn (£1.49bn) bailout programme in December to stop the nation of 320,000 people going bankrupt. Norway, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are lending Iceland an additional $2.5bn.
Prime Minister Geil Haarde had hoped he and his Independence Party could continue in coalition with the Social Democrats. Negotiations broke down yesterday and the coalition was dissolved. Mr Haarde, whose party currently have 25 of the 63 seats in the Althing (the Icelandic parliament), has annouced he will not stand for re-election, citing health problems. At present the Social Democrats have 18 seats, the Greens have nine, the Progressive party has seven and the Liberal party has four.
"I have decided to ask the leaders of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green party to engage in conversation about forming a new minority government backed by the Progressive Party," President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said earier today. "Therefore, I give Ingibjorg Gisladottir the mandate to lead the talks."
Ms Gisladottir, 54, the country’s foreign minister, has been critical of the Prime Minister’s response to the financial crisis. A former Mayor of Reykjavík, she has led her party since 2005. She had brain surgery last week. "We have taken the baton — the government should be operational before the weekend," she told reporters after the President’s statement.
April 27, 2009 – PinkNews
First lesbian prime minister wins Iceland election under left-wing coalition
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
Johanna Sigurdardottir, the world’s first openly gay leader, has won Iceland’s general election. The Social Democrat leader formed a left-wing coalition with the Left-Green Movement. The Social Democrats won 30.5 per cent of the vote, or 20 parliamentary seats, while the Left-Green Movement won 21.5 per cent, or 14 seats. Both parties have said they will form a coalition government.
Ms Sigurdardottir, 66, will lead the first left-wing government in the country after almost 18 years of conservative Independent party domination. She has already signalled her plans for Iceland to join the European Union, saying: “We want Iceland as soon as possible to join the European Union and adopt the euro." She added: “I should emphasise that this is a priority issue for the Social Democrats.” Ms Sigurdardottir has been an MP since 1978 and was recently voted the most popular politician in Iceland.
Well-known for keeping her private life out of the spotlight, she has never given any interviews about her sexuality or her family. Her partner is Jónína Leósdóttir, a well known playwright, author and a journalist and the couple are registered in Iceland (the equivalent of a civil partnership). Together they have three grown up children.
In 2002 a gay man did act as prime minister of Norway, but only for a matter of hours. Ms Sigurdardottir is the first ever openly gay head of government.
August 11, 2009 – Ice News
Iceland turns out in force for Reykjavik Gay Pride
The eleventh annual Reykjavik Gay Pride parade and outdoor concert with Pall Oskar (probably Iceland’s biggest pop star) attracted about 80,000 people to the middle of Reykjavik on Saturday. Involving roughly a quarter of Iceland’s entire population, the sheer size of the party is tribute to Iceland’s leading equal rights legislation and the citizens’ inclusive nature.
The Reykjavik Gay Pride parade 2009 featured a greater number of carnival floats than ever before, meaning the crowds did not go away disappointed. In fact, Iceland as a gay holiday destination has become increasingly popular recently – partly because of features in major media: Reykjavik was featured as a recent ‘destination of the month’ in Attitude magazine, among others. Iceland does not have a gay village. It does not even have many gay bars and clubs at all. But that has nothing to do with Iceland being a strict, conservative society…quite the opposite in fact.
Peek into a Reykjavik gay bar on a Saturday night and you will see a clientele anything but exclusively gay. And if you think all the dozens of other bars in town are straight-only, think again. People in Reykjavik go partying in places dictated by their taste in music, their taste in décor or simply by their bossy friends. They do not need to choose a venue based only on their sexuality. There are a variety of helpful websites available for gay travellers in Iceland. The English language GayIce.is is a good start and includes a list of links to other useful sites.
The Icelandic Tourist Board’s Visit Iceland website is also packed with invaluable information on things to do in Iceland; from the Blue Lagoon and the hundreds of geothermal pools to glacier hiking and white water rafting.
More details about –Iceland vacations
June 11, 2010 – PinkNews
Iceland’s parliament unanimously approves gay marriage
by Jessica Geen
Politicians in Iceland have passed a law legalising gay marriage. The country, which is the only one in the world to have an out gay leader, prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, passed the law today. All 49 lawmakers approved the change, which will see the words "man and man, woman and woman" added to marriage legislation. The law allows churches to perform gay weddings if they wish and says "ministers will always be free to perform [gay] marriage ceremonies, but never obliged to".
Iceland’s protestant church has not yet decided whether it will hold the ceremonies, which replace registered partnerships. The country’s president has to approve the bill but is highly likely to do so as this is a formality and public opinion is in favour of the change. Ms Sigurdardottir, 67, became the world’s first out gay head of government last April, when her Social Democrats formed a left-wing coalition with the Left-Green Movement.
Iceland repealed laws banning homosexuality in the 1940s. In 2006, it widened provisions to give gay couples all the reproductive and parenting rights open to straight couples. The country is the seventh in Europe to legalise gay marriage.
June 22, 2010 – PinkNews
UN human rights chief commends Iceland for legalising gay marriage
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
The chief of human rights at the United Nations has praised Iceland for allowing gay couples to marry. The country’s parliament unanimously approved a same-sex marriage law last month, which is to come into effect this weekend.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, visited the country this month. Speaking in Reykjavik, she commendedIceland for the "significant progress it has achieved through recent legislation removing legal impediments to same-sex marriages". As well as becoming the seventh European country to legalise gay marriage, Iceland is the first to have an out gay head of government.
Johanna Sigurdardottir became prime minister last April, when her Social Democrats formed a left-wing coalition with the Left-Green Movement. Iceland repealed laws banning homosexuality in the 1940s. In 2006, it widened provisions to give gay couples all the reproductive and parenting rights open to straight couples.
The country’s church has not yet decided whether it will perform marriage ceremonies for gay couples, as the law gives it the option of doing so.