My great Swedish gaycation

At Stockholm Pride there is no shortage fabulous floats, many of them embracing the royal heritage of the Swedish monarchy. Picture: Garreth van Niekerk
At Stockholm Pride there is no shortage fabulous floats, many of them embracing the royal heritage of the Swedish monarchy. Picture: Garreth van Niekerk

I had been in Sweden for nine days and not once had I sensed it before; but right then, sitting in the middle of the biggest queer celebration in all of Scandinavia, I suddenly felt afraid. It had been a little more than a month since the Orlando nightclub shootings, and Stockholm Pride felt like the ideal place to strike next.

“What if it happens here?” I asked myself, looking around for any suspicious activity. The shootings had hardly figured in my mind since that terrible week, but now, in a Europe fresh from a string of horrific attacks (Germany was the victim of four separate events that week), it was all I could think about. I also couldn’t spot any of the “increased security” that the local media insisted would be present at the event, so I stood up, shook off as much of the paranoia as I could, and went to get a drink.

Fear and Pride

At Stockholm Pride there is no shortage fabulous floats, many of them embracing the royal heritage of the Swedish monarchy. Picture: Garreth van Niekerk

I was in Stockholm as part of a small international media delegation invited to attend the festival. At some point along the 4.3km march and between the crowds of over half a million I had lost the rest of the media crew – a group of mostly queer reporters from Poland, Indonesia, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and India brought together to explore the complexities of LGBTIQ life in Stockholm – the “gay capital” of Scandinavia.

Walking now, a little blindly, I found a place selling French fries with thick Béarnaise sauce, normally enough goodness to bring any distressed reveler back to their senses. Halfway through I would discover that not even the delightful combination of an (inordinately priced) elderflower cider with the creamy crunchiness of the Chip ’n Dip could get me back in the party headspace. It was 9pm and Stockholm’s summer meant it only got dark at 11pm, so I took a last gulp, dipped a final chip, and headed towards the exit.

As I reached the top of the hill, one of the Swedish performers, an apparently popular neo-metal, post-goth, Nordic-punk, lesbian guitarist and vocalist came on stage. Her performance, it turns out, was a tribute to the victims of the Orlando massacre. I stopped and watched the big screen behind her as each of the victims’ faces, accompanied by their ages and occupations, stared back at the audience. The smiling face of 22-year-old student Juan Ramon Guerrero looked down on the crowd, followed by New Yorker Mercedez Marisol Flores, aged 26. They were both younger than me.

The couple beside me cried and the crowds below me linked arms. As the performance came to its crescendo, the performer stopped singing and said: “We will not live in fear, people! Stockholm has pride!” Everyone, children included, got to their feet and cheered.

With that I understood why this event was of such importance to the city this year. It’s why the Swedish prime minister marched in the front of the parade and why almost every sector of society had its own float. The liberal Sweden the world knows is being threatened by extreme conservatives and Pride sends a clear message to them, and the rest of the world, that they will not be terrorised into changing their way of life.

Queer Vikings

Everyone’s pride There are more than 45000 people that march at Stockholm Pride annually, and over half a million that observe the parade. Picture: Garreth van Niekerk

I walked back to my hotel with much to think about. I was walking to the island of Stadsholmen towards the famous neighbourhood of Gamla stan, known as the “town between the bridges”. Stockholm is made up of 14 islands and is connected by 57 bridges and Gamla Stan, “the old town”, is its historic centre. It’s a bit of a tourist trap as it’s home to the extravagant Kungliga slottet, Sweden’s baroque Royal Palace, as well as the Stockholm Cathedral, the Nobel Museum and the breathtakingly beautiful Riddarholm Church, but it’s really an extraordinary space, particularly when it gets dark.

I had walked the cobbled streets of Gamla stan twice. Once alone and once with Nadja Karlsson on an incredible transgender tour of Stockholm. Karlsson, who marches every year, describes Stockholm Pride as “Sweden when we are at our best”. Her tour, which includes details of her own transgender transition, took us through the history of gay rights in Sweden – one of the first places in the world to legalise homosexual relationships in 1944.

Besides the rainbow flags on every corner, it was fascinating to learn of Sweden’s ancient queer history, the much less visible sort, with some of it dating back to the days of the Vikings. While standing in front of an ancient cornerstone engraved with Viking symbols and carvings, she explained how she and a colleague are researching a curious recent discovery of make-up applicators found in the graves of male Vikings, as well as some of the many incidents of cross-dressing to be found in the historical archives.

Crowds of other tourists walked past, craning their necks to look at Karlsson, trying to figure out exactly what she is, or isn’t. Just a few minutes earlier, a young man asking for money stopped her mid-conversation to ask, “Are you a boy or a girl?” She explained the nature of her gender to him without skipping a beat, but the moment was nonetheless unsettling, a jarring reminder of how much work still needs to be done. Even in Sweden.

Queer panic

In Sweden the best way to say hello is ‘Hej Hej’, pronounced ‘Hey Hey’. Picture: Garreth van Niekerk

In Sweden the importance of educating the uninformed is, of course, far less life-threatening than it is in the rest of the world. As the only representative from Africa, I was responsible for explaining the many problems facing our own continent to the other reporters on the trip, and found it hard to place them in a European context.

Despite South Africa’s liberal Constitution, lesbian women are targeted and raped and in many communities it is still taboo to be queer, with being transgender still a fringe issue that is often ignored or simply not acknowledged. That’s not to mention the crises of our neighbours north of South Africa, where many face the death penalty simply for loving the ones they love.

Sweden’s own neighbours are in no better shape, as I would learn from the rest of the team on the trip. Russia still suffers beneath the grip of an infamously homophobic President Vladimir Putin, who has forced the queer community underground. Poland has banned same-sex marriage and adoption and refuses to recognise transgender people. Indonesia’s former communications minister recently made a call on the public to kill any gay people they find. Globally, psychiatric bodies still describe transsexuality as a mental disorder to be cured.

The horrors discussed among the group are just too many to mention.

But, and this is perhaps the most upsetting turn of the recent surge in support for the extreme right, queer people themselves are beginning to support the calls for violence. Islamophobia, even among some of the reporters taking part in the media visit, is quickly finding a home among the queer community. For the second year in a row, for instance, Stockholm’s extreme right party, described in mainstream media as “neo-Nazi”, had organised a pride parade only marching through the Muslim neighbourhoods of the city. Gay Donald Trump supporter and Twitter celebrity Milo Yiannopoulos was due to lead the parade, but pulled out for “security reasons” at the last minute.

Vows to change

What was going on in distant parts of the city sat in stark contrast to the rest of the Pride activities taking place. I watched as rows of lesbian couples lined up to exchange vows beneath the gilded ceilings of St Jacob’s Church, one of the most liberal religious institutions in Sweden. It was both painful and inspiring to watch as two middle-aged women held hands as a priest ordained their union, kissing in an institution responsible for their persecution throughout history.

This persecution, in Sweden at least, is a shadow of what it used to be.

Across town Göran Stanton, the founder of Stockholm’s incredible gay police organisation, tells us how his unit – established by him 15 years earlier to end the hate crimes taking place across the city – was now closing down. He seemed lost in thought as he explained how the unit is simply “not needed any more” because they had “done exactly what they had hoped to do”. Homophobia among police officers had been eradicated, he tells me, and the odd case of a hate crime in Sweden simply didn’t warrant the continuation of a gay police force. Sweden had, according to Stanton, ended homophobia within its borders.

Similarly, the end of HIV in Sweden, previously a major issue in the 80s and 90s, is well within sight. There are roughly 7 000 documented cases of HIV/Aids in Sweden and a large portion of that is among the elderly, who within the next 20 years will die, leaving the few remaining cases well managed and completely treated.

It blew my mind when I tried to compare that with South Africa where in 2015, according to Statistics South Africa, there were 6.19 million South Africans living with HIV, about one in every 10 people.

But that’s not to reduce the scars that Sweden’s history of HIV left on the population, which I came to understand fully when I visited the extraordinary Regnbågen, a new housing project for queer seniors. I had read a bit about it in The Guardian a few years ago, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of meeting the beautiful people living and running the place, and seeing how they live with dignity and respect today.

To hear the stories of 85-year-olds who grew up living in the shadows makes the problems of today seem like a world away. Tales of illegal trysts in the parks and saunas seem like the thing of fable, with friends lost to the virus just another battle scar in their war to find equality.

While touring one lovely apartment, I entered the bedrooms of Bjorn, a particularly feisty resident, who parts quickly with his stories.

On his wall was a framed sepia picture of a dapper young man, suited with slicked hair in a side parting. It was, he told me, a picture of his lover who had died 12 years before. Theirs was an illegal love and even today Bjorn found it hard to talk about.

I had to turn my face so he didn’t see my expression, hurting for him and the life their love could’ve known. But as I turned I saw, stuck to his door, a row of pictures of muscled guys in their Speedos. I laughed out loud and he came behind me to laugh along. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Yes, I replied, they are.

. Van Niekerk was a guest of the Swedish Institute and the Swedish Embassy

. Stockholm will host the 2018 Euro Pride, where millions of people are expected to take part in the festivities. Go to visitstockholm.se for more

. Stockholm Pride takes place at the end of July annually. Go to Stockholmpride.org for more

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