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Iceland  
 
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Throughout much of Iceland's history glbtq people were marginalized and unacknowledged by their society. Significant legal gains have been made in recent decades, but for people outside the capital conservative attitudes continue to make life difficult.

The first inhabitants of Iceland were Irish monks who arrived sometime before the beginning of the ninth century but abandoned their small colony upon the advent of Norse settlers around 850. Irish and Scottish slaves were among the population of these new settlements.

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Life was hard for the early settlers. The interior of Iceland is covered by lava deposits from the island's two hundred volcanoes and by icefields. Only about a quarter of Iceland, mostly along its coastline, is habitable.

The Icelandic parliament, the Althing, was founded in 930, but Norway still exercised considerable power over the island's affairs. The Norwegian king Olaf I began a program of converting the Icelanders to Catholicism around the year 1000.

Norway finally took full control of Iceland in 1264, bringing an end to over two centuries of bloody rivalries among local chieftains. The high taxes levied by the Norwegians were a serious burden for the Icelanders.

The situation grew worse in 1380, when Norway, and with it Iceland, became part of the Danish kingdom. The Danes took little interest in Iceland, and a long period of decline ensued.

In the mid-sixteenth century Denmark imposed Lutheranism as the official national religion. Some 95 percent of contemporary Icelanders are Lutheran.

The nineteenth century saw a renewed interest in Icelandic culture and the beginnings of an independence movement. The country achieved limited home rule in 1874 and became a sovereign state in the Danish union in 1918. Not until 1944 did Iceland become a fully independent republic.

Early Attitudes toward Same-sex Sexual Behavior

Evidence of same-sex sexual behavior in early Iceland is scant. The sagas in the Old Norse language include no stories of gay or lesbian lovers, but they contain several episodes of retaliation by men accused of being a passive partner in intercourse, which was considered "unmanly" behavior and thus a threat to a man's reputation as a leader or warrior.

With the coming of Christianity homosexual activities came to be regarded as sinful. To avoid the contempt of their neighbors gay men and lesbians tended to remain closeted and invisible in the society's public spaces.

In more recent times those with the means to do so might travel to more sophisticated places in Europe or North America or even emigrate, becoming "sexual political refugees."

Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness declared in 1925, "We now have in Reykjavik all of a sudden got everything which suits a cosmopolitan city, not only a university and a cinema, but also football and homosexuality." W. H. Auden, in his 1937 Letters from Iceland, wrote, however, that "homosexuality is said to be rare" in the country.

GLBTQ Organizing

At least in terms of the visibility of glbtq people, Auden's comment seems the more accurate reflection of Icelandic society. Not until 1978 did Iceland's first glbtq organization, Samtökin '78, come into existence. The founding members were all gay men because "no lesbian was found to take part in the beginning," but now women are active in the organization.

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zoom in
Top: Iceland and neighboring countries.
Center: Dykes on Bikes cruise through the Icelandic Pride Parade in Reykjavik, the nation's capital, in 2004.
Above: The Bis on Trikes contingent at the 2004 Icelandic Pride Parade.

  
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