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May/June 2005 | Iceland: Wild and Worldly

May/June 2005 | Iceland: Wild and Worldly

The far-flung Nordic island that spawned Vikings and Björk is a homo haven of lava landscapes, steaming sulphur springs, throbbing nightlife, and inhabitants with names like Thor

The great gay poet Wystan Auden--a.k.a. 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 even from nearby England. Auden told me that before World War II, 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 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, caf?, and bakery after another. The shopping is great, with art, antiques, and even a year-round Christmas store.

A good place to meet the queer locals is Samtokin '78, the gay center with a library and a bar on the fifth floor of a Laugavegur Street building. Its name means "let'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 or anywhere except around the few gay bars and clubs, and even then mostly on weekends. Gays fit themselves nicely into Iceland's homogeneous society. And if you want to know someone's gender, check the name: You're either a son (Thorson) 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 19th-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 harborside 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 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 lesbia you are, like it or not, the new kid in town. In one gay bar people knew who I was within minutes of entering. Later the action moved a quarter mile to the tiny, private, leathery MSC Iceland (open since 1985) located behind a concrete courtyard with an iron gate that a leather daddy had to unlock. The cramped space means the men are very friendly.

There were women--both lesbians and gay-friendly in Caf? Cozy and further along Laugavegur to Dillon, one of the many caf?-by-day, bar-by-night establishments. To me Icelandic women are among the world's most beautiful, whether slim or zaftig, 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 men's 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 semigay 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) Inexpensive/Moderate: Close to Laugavegur Street, the Guesthouse 112 (Ingolfsstr?ti 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 18; 896-2559; $125-$300) has 14 flats, including penthouses with terraces and a hot tub above Laugavegur Street. It has excellent service and amenities, including the gay-Reykjavik advice of Siggi and Arni Einarsson, who own and operate it. Moderate to High:Star Trek fan alert! Hotel Borg (Posthusstr?ti 11; 551-1440; $300-$450), an art deco beauty in downtown's central square, has a no-guest policy after 10:30 p.m. 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(L?kjargata 4; 551-0100) 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 N?stu Gr?sum (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 Humarh?sid ("lobster house") (Amtmannsst?gur 1; 561-3303) in an elegant 19th-century building. Dear but worth it for ambiance and food (lamb and fish) is Sk?labr?(Sk?labr? 1; 562-4455) near the tourist center and Internet caf?.


Leather Club MSC(Bankastr?di 11, just off Laugavegur Street; 562-1280) is for men only and has a speakeasy ambiance with an active backroom. Caf? Cozy (Austurstr?ti 3; 511-1033), 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.

Getting There

Offering discount gay holiday packages, Icelandair (800-779-2899) is the only way to go! For links to the above establishments, log on to

The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at if you have any new information.
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Felice Picano