Whereas some gay-friendly cities see straight restaurants and bars attract large LGBT populations, in Stockholm it’s a bit of the opposite. The Swedish capital’s gay businesses are so much at the center mainstream nightlife that they take to calling themselves “straight-friendly.” Mälarpaviljongen, run by Arto Winter, is the hottest spot to be during the summer, for everyone, gay or straight. As the sun slowly set over the water, and with Swedes swimming past us down the river, we asked him about his city.
Where are you from originally?
Finland. I’ve been living here 26 years, 27 years.
Why did you come to Stockholm?
To be honest, at that time Finland was quite close-minded and homophobic. I was an LGBT refugee. I didn't see the possibility of living there and being open, so I just wanted to move. At that time, I felt that Sweden would be the closest and best option, and then I started studying here. Of course, Finland has changed a lot; it's totally different now that the wall disappeared, totally friendly.
What was the first place you opened?
With my business partner we opened the first gay cafeteria in Old Town, by Stortorget, called Chokladkoppen. I believe that it was us, in 1997, that put the first rainbow flag in a private-run business in Stockholm. We wanted to have this in the middle of Stockholm, in the Old Town, a place for gay people.
We ran Chokladkoppen for three years, then we decided to move on, and we opened a first gay bar, Torget, open seven days a week. Torget is still running 15 years later. In the Swedish media, they said that our businesses had a mission. And it was a mission, because it moved the gay community from the cellars out into the open. Big windows, open meeting places, we’re still doing that all these years. Mälarpaviljongen is really the best example of that.
Talk to me about Mälarpaviljongen.
People talk about it like it’s a gay place—and we are very openly gay—but at the same time it's inviting to everyone. This is probably a thing that makes us very unique. It says something about Stockholm, it's a very tolerant, liberal, accepting city. We’re open six months of the year, and in 2007 we got permission to build on the water. We have lots of activities and shows and DJs during the summer, we have live music and drag shows. We really have become a kind of summer institution.
You employ mostly gay people?
Mostly queer people have been working for us since 1997, yes. We’ve had hundreds of gay people working for us, first from around Sweden, but in the last six, ten years, a lot of people from all over the world. Transgender people, lesbians, mostly gay men, and now people from Europe and outside, Africa as well.
It’s a very mixed crowd. I’ve heard places in Stockholm described as “straight-friendly,” is that how you would describe Mälarpaviljongen?
You know, it changes throughout the day and throughout the week. For example, in the beginning of the summer there are a lot of straight people. The straight people come after work, and then the gay people come a couple hours later. So it changes, what had been quite a mixed crowd, for example, later becomes almost completely gay. We're straight-friendly and very gay—that's how Stockholm works.
Can you talk a little bit about what the gay scene in Stockholm is like?
It's quite open. And because it’s open and tolerant you don’t get the under culture you find in larger European cities. I remember when I was younger in New York it was sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but nowadays New York is quite clean. The scene here, it's not that big. You could expect more because the city is so open, but that's possibly the explanation, because you can go wherever you want.
Why do you love living in Stockholm?
I could live in many other cities, of course, but I have the fantastic privilege to work here. I enjoy the clean environment, the opportunities. It's not that sleazy, but then Berlin is close if that’s what you want. It's quite far away from the big European cities, but it's a clean, safe city. It has a lot of facets. If you like culture, if you like design, it's a beautiful city.
So if you had a day off, your perfect day, where would you go for breakfast, afternoon, dinner, drinks?
That's very difficult. To be honest, on a perfect summer night evening, I’d have to say Mälarpaviljongen is possibly the best spot for the gay visitor. Here you can have lunch and dinner, we have summer clubs. Of course, I’m talking about my own place, but this is possibly the most interesting environment. But there are so many others. The whole SoFo area [South of Folkungagatan on Södermalm] is very nice. Urban Deli is fantastic. If you want a day off, take a trip to archipelago, which is very nice. You can take boats and go island hopping, find fantastic restaurants. In Old Town you can find very nice bars.
Photography by Przemek Czaicki