YOUR TIME IS NOW
Gothenburg has gone from being known as a homofobic city to becoming Sweden’s most LGBTQI-friendly city. Though, is that really the case? Through life stories from four LGBTQI people in Gothenburg, we get to know the people behind the stories as well as get to know Gothenburg and its history.
Du gamla du fria?
Behind our Swedish self-image is another reality.
In the spring of 2020, the survey company Insight Distillery conducted a nationwide quantitative survey on behalf of West Pride to map the situation of LGBTQI people in today’s Sweden. In addition, Swedes’ knowledge of LGBTQI has been reviewed.
The survey highlights that Sweden still grapples with problems regarding equality and discrimination.
Knowledge makes a difference
Knowledge reduces prejudice and increases inclusion, which create a more equal world.
Help transform Sweden into a more inclusive and open society by booking training for your workplace or school. You can also increase your knowledge through online self-study.
The basic principle is straight
The first time I heard the word homosexual was when I was 12 years old, and I realized that it wasn’t just me feeling weird but it was real. Homosexuality existed, but it was terribly invisible and muted. To the extent that it was written about it, it was in the form of scandal articles such as that there had been problems in some park, men who sought each other out for sexual acts and it created outrage for residents and for people who were out walking. The basic principle of pretty much everyone was that one should not be gay. A few dared to be open and socialize with others, but the vast majority did everything to get straight and everything to try to be straight.
The new plague was spelled aids
The fear of hiv and aids was overpowering in the 1980s and 1990s and was everywhere. High and low, in all workplaces and in all walks of life. I worked at a bank from 1985 to 1992 and there the horror was so great that one of the two staff toilets was dedicated only to me – because I was gay. The other 13 employees had to use the other toilet. The decision was made to protect the rest of the staff from aids and it was not considered offensive to me. What was not considered as important was that I did not have hiv and never got it, but regarding the toilet division it was best so just in case.
The whole world had lived with a kind of progressive optimism that all deadly diseases were on the verge of extinction. It was possible to produce vaccines against everything and cancer research progressed. So suddenly aids enters and the whole world finds itself in crisis about how humanity would survive, where the disease came from and who it came from. I remember some dystopian calculations were made in which researchers suggested that by 2020 only 35 % of the world’s population would remain. There was a huge stigma precisely around the fact that it was gay men, prostitutes and drug addicts who contracted hiv and aids and at first many people thought that there is something wrong with these groups that made them get it.
Over time, heterosexuals also became infected, and then gay men, prostitutes and drug addicts became indebted and even more harassed and lynched. The perception was that those who had been in a so-called “gay park” and had sexual encounters then spread the disease to their girlfriends or wives. The idea that gay men were the ones who spread aids and that it would wipe out all of humanity made the atmosphere very hateful.
People in high positions, i.e. docents at Sahlgrenska Hospital and Karolinska Hospital and professors at the universities, could say in debate articles in the daily paper, in interviews in news program att television, that anyone who has contracted hiv would be isolated on islands in the archipelago or tattooed in the armpit. You could maintain your high position, your title, your reputation and still say this in our heaviest media outlets.
Never go home alone in gayhating Gothenburg
There was an unwritten rule within the LGBTQI community not to go home alone, no matter what. When I had been out with friends, we always went first in a larger group to Järntorget and then got mixed up with lots of people in motion. In this way, it became easier to disappear into the crowd of people if someone followed us. The day after a night out, we used to call each other to make sure everyone had come home.
Gothenburg had the reputation of being a “gay city” so many heterosexual, urban and humanist people felt they needed to change and do something compassionate. Many heterosexuals started what is now West Pride but was then called HBT-GBG.
Today, clubbing has become less and I think it is thanks to increased tolerance from society and that LGBTQI people dare tobe more open everywhere. Clubbing used to be an important part of finding a partner for the night or for life. That approach has changed and there are other digital approaches to finding sex or life partners. The former physical meeting places are today more or less a thing of the past.
A double life worth remember
I came from Iran to Sweden in the 1980s. First to Trelleborg by train from East Berlin and after a few weeks in a refugee centre I ended up in Vetlanda. I was carrying a secret that followed me wherever I was in the world, whether it was Iran or Sweden. The secret was, I’m gay.
It was abnormal and taboo, it was all a man would not be and above all it was unusual among refugees to live openly gay. To that, the fear of hiv and aids was so enormous and darkened an entire world, and it was the homosexuals’ fault that the new plague had come to destroy.
To hide and somehow escape my homosexuality, I met a woman who would become my first and last girlfriend. We were friends first before we became a couple. We stayed in Vetlanda for a couple of years before moving to Gothenburg and had children. Outwardly, our relationship, life and family were “ordinary” and happy and like everyone else’s. What others didn’t know was that I had a secret that I had just shared with my girlfriend. Although she found out after a year together, she faithfully stayed by my side, was understanding and open-minded and let me live my double life. I was still convinced that it, my sexual thoughts and longings, would pass if I was in a heterosexual relationship. That I would heal from the disease, as homosexuality was still seen by some as.
After eight years, the relationship did not work, and the consequences of double life were a fact. Shortly after the separation, I met a man and we became a couple. However, the relationship ended after a few years, but I learned that I could benefit people who were like me – homosexual and foreigner. Through the man I had been with, I became aware of gay associations, and in this way I began to engage more myself. One association I got hooked on right away was Homan, which I have been involved with since 1995. Eventually, I started an area business in Gothenburg, which is today the head office of the association.
What will relatives say?
Homan is a non-profit association for LGBTQI people with immigrant backgrounds and acts as a safe meeting place where one can turn for support, company and to share similar life stories. Newly arrived LGBTQI people I meet and help through Homan are having as much trouble today as when I came to Sweden almost forty years ago. Many have relatives from honor cultures and it is especially difficult for transgender people who, for example, are forced to wear the hijab even though they feel like a guy or a man. Usually there are no problems within the immediate family circle, but it is relatives, family and close friends who can react and act differently.
When I met him, I became involved in associations and met the people who started Homan. Before that, I was very, very lonely. I wanted to meet foreigners who were in the same position as me and could share similar experiences and history, I could not with Swedes. That’s why I became active in Homan and then be able to help others.
Many LGBTQI people who come to Sweden will be disappointed because they think they can live openly in an otherwise developed country. For many, it is quite the opposite and they lived much more openly in their home countries. They are still very afraid to live life to the fullest, just as they want. For many people, living as an LGBTQI person today is a secret that follows you around the world, whether it’s Sweden, Iran or elsewhere.
What do you mean, coming out? I was never in!
A free and lively childhood in the open-minded area Majorna, a lesbian kindergarten teacher, a high school where odd was to fit in, a bubble to live and thrive in. Few things were deviant, one was allowed to be as one is and it did not need to be explained or questioned. Maybe the free upbringing was the reason it was obvious even for me not to have to come out, that it’s okay to be gay.
The safe bubble only bursts in my teens when I realize that homophobia and restricted people were not only part of the past but are also present today in many societies in Sweden. Not everyone was treated as much as they were and as a teenager I saw how the fight was still there. For many to accept oneself is a long journey, to be accepted by others is longer.
My first girlfriend lived a bit outside a medium-sized Swedish town. There I was no longer Sally, there I became the “lesbian girl” from Gothenburg. I was recognized for being a lesbian and that’s all that mattered to them. Labels for me have always chafed, not being allowed to own my own identity without someone else taking over and putting a label on me that so or so has never fit. One moment Sally, the next moment “lesbian girl.”
Can I hold her hand?
In some places in Gothenburg, it is no problem to be openly LGBTQI but in other places it equals hate, threats and harassment. The next shock and eye-opener was when the mockery attacked me in my hometown. “Not in public!” someone could scream and glances with disgust made it clear to me that some places are not safe and welcoming.
One does not get as much gaze or reactions in the company of a man as romantic company with a woman. It can be noticed in Gothenburg as well, usually not threatening but it is noticed. Can I hold her hand? I never would have thought of that if I had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend.
What is almost more common than getting glances is the constant curiosity and sexualization of me as a queer. Both men and women take liberties and have no problem shamelessly asking me and my girlfriend if they “can join.” For some, not being able to have one’s own orientation and sexuality in peace is not self-evident. In addition to sexualization, women in romantic relationships are rarely taken seriously, as if their love does not exist and that their sexuality is for entertainment and pleasure for others. It’s not common for people to walk up to a heterosexual couple and ask to “join in,” but for women in couples it often happens.
Where are all Gothenburg’s meeting places?
Although for me there are rarely problems with being openly gay and having a relationship with a woman, there are shortcomings in meeting places for LGBTQI people in Gothenburg. What exists today are important efforts that make a huge difference, but more is needed. For me, who is familiar with myself because I have lived as a queer for a long time and come from Gothenburg, I therefore have some control over the range and know where to look. A person who is new to Gothenburg or new to the LGBTQI world does not find it as easy, that Gothenburg is ranked as one of the world’s best LGBTQI destinations, I wonder and many other LGBTQI people what they are talking about?! They are not available in Gothenburg anyway, whether it is on a quiet street in Majorna or elsewhere.
From north to west with homophobia as a luggage
With a lost sight and a soul longing to go away, I came to Gothenburg when I was 20 years old. Away from Umeå, away from the old, away from the bullies, threats and hell. The West Coast attracted me with something new, something else and above all there was no one who knew me or knew who I was. The freedom of being new to a city was almost overwhelming.
What didn’t change was that homophobia was everywhere and haunted me than where I was. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small town, a smaller town, a bigger city or a city of ten million – there will always be people who can’t or won’t understand norm-breaking people who are outside the heterosexual framework. I, who are more or less forced to accept harassment on a daily basis, feel that it is almost easier to avoid, stay away or be silent. It’s worse that I’m being questioned about my appearance or what gender I have and it takes a lot harder than people calling me gay. Everyday bullying and mockery are everywhere.
It’s just homophobia. People have literally tried to hit me. Many times. There’s not a day goes by where I don’t hear anything.
Participants vs. spectators
By chance, an LGBTQI club became my first workplace in Gothenburg. Even if sooner or later I would have ended up there, it was not an active choice to apply for a job at LGBTQI clubs. For four years, the club was a second home for me where I worked in a closet and as an entrance host, but over time the clientele changed. What was once a safe place for LGBTQI people became more and more a place where everyone went, a bit like looking at LGBTQI people and making a fool of them. It became a clear “we-and-them” behavior that created unpleasant atmosphere. An LGBTQI club should be for everyone, but it should still be aimed at the specific target group.
Instead of staying, I started running my own LGBTQI clubs in places and clubs where LGBTQI people otherwise didn’t feel welcome. I tried to have LGBTQI clubs in different places around Avenyn and in central Gothenburg which were successes, and it was like the LGBTQI people took over the club completely and everyone had a great time. The “we-and-them” feeling was blown away and even though the club was visited by heterosexual people, they were part of the LGBTQI community and in making the club, evening and night unforgettable. That’s the difference between being a participant and a spectator of an LGBTQI club.
Avenyn – more than a magnificent avenue
For many, Avenyn is a place where you go for shopping, experience and partying. For me, Avenyn was an undiscovered and unknown place but he understood very early on that one does not go there as an LGBTQI person, especially not in the evenings and at the club. If one thinks of Avenyn today corresponding to what it was like when I moved here, everyone today goes to all clubs and places regardless of whether one is LGBTQI or not, and LGBTQI people have become better at taking care of themselves.
Overall, things have gotten worse in Gothenburg with meeting places and platforms for LGBTQI people and the specific LGBTQI clubs that existed disappear. The idea before Covid-19 was to open its own LGBTQI club but everything was cancelled. I would have taken over a place in central Gothenburg and to run two weekends a month with big LGBTQI events and clubs. The opening night was planned in connection with West Pride 2020 but all that was cancelled. Since the pandemic is still holding a stranglehold on the whole world, it is difficult to reschedule or know when it is possible to start up the club or any other LGBTQI club in the city.