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How a Gay Rights Maverick Helped Topple Iceland’s Government

The first openly gay man in Iceland had to flee. But by 2008, Hörður Torfason was back in his country, helping to organize protests.
 
 
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Icelanders protest after the 2008 economic crisis.
Photo Credit: Haukurth/Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

By the time the political climate in Iceland was ripe for the Cutlery Revolution, Hörður Torfason was already well practiced at stirring things up.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” he told IPS in an interview.

In 1975, Torfason stepped forward as the first openly gay man in Iceland, to much public discontent. After escaping an attempt on his life, Torfason moved to Copenhagen where he lived in exile for many years. However, he continued to fight for gay rights from abroad using his art to spread the message.

“The role of the artist, to me, is to defy the misuse of power in our society, and I’ve been doing that all my life,” said Torfason.

Based out of Copenhagen, he returned to Iceland every year, touring and giving concerts in support of gay rights, and he founded the Icelandic Gay Organisation Samtökin 78 in 1978. Gradually, public sentiment changed and he was able to move back to Iceland in 1991, where he has lived ever since.

“It takes years to change a society, but also it has brought forward a lot of people who are quite capable, intelligent people,” said Torfason.

Today, gay people in Iceland enjoy equal rights.

In July 2008, he found himself on the activist stage again fighting for the rights of Paul Oudor Ramses, a young man from Kenya who was denied political asylum in Iceland along with his wife and son. With the aid of Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Torfason protested the parliament’s decision and in late August, Ramses was granted the asylum he had sought. Now he and his family are Icelandic citizens.

“If we give up and leave it to the politicians, nothing will change,” said Torfason.

The act that Torfason is most acknowledged for is perhaps leading Iceland’s Cutlery Revolution. On Oct. 11, 2008, only five days after the financial crash, Hörður Torfason planted himself outside the parliament building in Reykjavik and started putting questions to the people who passed by.

Every day for a week he stood in the same spot and asked the people two questions. The first, do you know what has happened in this country? The second, do you have any ideas about what we can do about it?

“Everybody was in shock. The people were not very clear on what was happening,” said Torfason.

By gauging opinion on the streets, Torfason devised three demands which reflected the people’s immediate wishes: the government should resign, the board of the financial supervisorial authority should resign, and the board of the national bank should resign.

“Always, I read out the three demands and I asked people, ‘Is this what you want?’ and the people said ‘Yes,’ by thousands and thousands,” said Torfason.

He began to organise protests, which were held at the same time every week outside the parliament building.

“I asked peopled to help me, and especially I concentrated on getting in contact with young people who are clever with the internet to spread the message, and that succeeded,” said Torfason.

Just after Christmas, Torfason organised everyone to surround the parliament building on the day the MPs came back from holidays.

“I was expecting, I don’t know, 3,000. It turned out to be something we had never, never seen before. There were thousands and thousands and thousands, day after day.”

The protest continued for five days, with the largest turnout on the last day. The day after that, the first minister resigned, and on Monday, the government resigned, taking with it the board of the financial supervisory authority. In another month, the board of the national bank would resign, meeting the third and final demand of the protestors.