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Stockholm Pride: the Swedish way to be gay

How gay-friendly can Sweden be when you’re expected to fit in, not stand out?

The Swedish word lagom translates to adequate, or the right amount is best. It is often used favourably to suggest something is just enough without being too much.

It is also commonly used to describe the dominant standard of social behavior in Swedish culture. Fitting in is favoured over standing out. Lagom is the Swedish way.

Sweden has a solid history of supporting women’s equality and sexual minorities. Both sexual orientation and gender identity are explicitly protected under Swedish law, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2009, and in 2012 the gender-neutral pronoun “hen” was formally introduced.

It’s now July 2015 and I’ve come to Stockholm for Pride. I’m interested to find out if this reputation as a socially progressive, egalitarian society rings true for the local LGBT community, and how this idea of lagom fits into their lives.

Stockholm Pride is a corporate entity, with many of its events supported by the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights (known here as RFSL).

RFSL is almost entirely funded by Sweden’s federal government, and it is one of the oldest LGBT organizations in the world.

Mikael Björk Blomqvist is the director of development and human resources for RFSL. He credits the power of this single national body as the principal reason for the rapid advancement of LGBT rights in Sweden, but he also thinks that to some degree that the nation is living on a reputation from the 1960s, and that today it is a very different story.

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“Until recently we had sterilization for trans persons,” Blomqvist points out. “To change sex medically, you need to sterilize yourself, and this is just something that they just stopped one and a half years ago, after we had been fighting for it. And now are trying to get compensation for . . . 300 people [that] we are representing in a lawsuit.”

Ulrika Westerlund, president of RFSL, also raises this point early in our interview.

“For many people it’s really, really surprising, and many Swedish people don’t understand it either, but that was something that just went on,” she says.

“And we put a lot of pressure, we put a lot of effort into changing this particular legislation. Many people have been doing that for quite some time, but we really made it one of our focus areas from 2010.”

Westerlund and Blomqvist also voice similar concerns over another issue: the rise of a particular right-wing extremist party.

“Now we have a very conservative, neo-fascist party, Swedish Democratic Party,” Blomqvist says. “It’s a former Nazi party actually that has reformed several times to be more . . . Actually they were skinheads in the ’80s.” 

In the 2014 elections the Sweden Democrats came third, capturing 12.9 percent of the popular vote and 49 of the Riksdag’s 349 seats. Not as striking a rise as in Denmark, which in 2015 saw the far right, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party rise to second place and more than 20 percent of the vote, but a striking shift for Sweden all the same.

Blomqvist adds, “We were one of the few European countries that didn’t have this kind of party in the parliament. So I think that a lot of people got shocked . . . Like my mother reframed it, ‘They are so not Swedish at all. Swedish people should be tolerant and accepting, and they are not at all, so why?’

“But it is hard to say if voters are racist or against the other kinds of parties,” he continues. “I would say that they [Swedish Democrats] are against LGBT people but we know for a fact that they are strategically not discussing this kind of issue.”

Westerlund agrees.

“They have started to sometimes try to use LGBT people and women in their racist efforts to stop migration, or be Islamaphobic, or against people of certain groups in general,” she says.

“We can’t applaud racist parties because they are LGBT-friendly,” she adds.

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Iranian-Canadian technology engineer Nadia Zabehi came to Sweden to work after receiving job offers from Ericsson, but encountered a hostile work environment.

“I wasn’t out when I moved to Sweden, and I was trying to be very moderate in my look and behavior,” Zabehi says. “But my colleagues at work . . . were looking for signs and were picking on me until I really didn’t have a choice but to come out.

“My manager was blaming me for not wearing feminine clothes,” Zabehi continues. “She said I should tell everybody I’m married so that they . . . won’t harass me. She asked me personally, ‘Have you been with women, are you a lesbian?’

“I didn’t expect that to happen because no manager in Canada, or any other country, has ever asked me this question.”

Eventually Zabehi went on stress leave and then, with support from RFSL, found work elsewhere and started working as an activist for LGBT rights.

Blomqvist says he knows other people who are choosing not to be open at work too. He says the tendency to stay in the closet is more common for people working with children and in high-level professional positions. He knows CEOs who are not open at work.

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These stories are completely incongruent with the Stockholm I see around me as the city celebrates Pride. Rainbow flags are flying on public buses, in cafes, outside major department stores, and smaller shops.

There’s no question that Pride is on, and not just in a small area — there isn’t a gay village as such in Stockholm — it’s all over the city.

I don’t see a lot of same-sex affection in public, but it’s certainly not oppressive.

Stockholm Pride consists of three primary components: Pride House, Pride Park, and the parade. Pride House takes place from Monday to Friday in a large cultural centre, where several seminars, workshops and other events take place each day. There is genuine activism and social justice advocacy happening.

Pride Park is the festival, concert and party site, held in a sports stadium facility a few kilometers away. It’s one of the biggest Pride festival sites I’ve seen. There’s even a kink zone, with BDSM demonstrations, for adults.

Sandra Steen has come to Stockholm for Pride from Jönköping, which she describes as small, and the most religious town in all of Sweden.

“Smaller towns have less acceptance,” she says. “If you’re not within the norm, if you’re not straight, if you have any disabilities, if you’re from another country, if you have another religion, if you’re on a bus and you sit next to someone you don’t know, that person will look strange at you.”

“You’re supposed to be a bit lagom. You’re supposed to not stand out. Not too noticeable. Not too quiet. You’re supposed to blend in with the crowd. It’s changing slowly. It will take a long time,” she says. “It’s so typically Swedish.”

But it is getting better, she says. She works at a school, so I ask her about being out at work.

“The staff there is really accepting of everybody and anybody,” she says. “That’s why I really like my job — because I can really be myself there and everybody accepts it.”

When I ask Blomqvist about lagom and the LGBT community, he chuckles. “I’ve never met a lagom in the LGBT movement,” he says. “We are a movement that are demanding stuff, looking for more, so we will never be lagom because we always want more. I mean in a positive way of course . . . I think that it’s [lagom] from a bit older generation, that thinks you shouldn’t demand as much.”

Blomqvist points to increasing corporate support for Stockholm Pride as proof that society is changing. “Of course you can talk about pinkwashing,” he says, “but I can see they are a bit more genuine now, trying a bit harder, and not only advertisements, but CEOs are saying stuff like ‘this is important.’”

The parade is very similar to what we have in North America, winding its way through downtown Stockholm as cheering crowds line the streets. Estimates suggest that 500,000 people attend.

There are fewer corporate and business floats than in Vancouver and Toronto, but it’s also less sexually flamboyant. The leather club has a float, and there are bears, dykes, trans people and other genderqueer marchers. There’s a great diversity of people and costumes, but fewer drag queens and less kink overall.

Stockholm Pride very carefully negotiates the convergence of celebration, activism, social politics and commercial viability. It is a lagom Pride, the Swedish way.