Reykjavík Pride: An International City With Big Rainbows And An Even Bigger Heart

The population is about 125,000. 100,000 revelers showed up for the epic 20th Pride. Photos and Story by Grace Chu.

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1999, 1500 people convened in Ingólfstorg Square in Reykjavík, Iceland for the city’s first pride celebration. A year later, 12,000 people gathered to see the first pride parade. Fast forward to 2019, and Reykjavík Pride has grown into a celebration during which Iceland’s capital city is transformed into a rainbow paradise, and around 100,000 revelers from around the world participate in pride festivities in an island nation with a population of less than 350,000.

Even when pride isn’t in full swing, when the streets aren’t painted with rainbow colors as Iceland’s Dykes on Bikes lead prancing drag queens through the city center, Iceland has a reputation for being an especially queer-friendly nation. Same-sex sexual activity in Iceland was decriminalized in 1940, whereas such relations weren’t fully decriminalized in the United States until 2002. Former Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was the world’s first openly gay head of government. Icelanders enjoy marriage equality, nationwide non-discrimination laws on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and many other protections. It’s no wonder that Iceland has become a destination for LGBTQ+ travelers from all over the world.

This year’s pride was the 20th anniversary of Reykjavík Pride, so the Reykjavík Pride Board decided to supersize pride, extending it from one long weekend to a ten day bash. Several other organizers also threw pride events to complement the official events, including some for women.

The festivities start out every year with the Pride Board inviting the public to paint a street in Reykjavík in rainbow colors. This year, several streets were painted, and one street, Skólavörðustígur, will remain permanently covered in rainbow lanes. Pride Board member Helga Haraldsdóttir told GO, “For the 20th Reykjavík Pride, we couldn’t settle for only having the rainbow there during the pride week, and our city council agreed with us! Skólavörðustígur was the street where the National Queer Organization in Iceland rented their first apartment. Also on the same street the only man convicted of being gay was imprisoned, so the street definitely has some queer history behind it.”

I arrived in Iceland on a redeye Wednesday morning the second week of Reykjavík Pride. I joined an activity called the Queer Walking Tour through Reykjavík and immediately stepped into a sea of rainbows. The rainbow flag was flying from virtually every storefront, lamppost, and landmark—and let’s not forget the streets that were painted in rainbow colors. It was as if an Icelandic volcano named Hinseginfjallajökull, one that emits exploding rainbow fountains and glitter instead of ash, decided to erupt and blanket the city with a layer of pure gayness.

That evening, the Reykjavík Queer Choir performed at the iconic Harpa Concert Hall. They were joined by the Rock Creek Singers, a group which is part of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. The track list included crowd favorites such as Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and a rousing rendition of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West,” which ended with everyone on stage waving rainbow flags.

The final event I attended that night was Hinsegin Ladies Night, an event for queer women (Hinsegin means “queer” in Icelandic). The founder, Ástrós Erla, told me she was in New York City this past February, and she went to three parties centering queer women: Ellis, Misster Wednesdays at the Woods, and The Leslie. When she went back to Iceland, she realized there were no such events for queer women in Reykjavík.

“I was actually on a date in March, and we were discussing this,” she said. “The woman I was on a date with, she was like, ‘Why don’t you just do it?'”
So she did, and the woman she went on a date with, Ingibjörg, is now a business partner at Hinsegin Ladies Night.

Hinsegin Ladies Night is held monthly on a Wednesday at Miami Bar on Hverfisgata 33 in downtown Reykjavík and, like the parties in New York City, welcomes everyone identified as queer women, genderqueer and/or non-binary. Whether you’re 20 or 90 years old, you are welcome.

The following day I attended an event called Queer Nightlife Stories, which was a tour of the bars and clubs of Reykjavík that are frequented by queer clientele. “Wait,” you say, “That sounds like a bar crawl!” But at every stop, participants were regaled with stories about the venues and queer Icelandic nightlife history in general, so it was a very informative and educational bar crawl. Shots of Opal, an Icelandic liquor that tastes like high-end cough syrup (so you know it has medicinal qualities), were distributed intermittently. The medicine worked, because everyone was healed of all stress and negative feelings by the end of the tour.

One stop was Kíkí Queer Bar, which was the only gay bar/club in Reykjavík until cafe/bar Curious opened this summer. There are several bars and clubs where queer people frequent, since Iceland is so gay friendly, but Kíkí Queer Bar, for a while, was the only queer bar and club specifically catering to the LGBTQ community. It is located at Laugavegur 22, Reykjavík 101.

Another stop was Dillon Whiskey Bar on Laugavegur 30, Reykjavik 101, where national treasure, radio host, and out lesbian Andrea Jónsdóttir is the resident weekend DJ. Jónsdóttir celebrated her 70th birthday this year, and after we got our drinks at the bar, she stepped on stage decked out in a Beatles t-shirt and a peace sign medallion and told us stories about the location, how it used to be a meeting place for horse aficioados, and how it became a place for lesbians to congregate to hear her spin rock music when they were tired of the music the gay boys were playing.

After three or four bars and I don’t know how many shots of Opal, I stumbled back to my AirBnB. Keep in mind it wasn’t actually dark out; the sun doesn’t set until around 10 p.m. in Iceland during the month of August. My eyes simply just shut on their own due to the libations, and it was lights out for me. Boy can the Icelanders drink!

The next day was full of events, including Icelandic Lesbian Story Hour. Lesbians packed the house at Tjarnarbíó Theater for an event called “The Icelandic Lesbian,” where lesbian elders told stories about growing up in Iceland as a lesbian in the 1970s. While many events during Reykjavík Pride are conducted in both English and Icelandic, this event was created by and for lesbians in Iceland, so it was entirely in Icelandic. While I could not soak up the full lesbionic experience due to the language barrier, the audience often erupted in laughter and applause, and every now and then, someone would stand up and address the speakers directly.

Pride Board member Helga Haraldsdóttir said that, “It was a chance for us queer and gay women to connect and understand each other better. The women were open to any questions after their readings. There were many women who stood up just to show their gratitude and express that they found themselves in their stories.” Reykjavík Pride: An International City With Big Rainbows And An Even Bigger HeartNext it was time for the annual Queer Cruise, a sail around the islands off the coast of Reykjavík fueled by the beats of DJ Siggi Gunnars and, of course, copious amounts of booze. Even though the water was choppy and the boat rocked precariously back and forth on occasion, no one had a care in the world. The view was breathtaking, and the crowd rolled with the waves as the sun began its slow descent towards the horizon.

After the sun set, everyone who could fit inside went to Kíkí Queer Bar to close out the night.

The last Saturday of Reykjavík Pride is the central and final day of the celebration, much like the last Sunday in June in New York City Pride. The day started out at Geiri Smart, located at Hverfisgata 30, Reykjavík 101, for a champagne brunch, and then it was off to the main event: The Pride Parade.

The entire city comes out for the Reykjavík Pride Parade. Families with kids in tow, grandmas, grandpas, puppies, locals, and visitors line the streets as marchers sashay by. You will not see large floats by multinational companies. Instead, local companies and non-profits take center stage, as well as political organizations, activist groups, and of course, queer friendly sports leagues such as Roller Derby Iceland.

Reykjavík’s Pride Parade is a large and impeccably produced event with drag queens twirling on floats as timed sprays of glitter and confetti blanket the crowds. It also features internationally known Icelandic pop star Páll Óskar, but Reykjavík’s parade is also intimate, charming and accessible.

The Parade started at Hallgrímskirkja Church and wound its way through the city center, led by Iceland’s Dykes on Bikes. At the end of the route, marchers and observers alike streamed into Hljómskálagarður Park, filling up the entire lawn for the Pride Outdoor Concert featuring artists from Iceland or with ties to Iceland, such as Páll Óskar, Iceland’s Eurovision entrants Hatari, and Icelandic-American Drag Queen Heklina, who is based out of San Francisco.

And then, finally, the massive final bash to end the 10-day whirlwind of Reykjavík Pride was held at Austurbær, Snorrabraut 37

All official Reykjavík Pride events were held in the city of Reykjavík, and this recap only touched upon a few of the official and complementary events. There were also lectures about queer refugees, mental health, and queer sex education held at the National Museum of Iceland. Additionally, a company that organizes events for the queer community, Pink Iceland (pinkiceland.is), organized excursions inside and outside of the city during Pride, including to the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle, so if you are more into waterfalls, geysers, and luxury geothermic hot springs, but you want to mingle with other hot queers while looking at all that hot water, please do visit their website.

Pride in large cities like New York City are massive and exhilarating but can also be impersonal, overwhelming, and inaccessible. It can seem like one long commercial for every international brand you can possibly think of. Of course, you can find a niche event for any of the communities within the queer umbrella in large cities, but Pride in those cities just doesn’t have that connected community feel. I encourage you to visit Reykjavík Pride. Locals and international travelers from all over the queer spectrum congregate in this celebration with impeccable Broadway-level production values, but despite all the pomp and circumstance, Reykjavík Pride retains the heart and spirit of a small community that feels like an extended family.

The official website for Reykjavík Pride is (hinsegindagar.is/en/).


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