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Working for a gay and equal Sweden

For one glorious week every summer, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community parties on the streets of Stockholm – literally. Stockholm Pride is a week of education, community building and pure celebration. But what is it like to be gay in Sweden the other 51 weeks of the year?

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No room for discrimination

In 2013, the Stockholm Pride parade had an estimated 60,000 participants and 600,000 spectators, one of several signs that LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) people are a welcomed part of Swedish society.

The LGBT community is obviously not one homogenous group, and while some are happy and content, others are perhaps less so. Still, laws and regulations have a big impact on everyday life, and over the last decades Sweden has taken important steps to ensure that LGBT people enjoy the same rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Most recently, gender-neutral wedding laws (2009), adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples (2003), insemination rights for lesbians (2005), and a prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation added to the Swedish constitution (2011) are some of the laws that have been passed.

The European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe) looks at legislation to rank countries in an annual review called Rainbow Europe.  Sweden ranked fourth of 49 European countries in 2013.

But it would be smug to say that there is no room for improvement, regardless of rankings. The legal benchmarks are steps, not the final goal, in Sweden’s strive towards equality.

Ulrika Westerlund, chairwoman of RFSL, the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, says: ‘On the legalisation side a lot has happened, but a lot remains to be done.

‘It is dangerous to imagine that only a few minor adjustments remain and everything will be fine. It is not a good self-image for a nation to have.’

Westerlund points out that in particular transgender rights need to be looked over. Sweden was the first country in the world in 1972 to allow for the legal change of gender identity. This daring legal move unfortunately also contained some drawbacks, including mandatory sterilisation, which were not removed until 2013.

Changes still await

Swedes generally have a high level of confidence in government authorities. This trust grows out of a long history of public transparency, egalitarian politics and laws and institutions that protect the rights of individuals. The ombudsman system – public agencies that represent the interest of individuals – has been in effect since 1809.

If a person feels they have been discriminated against, they can turn to the Equality Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen, DO), a government agency that works against all kinds of discrimination.

Eva Nikell at DO says: ‘Some cases we handle have to do with how people are treated at health care centres. The law is clear in that discrimination is not acceptable, but then things such as ignorance and prejudices come into play.

‘Health care professionals can, for example, make illogical connections between a disease, even a common cold, and the patient’s sex identity or expression. Or have an attitude which creates discriminatory decisions towards lesbian women who want to become pregnant. There is no requirement for health care professionals to have knowledge about LGBT-related issues.’

Laws remain laws, in short. The passing of them has not completely eliminated discrimination against people due to sexual orientation or transgender identity.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights 2012 LGBT surveyshowed that 35 per cent of respondents from Sweden felt discriminated against or harassed in the last 12 months on the grounds of sexual orientation. Not a very flattering figure but still better compared to that year’s EU average of 47 per cent.

Same-sex marriages were legalised in Sweden in 2009.

Photo: Malin Hoelstad/TT

Reaching out

What makes Sweden one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world is that people continue to fight for further improvements.

In addition to RFSL, there are a number of LGBT organisations ranging from those affiliated with a political party to youth organisations and organisations for a particular occupation, such as the Swedish gay police association.

Most of these organisations work with events, campaigns, information, education and support. Together they build networks, often in solidarity with international LGBT movements. Stockholm Pride also participates, for example through the Stockholm Pride international solidarity fund, which was founded in 2006.

Many organisations in Sweden fight for the right for people who are persecuted in their home countries to get asylum in Sweden, with homosexual acts still outlawed in approximately 80 countries and territories around the world (Sweden legalised it in 1944).

Several Swedish organisations and institutions dedicate resources to intensify co-operation with human rights activists in other countries. Swedish law also states that the Migration Board will give asylum to people who are persecuted in their homeland due to sexual orientation and gender.

Rainbow Mass

Religion is often cited as a reason why people object to homosexuality and transgender people. The national Church of Sweden, however, has taken a clear stance for love in all its forms.

Shortly after gender-neutral marriage laws came in effect in 2009, the Church of Sweden permitted same-sex ceremonies. Individual priests have the right to withstand but it is then up to the parish to find someone who will perform the ceremony.

It is not surprising then that the Church of Sweden is represented at Stockholm Pride or that they arrange Rainbow Mass that mirrors every person’s equal worth, also from an LGBT perspective. Malin Strindberg, Priest at the Rainbow Mass, says: ‘Most priests are wise enough to understand that homosexual love is worth every bit as much as any other kind of love.

‘I work with the Rainbow Mass because people who define themselves as LGBT have lived under oppression for a long time. It has also been a question within the church for a long time. I do what I believe Jesus wants me to do. I believe Jesus would stand here with me.’

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg is a Swedish writer, editor and translator who has spent most of his adult life in the US and Ireland. Returning to Sweden he discovered a new curiosity for his native country.