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The Gay “Other” in Contemporary Copenhagen

Denmark is often seen as a progressive country in regards to attitudes toward sexual orientation, a country where being openly gay isn’t psychologically and socially crippling, where one can live out one’s sexuality without the fear of being judged, and where homosexuals have nearly the same civil rights as heterosexuals. This last view, according to a March report by the Danish Institute for Human Rights, is often based on the fact that in 1989 Denmark became the first country to grant homosexuals the right to registered partnerships. Now, registered partners can also adopt stepchildren, and in 2007 the ban on lesbians’ right to artificial insemination was lifted.
Although the overall picture seems bright, homosexuals are still deprived of some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by the heterosexual majority, such as the right to a religious marriage and the right to adopt children from other countries. In addition, homosexuals face unequal treatment in other, subtler ways. Same-sex couples are structurally discriminated against when filling out the form to sign up their child at a day care institution: Assuming heterosexual parents, the form asks for the mother’s name and the father’s name, forcing one-half of the couple to assume a gender other than his or her own. 
They are also treated unequally by mainstream media, says Miguel Obradors, founder of Pangea - Copenhagen International LGBT Network.  
“You never see [commercials] on TV or on the street of two men kissing or two women kissing,” says the 29-year-old bisexual Spaniard, who has lived in and out of Denmark since 2000. Adds  23-year-old Warren Kunce, an American female-to-male transsexual and Pangea member living in Denmark for the past three years, “It’s like we don’t exist.” 
The near-invisible status of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals—“LGBT” for short—in mainstream Danish culture extends to school curricula, according to the Institute’s report which states, “It seems that teachers are generally reluctant and fearful of approaching this taboo topic.”
When the media do represent LGBT people, according to the same report, it’s often in a stereotypical way; for example, with pictures of semi-clothed men participating in the annual gay pride march.
Discrimination against LGBT people reveals their status as a minority in a heteronormative society. According to sociologist Mads Ted Drud-Jensen and gay activist Lars Erik Frank, the Danish homo-political response to this situation is an integration strategy, whereby homosexuals living in accordance with dominant political and social norms will be perceived as “ordinary” and find it easier to obtain rights equal to those of the heterosexual majority. 
An example of this integration project is the Copenhagen Pride celebrated every August. In recent years there has been a trend toward depoliticising the festival, turning it into a cultural event aiming to show homosexuals as a group with many resources to offer, and serving as more than a base from which to start political battles. At the same time, Pride has tended to incorporate itself into mainstream Danish culture. In 2001, for example, it was named the “Mermaid Pride,” a reference to the well-known Danish national symbol. And in 2003, it changed its name to “Danish Pride,” where its participants were described as Danish homosexuals. 
In the words of Drud-Jensen, “In recent years the team behind the Pride have made a more or less conscious attempt to inscribe the Pride in the annals of national discourse. The pride has become a marker of ‘Danishness’ and the myth of the Danish open-mindedness. Participants have turned into marching Danes, and the parade has become a part of that populist brand of nationalism, which in recent years has dominated the political landscape both in left-wing—and most particularly right-wing—politics.” 
Another side of this nationalist discourse surfaced at the 2001 Pride.  That year, the event gave a homophobia award to the “Muslim Countries” of the world for their “resistance to naming gays in the final document on the fight against HIV and AIDS at their special convention in New York.” The same year, some boys of immigrant background threw stones and tomatoes at Pride participants. The chairman of the parade spoke out against the incident, saying, “We won’t put up with it. That’s not how things work in Denmark.” 
Thus, homophobia is presented as something un-Danish, a view that has also been dominant in mainstream media, which mainly mentions such homophobic acts when they are committed by people with an ethnic background other than Danish, according to Ondt i Røven (Pain in the Ass in English), a book authored by Drud-Jensen and journalist Sune Prahl Knudsen. 
Where does this focus on homosexuals as representative of Danish “open-mindedness,” and immigrants as homophobic, leave gays and lesbians who themselves have an ethnic minority or immigrant background? According to Drud-Jensen and Knudsen, the homosexual with an immigrant background is often represented in the gay milieu  as the gay “Other” who struggles with mainstream culture and religion, family, and coming out, in contrast to his or her untroubled blond-haired, blue-eyed gay Dane counterpart. The 2003 Pride provided an example of such representation. A young gay man with an immigrant background was given the “Coming -Out of the Year” award. 
When asked about possible stereotypes of gay men with ethnic minority backgrounds, Sider, a gay 17-year-old, says he doesn’t know any but instantly expresses his interest in them. When he sees someone in a gay bar “looking like an immigrant from Turkey who is not at all gay,” he becomes curious: “Then you are interested in knowing how he gets along with the family, because you know that the family is very opposed to it.” 
Another distinguishing quality of the gay Other is his exotic, mystical appeal. The difference becomes attractive and the dark-skinned gay, a sort of object. Omar, who is interviewed in Ondt i Røven, says, “People often say that they have never been with an immigrant boy, but that they would like to, and then they try to make it happen. It can be a bit tiring, because I become an object, almost like a blond girl.” 
An adopted child originally from Bulgaria and dark-skinned, Sider himself has noticed that his looks have a special effect on others: “When you are young and dark-skinned, the spotlight is on you. When you walk into a gay bar, people really stare at you.”
Sabaah, an organization targeting LGBT Danes with an ethnic background other than Danish, has a different approach to the concept of the struggling LGBT Other.  Meaning “new day” or “new beginning” in Arabic, Sabaah was founded by a group of young people who, according to the organization’s Web site, “wished to create a sense of community and solidarity, and to create a network among homosexuals with […] ethnic backgrounds [other] than Danish.” Sabaah is a “social network that supports and guides people through the kind of problems that homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals with ethnic backgrounds other than Danish often encounter: Identity, ‘coming-out’, religion, loneliness, family conflicts, parents, reactions, relationships, and the gay community.”  Its founders saw a need for such a support group back in April 15, 2006, the date it was founded. And that such a group still exists and continues to grow suggests that there is still such a need. 
In a May 1 article published in the Danish newspaper Information, Sharif, a Sabaah user from an Egyptian family, speaks about his life after coming out to his family: “My family is afraid of what other families will say about us. If the neighbor finds out that I am gay he will think that it is because my father hasn’t been man enough to give me a proper upbringing. I am sure that if we had been the only Arab family in Denmark and didn’t know anyone, it wouldn’t matter that I am gay.” 
In contrast to Sharif, Elias, a 25-year-old gay man originally from Lebanon but now living in Denmark, has not been as open with his family about his sexual orientation: “My parents don’t know. I don’t have the courage to tell them. I’m afraid of my father’s reaction. [...] I have a really good relation with my siblings and parents, and right now I don’t want to lose contact with them.” 
According to Sabaah board member Kassem Ibrahim, the organization currently has 75 members, about 35 volunteers, and around 400 “users,” people who participate in the group’s activities and attend its parties. He said most of the members and users come from a Middle Eastern background. Sabaah started as a group within the Copenhagen LGBT milieu, and its outreach efforts stayed within those limits. “We mainly used the gay media because we knew that it wouldn’t reach too far,” Ibrahim says. “We were quite cautious about using mainstream Danish media to reach society at large.”
But now, Ibrahim says, their scope is starting to broaden. This move toward greater exposure suggests at least two things: one, a decisive increase in Sabaah’s confidence—derived from a growing support base—in the possibility of constructive interaction with Danish society; and two, an increase in Danish society’s willingness to engage in such interaction. If this trend continues, attention to ethnic background would become a source of strength rather than weakness.  As Ibrahim put it, “I think that we are seen as one of the strongest organizations in Copenhagen’s gay community. So we are not these poor things who have a hard time. On the contrary, we are the strongest organization. And when we are invited to meetings, we participate as an equal.”
The existence of a support group within the LGBT milieu, itself a minority within the larger Danish society, could convey the impression of division or discord, or in the most extreme of cases, irreconcilable differences. Kassem would disagree: “We [Sabaah] have a very good relation to other homosexual organizations and groups. We have many cooperation agreements.” 
Furthermore, groups like Sabaah might come across to the uninformed outsider as representing and representative of all LGBT people of ethnic minorities living in Copenhagen today. In reality, as groups like Pangea show, this is not the case. Not all people from this group who lack an understanding or supporting family feel the need for such a specialized support network. 
As Elias put it, “Sabaah probably does its activities in order to make people feel welcome and give them the chance to talk with people from the same background so they can support each other. I really don’t feel the need to be part of this. I’ve got my friends.”
Perhaps the most important benefits that groups like Sabaah afford their members are a greater self-confidence and visibility within the Danish LGBT milieu and Danish society as a whole. As Kassem put it, “We [Sabaah] are moving from a closed way of thinking [...] to actively engaging with the wider society about our work, who we are, and the fact that we exist.” 
*Throughout this report, we have refrained from using what we consider the simplistic and misleading term “community” when referring to the sum of LGBT people living in Copenhagen today. Instead, we prefer the much more accurate literal translation of Drud-Jensen and Knudsen’s miljø, “milieu,” meaning “the physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops,” according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. We consider this concept to be closer to Copenhagen’s LGBT reality than “community.” As Miguel from Pangea remarks, “I don’t think there’s an LGBT ‘community’. […] It’s an abstraction.”

References

Literature

Danish Institute for Human Rights. The social situation concerning homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in Denmark. Copenhagen: Danish Institute for Human Rights, March 2009.
Drud-Jensen , Mads Ted, and Sune Prahl Knudsen. Ondt i Røven. Copenhagen: Høst og Søn, 2005.
Frank, Lars Erik, and Minna Grooss. Homo. Denmark: Politikens Forlag A/S, 2003.
Frank, Lars Erik, and Mads Ted Drud-Jensen. “Und Tanz den Populismus.” In Larsen, Ricupero and Schafhausen, eds. The Populism Reader. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2005.
  
Fenger-Grøndahl, Malene, and Marianne Nøhr Larsen. Den forbandede kærlighed. Århus C: CDR-Forlag, 2007.
Whitaker, Brian. Unspeakable Love. Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East. United Kingdom: Saqi Books, 2006.

Personal Interviews

Obradors, Miguel. Founder, Pangea. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
Kunce, Warren. Member, Pangea. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
Ibrahim, Kassem. Member, Board of Saabah. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
Elias, gay Copenhagener. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 3, 2009.
Sider, gay Copenhagener. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 2, 2009.

Newspapers

Geist, Anton. “En søn, der er bøsse, var ikke lige drømmen.” Information. May 1, 2009.07.03 
http://www.information.dk/189800
Geist, Anton. “Den smukkeste del af mig skulle slukkes.” Information. May 15, 2009. http://www.information.dk/191166

Web sites

“Homoseksualitet.” sexlinien.dk
http://www.sexlinien.dk/Default.aspx?ID=2885
“Sabaah’s background.” Sabaah.
http://sabaah.dk/web/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=18&Itemid=100
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 
http://www.merriam-webster.com/
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Denmark Denmark 2009

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