Find out how Tunisian journalist Farah Samti experienced the Gay Pride festival in the Swedish capital Stockholm…
During my time as a journalist since the revolution, I’ve become something of a specialist in a topic that was once a taboo: the situation of gay rights in Tunisia. Having been ruled by dictators for decades, we’re now going through a crucial transitional period, through which we aim to establish a new democracy. However, being LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) was, and still is, illegal, as Article 230 of the Tunisian penal code criminalizes same-sex relations.
Members of the Tunisian interim government have made homophobic statements publicly and refused to retract them. Even though the law has never been applied, most members of the Tunisian LGBTQ community refuse to advocate for basic human rights, such as equality, in fear of being criticized or prosecuted.
Having written about these and other LGBT issues in Tunisia, I, along with other international journalists, was invited by the Swedish Institute to attend Stockholm’s second largest national annual event by attendance: the 15th annual Gay Pride Festival. I was both surprised and thrilled by the opportunity, as I did not know what to expect. I’ve heard a lot about gay rights in more developed countries, but my knowledge about the LGBTQ situation in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, was very limited.
The city of Stockholm stood tall on the water with its unique combination of historic and modern architecture. I’m not sure whether it was commonplace or if it was simply the festive atmosphere, but wherever I looked I saw couples, straight and gay, holding hands and kissing in public. As I walked around the city, I noticed that public buses had rainbow flags on both sides to celebrate the occasion. It made me want to meet the person that had taken the initiative to adorn the city with this rainbow coating. I was happy to find out that we had a scheduled an interview with him the next day.
“Democracy is an everyday battle”
On the second day, I was given the opportunity to interview some of the city’s most prominent figures. One of the interviews was with the man behind the rainbow buses idea: Christer Wennerholm, the representative of the County Council of Stockholm in charge of health care and transportation.
“Democracy is an everyday battle, as things could change at any given time, and democracy has given power to dictators in the past,” he stated. Wennerholm, an openly gay politician, decided the flag initiative would be a good way to celebrate Stockholm’s Gay Pride. “It was a way to say that we provide transportation for everyone. There was a political debate about it. But we have the right to have different opinions,” he added.
Wennerholm explained that democracy is a two-way street. For example, he could not ban a commercial against same sex marriage in the city, as everyone should have an equal opportunity to sell ideas they believe in. He didn’t hide the fact that Islamophobes, homophobes, and racists do exist, even in a place as tolerant and open as Stockholm.
I asked Wennerholm about the main challenges faced by people in Stockholm who were looking to further the rights of the LGBTQ community. “We give the opportunity to others to come out and live their lives the way they want to. However, if they choose to remain discrete, we cannot make decisions for them,” he answered.
The Swedish Church: “It’s an ongoing reform”
My next interview was with the Swedish Bishop of the Reformed Lutheran Church, Eva Brunne. I did not realize that the bishop I was about to interview was female until I read her name. My surprise deepened when she revealed the details of her personal life.
“I’ve been married to a woman for 11 years. We have a 7-year-old child. It is possible in Stockholm,” she stated. Bishop Brunne opened up about the hardships her church went through, given their non-traditional beliefs. “Many churches cut their relations with us. Progress took time,” she said.
The last five bishops of her church fought for LGBTQ rights, according to Brunne, and same sex marriage has been allowed in her church since 2009. Stockholm’s Lutheran Church even holds an annual special mass for Gay Pride. In spite of this, Brunne said modernizing the Swedish Church has not always been easygoing.
“The Bible doesn’t offer recipes. It’s an ongoing reform,” said Bishop Brunne.
While she has marched in most Gay Pride Parades of Stockholm, Brunne admitted that she wouldn’t take her child to the parade, fearing he might witness a hate act towards his parents. Some Swedish people, like members of the Swedish Democrats, have been publicly opposed to gay rights and ethnic diversity in Sweden.
That is why Bishop Brunne’s church has been taking part in the, “No to Racism, Yes to Tolerance,” campaign to promote human rights in general. I also learned that Jewish Rabbi David Lazar has allowed same sex couples in his synagogue, and held a special Jewish Shabbat for the occasion of Gay Pride.
“An open and tolerant attitude keeps a policeman professional and efficient”
In the afternoon, I visited Stockholm’s Police Department. It was the interview that I was looking forward to the most, as I come from a country that used to be a police state, a country where police brutality is the norm. Due to my curiosity, I asked a few locals before the interview about how they felt about the police. I heard a common answer: “they’re too correct,” meaning they were too by-the-book. It only made my anticipation grow.
Goran Stanton, a gay policeman who has been working in the Hate Crime Unit for 30 years and is a representative of the Gay Police Association, was my interviewee. Consisting of 120 members, the Gay Police Association was founded 12 years ago. Stanton emphasized the inclusiveness of gay rights activism.
“The police is for everyone. You don’t have to be a woman to defend women’s rights, nor an immigrant to advocate for ethnic diversity. You don’t have to be gay to defend gay rights. Gay rights are human rights,” he explained.
Stanton also stated the importance of maintaining a professional police force. While everyone is welcome to apply to the police academy, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, a police officer needs to be highly qualified to be admitted. “Education is the right tool. The police has to remain professional. You’ll fail to be professional if you’re not open enough.”
Stanton told me that homosexuality was considered illegal until 1984. Until 1997, it was considered a mental illness. Being transgender is still classified as a mental illness in Sweden.
Given his experience in fighting hate crime, Stanton stated that 75% of hate crimes are ethnic, 15% are homophobic, and 10% are religious.
The Arab Initiative: “Love No Borders”
After finishing the series of interviews, I headed to Pride Park where different organizations and associations set up their stands. Everyone was preparing for the parade, which was going to take place the following day. Despite the gloomy appearance of the sky, rainbow colors made the park sparkle.
As I was walking around discovering what each different stand had to offer, some signs in Arabic grabbed my attention. I walked toward the tent to take a closer look, and the sign read “Arab Initiative/Love No Borders: Together We Are Stronger.” I was thrilled to have finally run into an Arab gay rights association, as only a few exist. I talked to some of the young men in the tent who explained to me the concept of their initiative. The program is a part of a series of Swedish LGBTQ initiatives that are organized by different ethnicities and aim at promoting an image of an “integrated, equal, and safe society, characterized by diversity.”
The Arab Initiative focuses on LGBTQ rights in the Arab World and Sweden. One of the young men, who was in a rush to participate in the cultural events held at the park, gave me a flyer that read, “Our ultimate goal is for Arabic-speaking LGBTQ people to have the same access to information and support as everybody else in society and to take an active part in the LGBTQ community.”
Everyone Wears Rainbow at the Gay Pride Parade
It was my last day in Stockholm, and it was finally time for the much-anticipated parade. There couldn’t have been a better way to conclude my stay there. Tens of thousands attended and participated at the event. Colors, bubbles, flowers, and music made the atmosphere joyful, peaceful, and fun. Everyone was celebrating together. Among the marching crowd, I recognized the familiar faces of the policeman, the bishop, and the politician I had interviewed. It was a genuine celebration of pride, human pride. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect moment, where everyone celebrated their differences without even having to know each other.
As I was leaving the bright colorful Stockholm and returning to Tunisia, I was, and still am, wondering: Will Tunis be painted in rainbow one day?
Farah Samti is a 23-year-old Tunisian pursuing a masters in linguistics at the University of Arts and Humanities in Manouba. She was awarded a scholarship to study at Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA for two months. Her article has previously been published on Tunisia Live.