by Rene Rosechild
On February 1, Iceland made history by choosing Johanna Sigurðardóttir to be their prime minister, making her the world’s first openly gay head of state. After its government collapsed in January, the country’s political parties chose Sigurðardóttir, one of Iceland’s most trusted and longest serving politicians, to lead them out of economic turmoil.
But to Icelanders, the fact that Sigurðardóttir is a lesbian is of minor importance. In Iceland, the news about the new prime minister’s sexual orientation is that the rest of the world sees it as news. “Whom the new prime minister crawls into bed with at night seems to be fairly far down the list of priorities for people,” says Ingo Sigfusson of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV). The Icelanders I talked to all know that that Sigurðardóttir is a lesbian, but none of them care. When I asked Inga Rós Antoníusdóttir of Reykjavik about it, she said, “I couldn’t care less and I honestly don’t know anyone who could. It’s not an issue for us here. We find it quite amusing to read how much the foreign media writes about it.”
Sigurðardóttir’s civil partnership to Jónína Leósdóttir is well known in Iceland. It appears on her official biography on her government ministry’s website. Sigfusson states that Sigurðardóttir’s emergence as the world’s first openly gay PM has barely rated mention in Iceland. “It’s by no means a big deal. It’s been reported, but it’s not something the public is focusing on,” he told the BBC. While headlines around the world report that she’s the “First Gay prime minister,” Icelandic bloggers are discussing whether Sigurðardóttir will be able to resuscitate their economy.
Sigurðardóttir’s rise to head of state was sparked by an economic and political crisis. After Iceland’s economy crashed last fall, unemployment soared, leading to widespread street protests, and the resignation of the ruling conservative Independence party. Under Iceland’s parliamentary system, the leading political parties agreed on a coalition government to hold power until elections can be held in April. Sigurðardóttir is not expected to be re-elected, because her party, the Social Democratic Alliance, holds a minority of seats in the Althingi (Parliament). Because the ruling parties felt that the government needs to restore the trust of the people, they chose the country’s most trusted politician to lead them until the election. According to a Capacent Gallup poll, she is the most popular politician in the country, and the only one whose popularity increased while the economy tanked.
Sigurðardóttir’s background is not that of a traditional politician. She did not go to university, which many Icelanders consider more controversial than her sexual orientation. Instead, she went to work as an airline stewardess after graduating from a commercial high school. From there she became a union organizer, which led her into politics. She was first elected to the Althingi from Reykjavik in 1978, and has been in and out of government ever since, held several cabinet posts, formed her own political party, rejoined her old one, led a new alliance, and was appointed as Minister of Social Affairs again in 2007. When she lost her bid to lead her party in 1994, she raised her fist and said, “My time will come.”
These words became part of the Icelandic cultural idiom and have proven prophetic. Icelanders can be seen sporting T-shirts in Reykjavik that read, “Her Time Has Come.” Many in Iceland are pleased they have chosen their first female prime minister. Árný Sandra Skúladóttir of Reykjavic thinks it’s great that Iceland has a woman prime minister, and no one in her family cares that she is gay.
At about the same time she was being elected to the Althingi, Sigurðardóttir left her banker husband and began living with Jónína Leósdóttir and both of their sons. That same year, gay and lesbian activists founded Iceland’s first gay rights organization, Samtokin 78. The gay movement has since made steady progress to full integration. In 1996, Iceland granted gay couples the right to civil partnership, which made Sigurðardóttir and Leósdóttir’s 2002 union possible.
Iceland is an island, about the size of Kentucky, with a population roughly equal to that of Connecticut. Until last fall, it had a thriving economy. The U.N. named it the world’s most developed country. However, its banks invested in risky securities and its economy nosedived last fall. In rapid succession, it borrowed money from the International Monetary Fund, nationalized banks, street protests broke out and its government fell. Just as the United States turned to Obama during its economic crisis, Iceland chose Sigurðardóttir. As Árný Skúladóttir told me, “She is hard working and she always stands by her beliefs. She works for the people. I hope that she can do something good for the Icelandic people, especially for the ones that are about to lose their homes and jobs.” Skúladóttir’s time has certainly come.