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ELLA Talks with Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir & Jónína Leósdóttir

ELLA Talks with Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir & Jónína Leósdóttir

JS og JL í OUT boði

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir & Jónína Leósdóttir have a relationship for the history books. Former Prime Minister of Iceland, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was the first openly lesbian woman to head a government in modern history. Her marriage to Jónína Leósdóttir in 2010 was one of the first same-sex weddings in Iceland. We had the opportunity to speak with them both before they head to Mallorca for Ella Talks.

Why did you choose a career in politics?


“I had been active in the trade-union movement for a long time, besides growing up in a very strong social-democratic family environment. My grandmother was a trade-union leader for decades and my father was an MP for the Social Democratic Party. So I wanted to fight against injustice and for human rights and equality of all kinds – gender equality, economic equality etc.”

Was it a good decision? How was your experience in politics?


“Yes, it was a good decision, as throughout my career I have been able to fight for what I believe in … and make some progress in many areas. So now, after 35 years in politics, I look back with certain satisfaction, although I would, naturally, have been able to do much more.

But the experience of being a woman in politics was not always easy, especially in the early years. When I was first elected, I was one of only three female MPs in a Parliament of 63 members. And for many years I was the only woman in Government.”

Tell us how it felt to become the first woman at the head of Iceland’s government.


“I became Prime Minister at the beginning of 2009, when Iceland had been hit by the hardest economic crisis our nation has ever experienced. So I had huge problems to deal with and was under enormous pressure. But, of course, I was proud of becoming the first Icelandic female Prime Minister and of being trusted with this difficult task. During my term in office, I tried to make all decisions with equality in mind. For example: I appointed an equal number of men and women in my Government, I introduced gender budgeting and we also passed a law to make it mandatory for both public and private companies to have gender equality on their boards … no less than 40% of men or women.”

Jóhanna 2006

How do you view women in politics?


“I think that an increased participation of women in politics is the prerequisite of creating better and fairer societies.

Generally, women tread more carefully than men in matters of finance. They show more responsibility and prudence and are less inclined to risk-taking.”

What do you think about inequalities that exist in politics?


“Gender inequality in politics is completely intolerable and it’s important to find ways to end it.

Some of the Icelandic political parties have tried to do this by using a gender quota system when they pick parliamentary candidates. And a women’s equality party was established in Iceland in the eighties in order for more women’s voices to be heard in Parliament.

This is something I will discuss further in my address at the ELLA festival.”

How do you think it would be possible to reduce inequalities?


“This is also something I intend to discuss at the ELLA talk in September. But one way of battling gender inequality in the work-market, which has proven efficient in Iceland, is to change maternity-leave to parental-leave. In other words, to encourage fathers to take leave after the birth of their children.”

JL sept 2011

What do you think about LGBT rights in society?


“We rejoice every time we hear of progress regarding LGBT rights in some corner of the world. And we admire all the people who are working towards increasing rights.

But we would like to see organizations that fight for human rights on a global level put more money and manpower into securing basic rights for LGBT people, no matter where they live in the world.”

Do you think LGBT people are represented enough?


“Absolutely not.

Things are progressing, slowly but surely. Naturally, we are impatient and think this is happening too slowly. But LGBT people are gradually becoming more prominent and being shown more respect, for example in the media. And there are continually more openly LGBT individuals at the top of their respective fields.

Positive role models are vitally important, not just in public life and politics, but everywhere in society.”

What do you think should be done to improve the current situation?


“It is imperative to uproot prejudice about LGBT issues by giving people access to balanced information. This is especially important in countries where LGBT individuals still have neither legal rights nor protection and can be punished for their feelings. But I appreciate that in many areas it is hard to get such information across and educate people, due to all kinds of complex reasons.”

When did you announce to your family and friends that you were a lesbian?


“First we had to realize this ourselves – and that didn’t happen until we met and fell in love in the mid-eighties. At that time Jóhanna var over forty years old and Jónína around thirty.

And that was only the beginning of a long story, which later involved our family and friends gradually finding out about our relationship, at different times and in different ways.

In fact, this was such a long and complicated story that we needed a whole book to tell it properly. Jónína wrote that book, Jóhanna and I, in 2012 when we had been together for almost three decades.”

Did you have any problem in your personal life or career because of your sexual orientation?


“The answer to this question is also very complex and linked to many other factors, like the ruthless world of politics and societal attitudes to LGBT issues in Iceland, which changed radically in the nineties.

The short answer would be: Yes, the fact that ours was a same-sex relationship definitely caused problems in our personal lives. And these problems were very much related to Jóhanna’s career in politics.

But we will go into all this in much more detail in our talk at the ELLA festival on September 2nd.”

Would you have any recommendations for LGBT people that are afraid to normalize their sexual orientation in their lives?


“It is extremely difficult to advice LGBT people as a whole, as our circumstances can be so totally different, depending on which country we live in.

Of course, we would like to be able to say: Don’t let anyone oppress you; it is your right as a human being to be able to be open about who you are and live your life accordingly.

But even in societies where LGBT human rights are recognized, it can be hard for some individuals to come to terms with their sexuality and be open about it. Not to mention the millions of LGBT individuals who live in countries where people risk being disowned by their families and losing everything – even their freedom or sometimes their lives – if they come out.

It is agonizing to know that a huge number of LGBT people live in those circumstances and don’t have much opportunity to change them. That is why the global community and international bodies must do something to help.”



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