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Travels in "Gay-Friendly Iceland."

By Michael Joseph Gross

JUNE 15, 1998:  The invitation arrived by e-mail early this spring: a gay tour company called L'Arc en Ciel was inviting me on a junket to "gay-friendly Iceland!"

I'd spent the previous week interviewing dozens of tour operators for a magazine article about gay travel offerings for New Year's Eve 1999, so the invitation wasn't exactly unexpected. I'd received plenty of others. But this one stuck out -- "Gay-friendly Iceland!" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

Gay travel is a large and growing segment of the travel industry; the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association has 1350 members who book $1 billion worth of tickets annually, and I know of at least 40 tour operators getting more or less rich on the idea that when gay people go on vacation, their dream destinations are Sodom and Gomorrah. Most of these operators specialize in filling cruise ships and in hauling gay tourists to getaway ghettos like Key West, Palm Springs, and P-town, so I wondered why a business -- whose goal, presumably, is to make money -- would stake its reputation on Iceland as the Next Big Thing.

I called the tour organizers, pricking up my ears for cues as to whether these folks had been taking their medication. L'Arc en Ciel (that's French for "rainbow") is a straight-owned, Philadelphia-based company that runs annual gay group tours to Iceland, among other destinations, and helps tourists plan "gay-themed adventures" in the country.

The employees I talked to painted a bright picture of Iceland, with platitudes about "tolerance" and flattering physical descriptions of the country's Viking-derived population. According to Sue Ryder-Scott, L'Arc en Ciel's general manager, the company's Iceland promotion is also part of a trend in the gay travel industry: as Key West, P-town, and the like grow increasingly crowded and expensive, some gay travel agents and tour operators are cultivating a new set of offbeat destinations. Places where life is slower, where you have to search high and low for a protein supplement, where there's nary a gym body or an umbrella-topped drink to be found. Places like Moscow or Minneapolis. Places that aren't predominantly gay, but are being marketed with the phrase "gay-friendly."

Iceland, as it turned out, is so gay-friendly that it actually made a lot of gay people on our trip uncomfortable. The L'Arc people are optimistic, though: "I know gay people will buy this," said one employee. "There's something about the sterility of Iceland that appeals."

This all happened during one of those rare weeks when I had some extra money in my checking account and no deadlines pressing, so I said what the hell and hopped on an Icelandair flight from Boston to Reykjavík. On March 6, I arrived at Keflavik airport, about 45 minutes outside the capital, so early in the morning that it was still dark. In the baggage claim area, I met and mingled with the L'Arc en Ciel contingent -- three lesbians, three straight (but presumably "gay-friendly") women, and 10 gay men. This was a "fam trip," intended to familiarize travel agents with a new destination; except for me and one other writer, everyone in the group was a travel agent.

The first travel agent who introduced himself asked where I was from, and then said, "Boston! My only memories of Boston are of the Bird Sanctuary." (Law officers, avert your eyes: the Bird Sanctuary is a popular outdoor cruising area in Cambridge.) Having no idea what to do with this piece of information, I said "oh" and promptly repressed his name, which I still can't remember, even though we must have been introduced five times in the next couple of days.

We boarded a bus to Reykjavík and drove away from the airport, past a gigantic sculpture of a rainbow ("See, they're ready for us!" someone in the back of the bus called out) and then out into a countryside of eerie gray lava fields surrounded by lumpy snow-capped mountains.

For most of the trip the group was quiet; it was 6:45 a.m. in Reykjavík, five hours earlier on the East Coast. Then gradually I became aware of a sucking sound coming from the travel agent sitting across from me, whose concentration appeared equally divided between scoping me out and subjecting his breath mint to what must have been near-diamond-producing pressure. I looked out the window, trying to commune with nature, wishing he would put the Tic-Tac out of its misery and fall asleep.

When we reached Reykjavík, the driver pointed out just one local landmark -- "The only shopping mall in Iceland, which has a Hard Rock Café." Someone asked when it would be open that day. By the time we reached the city center, the sunrise sky had turned bright pink.

A representative from L'Arc en Ciel gave me this one-sentence description of the gay travel industry: "Gay men are looking to party; lesbians are looking for adventure travel." In other words, a tour guide can point lesbians in the direction of snowmobiles and horseback riding and call it a day. Gay men apparently need a little more handholding, a little reassurance that they're in a happening place. So most promotional brochures for gay men's tours promise "luxury" and "style" in abundance and are loaded with color photos of happy, musclebound men frolicking in Speedos. (Atlantis Events, whose cruise ship was notoriously denied port in Grand Cayman last year, uses the slogan "The Way We Play.")

I don't know if those stereotypes apply to most gay tourists, but they certainly evoke the experience these travel agents were after. On junket day one, after checking into our hotel rooms for brief jet-lag naps, the group rendezvoused in the lobby for a quick city tour, supposedly with an emphasis on Reykjavík's gay life. But before we even boarded the bus, Mr. Bird Sanctuary, Mr. Breath Mint, and several others erupted in a high-decibel hormonal frenzy over a group of strapping young men in the lobby. (We later learned this was the Israeli national handball team, in town for a match with Egypt.) "Look at that one!" someone said, and I prayed silently that That One didn't speak English.

After a few moments of jock-adoration, we were herded onto the tour bus, whose seats could not have been more appropriately decorated -- upholstered in rainbow-striped fabric with pink vinyl headrests. (Our guides insisted this was a coincidence, although they allowed it might be an omen.) What followed was a whirlwind tour of Icelandic culture. Reykjavík is compact, fresh-scrubbed, and has the unselfconscious quirkiness of a small town. One of the most popular art museums, shaped not unlike an igloo, houses violently symbolic sculptures of things like horse-women raising hammers above the metaphorical heads of Time and Destiny. The churches are spare and spiky, in a Reformed tradition our guide called "Lutherian." At Laugardalur swimming pool, the largest of Reykjavík's dozens of geothermally heated public pools, our guide explained that open-air swimming -- even on days when it snows eight inches -- is Icelanders' favorite sport.

Discerning a "gay Reykjavík" on this tour, however, wasn't easy. Our tour guide was straight, and when she tried to tell us about gay Reykjavík, she kept saying things like, "On the right is a 'gay restaurant,' according to the map you gave me."

As a choice for a gay tour group, Reykjavík was seeming curiouser and curiouser. When I went out for drinks that night to mingle with the Icelanders, it became clear that the very notion of a gay Iceland that's separate from the straight one is foreign to the natives. Even the exclusively gay institutions have an earnest, Rotarian quality about them. There's a gay men's leather club that meets on Saturday nights (in a room half the size of a grade-school cafeteria kitchen); exactly four people wore leather the night I visited, if you don't count shoes. There's a Gay Community Center, which has a thriving bridge club and an enormous lending library of pornographic videos. My rigorous inquiries of the principal dancer in the Icelandic National Ballet revealed that Reykjavík has one outdoor cruising area (on the roads surrounding a fancy hilltop restaurant called the Pearl) and a mostly gay sauna somewhere out in the suburbs. Otherwise in Reykjavík, gay and straight people mix so naturally that they completely jammed the signals of my American gaydar.

For instance, there's a gay-owned bed and breakfast, one of whose owners was second runner-up at the 1996 Mr. Leather Europe pageant; but when I was there, two of the three rooms were booked by straight couples. Reykjavík is also home to Hid Íslenzka Redasafn, the world's only museum dedicated to the history of the penis -- but it's run by a 56-year-old straight man, a married father of four, and most of the visitors are Icelandic women. Gay marriage is legal in Iceland; everyone speaks English but nobody seems to have heard of "gay-bashing"; and Reykjavík doesn't really have a gay ghetto.

Sure, gay Icelanders make a point of finding each other (as one twentysomething gay man told me, "It is very much normal that I know almost every lesbian in the country"). And sure, in Reykjavík, as everywhere else in the world, young men report that "It's a full-time job, learning to be gay." But in a tolerant, open country with a population of 250,000, there's just no reason to spend much time building a subculture, as long as you've got a circle of friends. In Iceland, "assimilation" isn't even enough of a compromise to be called by that name. As queer as this may sound to American ears, in Iceland being gay is virtually normal.

The biggest homo hangout in Reykjavík is the hetero/gay bar "22," where I met plenty of Viking-featured men but detected none of the gym obsession of the American bar scene. (With the testosterone they don't spend on the skinnyfying sport of swimming, Icelanders play a mean game of chess.) The men I met were friendly in the way that Dutch people are friendly -- open to visitors and extremely well-mannered, but not aggressively hospitable like southern Europeans. There was something almost courtly about the Icelanders I met, so I was not surprised when they confessed to me, one after another, that they were inveterate, 18th-century-style correspondents: many Icelanders have up to a dozen pen pals all over the world.

According to a middle-aged man who's the closest thing to a professional homosexual I found in Reykjavík (with Mr. Leather, he runs the gay B&B), promiscuity is rare in Iceland, except during the summers, when the rule is: "Sleep with as many tourists as possible." The first night I visited "22," I saw a hand-lettered sign written in Icelandic, which a nice lesbian translated for me: 15 americans (and 1 canadian!) visiting friday-saturday. many men, some women. come and welcome them. be friendly.

On day two of the junket, we got back on the rainbow bus and headed into the Icelandic countryside. Within 15 minutes we were on an expansive glacial plain where the only focus our cameras accepted was infinity. Even though there were no obstacles in view (save the extinct volcanoes in the distance), the gravel roads twisted like Lombard Street in San Francisco. Our guide explained that they'd been configured to avoid the dozens of small hills where elves lived.

Before we could follow up on the elf issue, our guide indicated a bunch of shrubs to our left -- she referred to this as a "forest" -- and quoted an old Icelandic proverb: "If you get lost in an Icelandic forest, simply stand up and you will find your way."

A few minutes later we stopped at a Yellowstone-quality geyser; then we moved on to a spectacular frozen waterfall (nearly defaced by a power plant in 1930, but saved by the suicide-threat protests of a local farmer's daughter named Sigrid, now hailed as "the first Icelandic feminist"). At a humongous floral greenhouse, our hosts served Black Death -- the anise-flavored Icelandic national liquor -- in cups that would have done Martha Stewart proud: they were painstakingly made of carved-out cucumbers.

The lesbians in our group peppered our guide with interesting questions about history and geology. The men, however, seemed all but blind to local color. The Bird Sanctuary guy took one look at the geyser and spent the rest of the day referring to it as "a big hole." At the frozen waterfall, much of our group chose to stay near the bus, the better to photograph the Israeli handballers, who were also sightseeing. You can guess what kind of jokes got made about the cucumber cups.

By the end of the tour, which took about six hours, the men were clamoring for their cocktail naps, so our tour guide dumped us at the hotel. She suggested we have a bite of dinner before hitting "22" and sweetly advised us to make the most of our last night in Iceland. Today's tour guide was a lesbian, so she knew better how to speak our language: "You are free tonight," she said, "to find whoever you want to come back with."

That night, however, a plurality of our group stormed out of "22" after one of them looked around the place and loudly asked, "Why are there so many straight people in our bar?" I don't know where they ended up going, but considering the options I can't imagine the night was a big one for cross-cultural carnality.

Many travel agents on our trip told me they wanted to give their clients a strong roster of alternative gay destinations, but many of them also found the assimilation of gay life in Iceland jarring. And in a way their reactions were understandable. Reykjavík challenges a presumption that is fundamental to the gay travel industry and to much of American gay life in general, especially for people born after 1970: that ghettoization, or intentional exile, is the creative precondition for gay experience. But what repelled my traveling companions may be one of the best reasons for gay Americans to visit Iceland. Gay Icelanders are realizing a dream that a lot of gay Americans find too challenging to realize, and therefore abandon: they're living an out gay life without separating themselves from the world they grew up in.

For many gay Americans, it's actually scary to move in a society so tolerant of sexual difference. In America, sexual orientation is so loaded that it's inescapably central to individual identity. In Iceland, people appear mostly indifferent. Such an accepting atmosphere creates a serious quandary: in a place where you're no longer "queer," what the hell are you? After returning home, while hashing out this trip with a friend, it occurred to me that the travel agents on this trip are probably the types who will put on their pink triangles during Pride and take to the streets, protesting intolerance -- but they stormed out of "22" precisely because near-perfect tolerance made them feel threatened. Careful what you wish for: the reality of acceptance may be even more frightening than the dream.

Even though you won't find a thriving gay subculture in Iceland, it's possible to see plenty of fairies there. Real ones. With wings. A lot of people believe this. The most interesting person I met in Iceland is one of the country's leading folklorists, a white-haired old bachelor of indeterminate orientation who spends his days compiling tales of trolls and tinkerbells. His English is not very good (and my Icelandic is nonexistent), but we had a long conversation that ended with a bit of wisdom about the power of dreams for bringing invisible worlds to light.

"Some people," he told me, "they take very good care of their dreams."

Michael Joseph Gross, a freelance writer in Boston, is writing a book called Republican Guys: An Almost-Sexual Fetish. He may be reached at MJG25@aol.com.

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