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In Gay-Friendly Stockholm, Old Stigmas Remain

Kajsa Westman, second from right, of Stockholm, Sweden, and Victor Ng, right, of Seattle, tie balloons to a banner in preparation for the annual Gay Pride parade, file photo.
Kajsa Westman, second from right, of Stockholm, Sweden, and Victor Ng, right, of Seattle, tie balloons to a banner in preparation for the annual Gay Pride parade, file photo.

Nadja Karlssson, a tour guide in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, had been living as a male for forty years, but for the past few years she has decided to come out as transgendered.

She has had to pay a high price for revealing who she really is, even here, one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.

“I was losing some work when I was coming out,” she says. “I was a freelancer by this time, but I got some more work. I think it would be different if I were a guy who was living in a small town, and I think it is still difficult to come out like that. It is not the same as when I was 7 years old, but it’s still a bit like that."

Like Nadja, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and queers, known collectively as LGBTQ, say they still face stigmas, in the city and other parts of the country. Still, they say more and more people from the younger generations are coming out, due in part to the country’s laws—Sweden legalized gay marriage in 2009—and changing attitudes.

“The whole world is changing now,” says Johanna Nystroem, a spokeswoman for Stockholm Pride. “I think young people are so brave now. They are more brave than when I was a kid. Some people come out at an early age; they are like, ‘This is me, I’m cool, I’m hip.’ They have the confidence that we didn’t have when we were younger. I think there are going to be more and more of that.”

Barbro Westerholm is a member of parliament who has been a crucial figure for the development of LGBTQ rights in Sweden. She says changing laws can change attitudes.

“We have to strengthen our legislation, to accept them as Swedish citizens in the end and teach those lawyers and others who work in this area, for instance police, more about homosexuality and so on,” she says.

Even though LGBTQ issues remain politically controversial, several segments of society, including police, seem more accepting of the differences in these communities.

Goran Stanton is a sergeant with the Gay Police Association here. He says gay people, including some policemen themselves, want to have the same rights and respect as straight people.

“I want to have a good salary, I want to have a house, I want to have a dog, I want to have a car, and I want to go on holiday like everybody else,” he says. “What I do in my house, in my bedroom, is a private thing. We don’t talk about this.”

Christer Fallman is the manager of an elderly home for LGBTQ people called Regnbagen, which means Rainbow.

“If you are so sure of your own sexuality, why be afraid of others?” he says. “You have to just tell them. You have to open up people’s mind a little bit more. And in Sweden, I think we are quite good at doing that, and we’re on our way.”

To open more minds, Sweden has Pride parades every year, drawing tens of thousands of participants.

Linda Wainwright Hockerfelt is the mother of a gay son. She says she is only concerned about her son’s safety, not other people’s views of him.

“Sometimes I am a little afraid, when he goes home on the subway on his own or maybe when he is out with friends, that he would be harassed or bullied or something,” she says. “But he has never told me anything about that, so I suppose nothing has happened. That is my only fear. I don’t care what people think, actually.”

Likewise, Nadja Karlssson, the transgendered tour guide, says she does not care either what other people may think of her. “It was great,” she says, “coming out like this.”