Informal but informed Danish Minister of Culture and Sport, Uffe Elbæk is jeans-wearing, openly gay and utterly un-stuffy.
Right now he’s heading to the Olympics to enjoy a week of events, including, of course, cheering on his Danish competitors. And on Sunday he will be visiting Pride House in Limehouse, East London – a venue to highlight LGBT sports during the games.
He has a strong interest in LGBT sports in particular, having previously been CEO of the 2009 gay Outgames which were held in Denmark.
He was elected to parliament in September 2011 and became a minister just a month later in the center-left coalition government of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
We caught up with him to talk about LGBT sport, why there are so few out competitors at the 2012 Olympics, same-sex marriage in Denmark – which his government has recently legalized – what it’s like to be an openly gay minister and his informal style.
What did you learn from the Outgames about encouraging LGBT people to take part in sport?
For me the Outgames event consisted of three elements – of course sports but also culture and human rights. So we asked how can we create a society where our institutions better reflect the diversity of our society? There is still a lot of homophobia in the masculine team sports like soccer so it is an area we need to work on.
I can only speak as a Dane and minister of culture but the legacy was very strong from the Outgames in Denmark. It pushed the LGBT agenda up and raised awareness and even created a new kind of language in the debate about LGBT issues. Before when we talked about homophobia we mainly focused on the gay issue, lesbians were to a certain degree invisible and trans people were completely invisible. But after there was another conversation about these issues in the media and official institutions like the police force.
Were you a sports fan before doing the Outgames?
Only as an ordinary citizen, never as a professional competitor. I have done marathon running in my live about seven times though.
There are very few athletes in the Olympics who are openly lesbian, gay or bisexual. Is that a problem and how should it be fixed?
I am visiting Pride House at the Olympics on Sunday (5 August) and I want to see how they promote this agenda.
There are only 22 athletes we know of and, of course, there should be many, many more LGBT athletes competing in the games. It is important to talk about these issues also in the mainstream media. And we need to have people talk about it and support the athletes to come out and they are afraid of the reception for their colleagues and their fans. It can feel like a very vulnerable position to be in but the experiences of those who do come out are overwhelmingly positive.
Do you think the International Olympic Committee and other big sporting institutions have done enough on this subject?
All international institutions should deal with these issues. Of course, if there is a global institution and a non-governmental institution they are ruled by their own laws and they have to do it their own way. But we have to develop a diversity strategy including a strong LGBT strategy. That is why I speak about this every time I have a chance.
What can you do as a minister to promote sport to the LGBT population?
What I do back in Denmark is speak about it and have strategic dialogues with the stakeholders like the LGBT sports organizations and traditional sports organizations and things are moving in the right direction. But there are still sports where they are a bit afraid to talk about the issue, for example soccer.
You are the cultural minister for Denmark, so what is the most important aspect of Danish culture that you would wish to share with LGBT people? And what is there about Danish culture that people shouldn’t miss when they visit the country?
That is a hard question. There is a lot of interesting cultural and artistic experiences coming out of Denmark at the moment from fashion and music to visible arts, theatre and more. We are very strong right now when it comes to films.
It’s good to come any time but some of the months there is a strong LGBT focus, so for example now Copenhagen Pride is coming up with a full week-long program, ending of course with a great pride event and a party. Also there is a big film festival in the autumn I am looking forward to. But overall it is a very liberal country and we totally welcome our LGBT guests.
You are in a registered partnership with Jens Pedersen – as Danes now have full marriage equality are you thinking of upgrading that to a marriage?
Maybe we will have a civil marriage ceremony but not in the church as we are not religious. And if you are already registered as a partnership you will get your civil marriage status straight away.
It was your government which introduced marriage to Denmark, why did you decide to do that and has it changed the country or have there been any problems?
Denmark was the first country in the world to put partnership laws in place in 1989 already, which was a big step and of course I am happy my own government were able to follow up with marriage equality.
Still there are pockets of resistance towards these new laws and a strong debate in the right wing part of the church and some other institutions. But overall if you look into the population, the support for the change is very big. Many people felt we should have had full marriage years ago so for many it wasn’t a big thing – people just thought we should have done it before.
As an openly gay minister, do you feel that has a diplomatic influence in favor of LGBT rights in your country and abroad?
I was really curious to see if there would be any issues concerning me taking my partner with me on official trips. And the first country we visited after I became a minister was China and there was not any problem with it. For me it was very important to take my partner with me to make the statement this is my partner and I love him and I am proud of him and of our relationship.
If you are a public figure it is important to come out of the closet and to be open because to a certain extent you are a role model for the next generation.
And is there anything left now that you wish to tackle as a government for LGBT people in Denmark?
I still think we have work to do when it comes to trans people. There is awareness about it but I think we could push it even further. The gay guys came out and the lesbians came out but still trans people are lagging behind and for me that is the next big step when it comes to LGBT people.
We have to not only respect but also honor people who say maybe I was born in a man’s body but I am a woman or the other way round. So how can we support that?
You like to be informal when you can, which is not very normal for a minister in many countries. Is that a deliberate decision for you?
It is for sure. Right now I am wearing sneakers and jeans and a sweatshirt and I am just travelling from a meeting where I have been speaking to some of the athletes who will be taking part in the Paralympic Games right after the Olympics.
For me it is important to be who you are and also to create a new kind of image about what it is to be a top politician today and can you still be at eye-level with your fellow citizens.