[Photo credit: Ryan Walker, The Gay Tripper]
I’ve been thinking about homophobia a lot recently. Not that it doesn’t plague my mind every day: working in LGBTI media means it gets fed to me like the doughnut torture machine in that Simpsons episode where Homer is sent to Hell, but instead of doughnuts, it’s the horrific worldwide abuses of queer people.
But as my thoughts lean towards maybe, one day, being with someone, there’s a sense of panic. No matter how progressive, public displays of affection can still be dangerous in my home city of London. Is there anywhere completely safe to be in a relationship with another man? I was told of one place…
The Swedish capital was sold to me as the gay promised land. Naturally, I approached that bold statement with a hint of cynicism. I needed to find out for myself. So I started with a gay club. At Halloween.
Where’s the gay district?
‘There isn’t one,’ a Stockholmer told me, with the tone of Bob Cratchit telling Tiny Tim there’s no Christmas this year.
This is going to be a blow to those that love the club scene. Don’t get me wrong: Swedes drink like every day is the first night of college.
Also, they do have gay bars and clubs and cafes, they’re just spread across the city. You know, integrated. I didn’t know where the embarrassment stemmed from. Especially as we descended into the party.
Halloween – a holiday that means as much to gays as the premiership football season does to British heterosexual people – was spent in King Kong. I dressed as a ghost: a tight white top and white face paint. The ideal costume for a basic gay.
The club is split between multiple rooms, with music ranging from RnB to Eurotrash. The latter – epic remixes of Eurovision-esque songs – I could feel reverberating through my DNA.
My group and I entered this room, one person already splitting off to talk to an attractive man. I fared less well, with ‘being able to talk to boys’ having been left off my list of talents alongside ‘how to dress yourself’ and ‘not being weird about everything’.
However, within minutes I saw the guy run through the crowd. I jumped up, and got between him and the now aggressive hook up. I told the guy that no means no and to leave him alone. Euphoria screamed into my ears so loud from the speakers next to us. He eventually disappeared into the crowd.
Turns out, he started saying some weird homophobic stuff. In a gay club, of all places. The actual safe space, in the gay promised land, apparently offered no protection from homophobia. I sighed.
Well, I did, until I found out the internalized homophobe was also a tourist. I couldn’t hold that against the city – who here hasn’t thrown a party without a dickhead being invited? Besides, everyone else was friendlier than any club in England. You can’t draw conclusions from an outlier; my investigation wasn’t over.
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The rest of the night played out as you expect: bump and grind, more booze, and eventual sexual disappointment. I disappeared into my hotel room and waited for what was next.
The Secret Garden. This too sprawled across several rooms, including a tightly packed basement downstairs. The club traded themed rooms for brightly colored ones instead, with some well lit enough that you could see each other.
My group used that as a base camp as more active members raided the dance floors. The club felt more student-y, with a younger clientele and more relaxed vibe.
Really, this is my ideal club, because if I wanted to dance, I could head into the intense basement or the dance room. Otherwise, I could absolutely not do that and do what I always do in clubs: sit down and talk.
The gay between the cracks: culture in Stockholm
So reports of a lack of a gay scene were slightly exaggerated. I only scratched the surface of the scene. But there’s more to gay life than just partying. Contrary to what everyone seems to think, we also like culture… and boy, does Stockholm have culture.
Because they have ABBA: The Museum.
Honestly, this place truly shines when you are a fan of that bizarre 70s quartet. It unlocked some sort of primordial love, mixed into my genes as a wee little queer.
It’s a rainbow colored wonderland of sparkly costumes, trivia, and attention seeking moments in the form of booths to singalong in and stages to dance on. The whole museum is created to entertain and shamelessly push the ABBA brand – and I was living for it.
It’s an example of a non-LGBTI-centered space feeling like a natural fit for LGBTI people. Among the trivia, guitars and Mamma Mia! sets, it also had gender neutral toilets and openly LGBTI members of staff.
We talk about safe spaces a lot in queer culture, but it started to feel like Stockholm was one big safe space.
From one massive monument to queens to another, we ventured next to the Royal Palace. Like many countries, their royal family is familiar with non-heterosexuality. Unlike many others, they aren’t ashamed of it.
Our openly gay tour guide – Stelios, who is both a fantastic guide and person, by the way – led us through the rooms, telling the tales that built this magnificent palace. This included the story of the allegedly queer and gender non-conforming queen, Kristina.
Her father raised her as a boy and made her the heir to throne, and she continued to live that way through the rest of her life. Eventually she chose to abdicate.
The approach to this story is fascinating as someone who comes from a country with their own colorful royal family. Unlike the semi-mockery when our own famous queer king, James I, is spoken about, this story is given equal respect among the history of the royalty.
Again, I started to feel peculiar that our history not being spoken about with disdain was something of worth to note. Stockholm was like having a younger brother with better grades. London was out and proud- but was that only to tackle society’s misgivings about LGBTI people?
Even a specific LGBTI-run tour with Stand Out Travel only further proved how both communities worked as one.
We learnt just as much about the textbook side – from the dissolution of the Catholic Church to how the city used lions to protect its streets after the 2017 terror attack – as we did about the history of gay institutions, like Chodlakhoppen, the first cafe to fly the LGBTI flag.
I couldn’t help but think ‘isn’t this what we’re all fighting for?’ It didn’t feel so much like assimilation to me, as an outsider, because they co-existed. Speaking to people from Stockholm, like the manager at Chodlakoppen, Conny, it hinted towards LGBTI identity being eroded away. He admitted that ‘no one cares’ if you’re gay.
‘In other countries, when you go to other cities, and you kiss someone, they can look at you funny or laugh or whatever, but in Sweden it’s different,’ He told me.
‘When I started living here [over 20 years ago], all gays wanted to go just gay places. But now it’s so open we just go wherever.’
The question that presents itself here then: is that even a problem? Do we need our own places in areas like this?
Should you pilgrimage to the open city?
Traveling through the underground metro, my group and I openly spoke about gay stuff (not sex stuff, gay stuff, you conservative mom) and people just ignored it. No turned heads or raised eyebrows or anything.
It feels weird to have to say that, but this is the reality we live in. I walked on a tube in the (now former) gay district of Soho in London with a rainbow flag in my hands and people all stopped and stared.
Rather than judgment and dirt, they fill their underground with art. At one station you’ll find an ode to people who experience periods, the next you’ll pull up to a rocky wall painted with a rainbow.
My hotel’s, Hellstens Glashus, huge floor-to-ceiling windows looked out across the streets and the weird feeling in my chest grew. I stood in this effortlessly cool, modern hotel, and began to wonder if any other city could turn out this way. Stockholm was more than a normal city.
In the fancy shopping district of Bibliotekstan, there was another thing that struck me – just how neutral gender is.
I spoke to the shop manager in Hope, a Swedish clothes retailer known to the fashionista scene. He told me how Swedish fashion (and especially Stockholm fashion) for many years focused on being gender neutral, before globalization began to enforce the binary a few decades ago.
However, this old attitude is being reclaimed by the youth. The binary was a brief moment in their modern fashion history, but it’s just another thing eroded away in this city’s careful approach to real equality.
And this isn’t just in posh clothes shops – you can see it everywhere. Everywhere we visited, from the ABBA Museum to the Vasa Museum to the nightclubs, the toilets are gender neutral. In the clubs, they even give out condoms and lube. Considerate and responsible.
It felt safe to walk the streets here, though as a cis white gay man my opinion on that matter is slightly shaded by the Hadrian’s wall of privilege surrounding me.
Most cities just don’t feel like Stockholm. A city with a penchant for a party, yet has a diverse range of spaces. Clean streets, cleaner public transportation, and a sense of security. It challenges gender and celebrates queerness in a distinct way: by enshrining it in every day life. Some might call this assimilation, others true acceptance. It’s not going to be for everyone.
By the end I realized why the Stockholmers felt so embarrassed that there was no gay district. It’s different from everyone else. For all its acceptance, when faced with the colossi of London or New York, the city is the outsider.
But as most queer people will tell you, sometimes being different is so much better.
Stockholm LGBT is the city’s rainbow family, the collection of hotels, restaurants and attractions passionate about upholding Stockholm’s reputation as one of the world’s most LGBT+ welcoming cities.