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Rainbow Reykjavik: Iceland’s Winter Pride packs a super cool punch

Rainbow Reykjavik: Iceland’s Winter Pride packs a super cool punch

Rainbow Reykjavik in Iceland

A three-figure silhouette slinks through a stage curtain, stepping into the spotlight. A drag queen dressed head to toe in leather — complete with a muzzle and puppets attached to either side — encourages audience members to throw candy at her.

She explains Iceland’s version of Halloween happened just a few days before. It’s where kids in costume (many in harnesses this year) visit shops and sing in exchange for candy.

Iceland’s 2019 Eurovision song begins blaring throughout the small kitschy club. It’s Hatari’s song Hatrið Mun Sigra — a queer, BDSM-loving, anti-capitalist punk rock band, who sing about anarchy and hate.

This is the moment I realize Iceland is unlike any other country in the world.

For a country with a population of less than 350,000 people across its 40,000 square miles, Iceland sure feels super gay on the ground.

Its capital, Reykjavik, especially so. A plethora of rainbow flags and safe spaces are scattered throughout the city.

Everything felt queer AF — and we loved it. From lesbian venue owners to queer club management, the community felt well and truly integrated in Reykjavik rather than just a passing afterthought.

In fact, the annual Reykjavik Pride festival attracts more than 100,000 people — that’s the equivalent of almost 30% of the population — during the summer.

But we were there for their other Pride: Pink Iceland’s Rainbow Reykjavik, also known as Winter Pride.

James Besanvalle on Pink Iceland's Golden Circle tour
James Besanvalle on Pink Iceland’s Golden Circle tour

What are LGBTI rights like in Iceland?

Within the last 30 years, the country itself has had a fairly uncomplicated time with progressing LGBTI rights, enacting anti-discrimination laws, equal age of consent, same-sex parenting rights and same-sex marriage with relative ease. The latter passing unopposed, 49-0.

In fact, Iceland was also the first nation in the world to elect an openly LGBTI leader, Jóhanna Sigurðardottir.

But one huge hurdle caused a tectonic plate-like fracture in the LGBTI community — the official inclusion of the BDSM community under the nation’s biggest and longest-running LGBTI organization.

In 2016, members of the National Queer Organization — established just over 40 years ago — voted to include the BDSM community into the organization, causing irreparable damage with some of the early pioneers of the movement.

The debate was far from, as Bjork would say, Oh So Quiet, with 47 members in favor and 40 against. As a result of the vote, a staggering 26 resigned from the organization.

The decision shook the LGBTI community to its core.

But since then, the LGBTI community has grown from strength to strength. As recent as last week (20 June), the Nordic country passed a law to make it easier for trans and non-binary people to change their legal gender.

Resting in Reykjavik

Snow greeted us on the ground as soon as we landed, as we quickly realized we didn’t pack enough warm clothes.

On our way to the hotel, we began to see the Nordic locals and their fashion as cool as the zero degree temperatures. The super friendly airport transfer driver joked it was actually a particularly warm day for the locals, but the collective passengers’ coats, scarves and chattering teeth begged to differ.

Our first destination was Exeter Hotel (by Kea Hotels), in the heart of Reykjavik’s vibrant city centre.

Exeter Hotel exterior, Iceland
Exeter Hotel exterior, Iceland. | Photo: James Besanvalle

As soon as you walk in, the smell of freshly-baked goods fills your nostrils. The strategically-placed bakery at the entrance is a sneaky, yet inspired idea.

It’s impossible for us to resist buying a crème brûlée Icelandic donut, as we watched along, mesmerized by the small blow torch melting the top all over the now super soggy bottom. While we wait, we’re told the bakery even makes fresh bread from Icelandic potatoes. Just one of many interesting quirks, we were soon to discover. 

We check in and head up to our hotel room, scoffing our pastries down in the elevator.

Exeter Hotel interior, Iceland
Exeter Hotel interior, Iceland. | Photo: James Besanvalle

The room is a glorious studio space, broken up into clever sections — a double bed with a TV on the sleek wall at its foot and a snaking hallway to a gloriously open-plan shower. There’s also a huge window with a beautiful view of the surrounding rocky Reykjavik area.

It’s a stunning, slick and trendy boutique hotel — the very definition of Scandi chic.

And who doesn’t love a buffet breakfast, complete with selections of Icelandic meats, cheeses and spreads?

Rainbow dildos and Detox

After checking into our hotel, we met the fabulous team at Pink Iceland for Rainbow Reykjavik welcoming drinks. Pink Iceland is the country’s first and foremost queer owned and operated wedding, travel and event organization.

As soon as we enter their offices, we meet Drag Race royalty, Detox. She’s the official patron saint of Winter Pride this year and will be hosting the week’s festivities.

Detox at the Rainbow Reykjavik Masquerade Ball.
Detox at the Rainbow Reykjavik Masquerade Ball. | Photo: Juliette Rowland / supplied

Over hours of sparkling wine and getting to know our group, the team warmly share their personal coming out stories, as well as start to unpack the rich LGBTI history of Iceland.

It was fascinating to hear from two of the locals — and staff at Pink Iceland — who’d helped found the country’s first ever gay football team. In fact, we talked balls for hours…

Pink Iceland team at the Rainbow Reykjavik masquerade ball
Pink Iceland team at the Rainbow Reykjavik masquerade ball. | Photo: Juliette Rowland / supplied

Don’t ask me how but we ended up at the local LGBTI bar, Kiki. The huge rainbow building on the corner of a narrow road towers above a sloping street.

Cut to hours later and I’m making out with my husband on stage in a competition with three other same-sex couples. The prize? A rainbow dildo and dinner for two, of course. My competitive spirit kicked in, as I jumped up on the railing and kissed to impress.

Guess who’s now the proud owner of a rainbow dildo?

Reyjavik restaurants

The food in Iceland is unlike any other in the world, especially so at Þrír frakkar (3frakkar).

With a distinct personal feel, it offers a smorgasbord of traditional and beloved Icelandic delicacies. On the friendly waiter’s suggestion, we went with a few Icelandic specialities, including hákarl (fermented or ‘rotten’ shark).

The process involves extracting the meat of a Greenland shark (which is toxic when fresh) and then placing it in a shallow hole dug in gravelly sand. This draws out the fluids from the body and takes between six to 12 weeks to complete.

It’s then cut into strips and hung to dry for several months. The end result is an ammonia-filled chewy meat, usually cut into small cubes and served with a toothpick.

Don’t let the small size fool you though. The smell packs a punch, with the super strong odor funnelling up through your mouth and hitting your nostrils.

Lucky we had some other delicacies to taste too, including puffin (a small penguin-like bird), deer pâté, halibut, sheep’s head jelly, lamb steak and a Skyr brûlée dessert.

Looking for something a little more cutting-edge, but still tapping into Iceland’s quirky traditions? You can’t beat Matur og Drykkur, located in an old Salt Fish factory next to the harbor.

The magnificence of the building’s interior was a foreshadowing of things to come with the cuisine.

We sat at the bar and ordered both the ‘From Land’ and ‘From Sea’ options on the menu — a six course delight with beverages to match each course.

Lemon sorbet
Preserved lemon sorbet. | Photo: James Besanvalle

Stand outs include foal croquettes with blue cheese and rhubarb jam, alongside a lamb crown with baked potato pureé, as well as halibut soup with mussels, apples and raisins.

As each course came out — and our glasses swirled to the brim — we got to chatting with the friendly bartender about the LGBTI scene in Reykjavik, as well as the head chef. The warmth of the staff was only rivaled with the exquisite flare of the food.

For a quick bite to eat, the super queer-friendly Cafe Loki is the place to go.

Located across the road from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church in downtown Reykjavik, there’s rainbow flags aplenty and pride throughout the menu.

Rye bread ice cream from Cafe Loki
Rye bread ice cream from Cafe Loki. | Photo: James Besanvalle

We ordered the Icelandic seafood platter, as well as the hearty meat soup. They were the perfect light bite for a busy day of exploring.

The ice cream made out of rye bread, topped with cream and two mini flags — a rainbow and Iceland flag — was the perfect end to the meal.

Rainbow Reykjavik: Where to go and what to see

Pink Iceland brought together a group of LGBTI people with one big interest in common — a sense of adventure.

There’s nothing like stepping off a minivan in the dead of night to cuddle up and view the stunning Northern Lights. Or stripping down, putting on a face mask and climbing into the boiling Blue Lagoon natural hot spring.

Then there’s watching the beautiful geysers (vents in the ground that shoot hot water and stream) routinely explode, as snap happy tourists capture perfect social media content. Not to mention a special private pool party with drag shows and free-flowing beer.

Gogo Starr. at the Rainbow Reykjavik pool party
Gogo Starr. at the Rainbow Reykjavik pool party. | Photo: Juliette Rowland / supplied

From drag king David Bowies to bio queen bingo, we savored every minute of Reykjavik’s electric queer scene.

The scene itself was a total drag — in the nicest possible way! Miss Gloria Hole, Gogo Starr and Agatha Pee are some of Reykjavik’s premiere queens, who put on some of the most inventive and fun shows we’d seen in a long time.

But at every step of the way, there was a friendly face from the Pink Iceland team, always ready to explain a fun fact or crack a joke.

From the Golden Circle tour to a simple city walking tour, you really get to know your guides.

But the best part of the trip was the Rainbow Reykjavik Masquerade Ball. A bunch of beautiful queer people of all ages came together to celebrate everything the community has to offer. And what can go wrong with drag queen royalty Detox hosting the evening?

It was like a queer prom. Everyone dressed, acted and danced how the fuck they wanted to, with such a freeing feeling in the air.

Rainbow Reykjavik Masquerade Ball
Rainbow Reykjavik Masquerade Ball. Photo: Juliette Rowland / supplied

From heels to harnesses, there was a versatility and diversity to the Masquerade Ball that touched my gay little heart. A voguing competition filled the room with laughter, pouting and smiles, while a photo booth captured lifelong memories.

It was the perfect farewell to new friends and devastatingly breathtaking landscapes.

Rainbow Reykjavik was an experience we’ll never forget.

Pink Iceland made us feel like a quintessential queer family, gallivanting from the Blue Lagoon to the local hot dog stand. It felt so familial, and really showed that in our community, you often choose your own family.

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