OSLO PRIDE MARCHES ON

Oslo Pride 2016 marches on in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, with a message of solidarity and a determination to celebrate acceptance and equality.

“It’s been a couple of very intense days,” Petter Ruud-Johansen, information officer for Oslo Pride 2016, said about the effect the shooting has had on the festival starting this Friday. “It does something to our pride.”

Oslo Pride, running June 17 through June 26, takes place across the Norwegian capital and boasts a diverse array of over 200 events, free of charge, that include art exhibits, musical guests, debates and drag queen makeup classes — a line-up of politics, parades, parties and performances. Many of the events are self-produced by volunteers, which makes Oslo Pride, according to Ruud-Johanson, the largest free Pride festival in Europe.

The police are making their own efforts to keep the 10-day festival safe, with increased visibility and increased invisible operations. There are reportedly no threats to be concerned with and the organizers are also encouraging attendees not to be fearful.

“We are hoping for the opposite effect,” Ruud-Johansen said. “Now is the time to stand up, to show support.” He expressed a hope that this year’s crowd will break records from previous years, to help promote acceptance.

Businesses or organizations can buy a booth at Pride Park where more than 60,000 visitors will wander into the heart of Pride and the center of Oslo. There is also a percentage of beer and food profits that contributes to the Oslo Pride fund. Ticket sales to major events at the Rockefeller Music Hall go into the fund as well. Many performers also volunteer their performances or cut their prices for Oslo Pride. The combination of contributions and public funding from the city of Oslo go to organize a festival that doesn’t put pressure on the pocketbook.

The festival begins with a political debate at club Elsker, which translates to “lover” in English. Before the Orlando event even happened, Oslo Pride planned to feature a panel discussion on current topics including religion and violence. The panel includes two Muslim people, one a Norwegian citizen and one a politician. There has been long-existing support between the LGBT community and the Muslim community in Oslo, something that Ruud-Johansen expects to remain.

A main debate topic this year will be about intersex people, or those born with male and female reproductive organs or chromosomes. Non-consensual surgical procedures have been practiced for many years, but are now coming under scrutiny. People can expect to hear more about the choice being taken away from intersex individuals.

Last week, the LGBT community celebrated the passage of a Norwegian national law that will allow transgender individuals to legally declare their gender without surgery, psychiatric evaluations or forced sterilization. Even so, transgender rights and acceptance will be a hot topic at the debates.

The Norwegian Armed Forces will be represented in the parade, as they have been in previous years, which might be an unfamiliar sight for many Americans. The army is also expected to have an information booth in Pride Park.

The Norwegian Church will take a more visible role in pride this year. Sunday mass will be hosted there, celebrating equality and faith.

The Church voted this year to allow same-sex religious marriages, even though marriage equality for gay couples has been legally recognized since 2009 in Norway. The parade will celebrate such equality victories by marrying three gay couples on floats in the parade procession. The couples were chosen from thousands of applicants. The floats are sponsored by the corporation 7/11, which has 8,600 stores in the U.S. and Canada, and 47,800 more stores spanning the globe.

The parade march takes place on Saturday, June 25 and begins in Grønland, a diverse neighborhood near the center of Oslo. The parade came under some media fire when the parade was moved from the west of Oslo to Grønland in 2010, a move that Ruud-Johansen insists is not a political one.

“When we decided that the parade would start there, some politicians tried to make a political point out of it,” he said. “But it’s not a reaction to anything. The reason we start at Grønland is simple: many LGBTI people live there and work there – our community thrives there.”

Ruud-Johansen said Oslo Pride 2016 is a celebration of equality, solidarity and acceptance. In a time where a global tragedy has shaken the LGBT community to its core, Oslo Pride is showing no signs of slowing down.

The whole festival can be followed on social media: #OsloPride.

IN FOR THE LONG HAUL

A need has developed in the LGBT community recently, both politically and personally. They are looking for solidarity, for a symbol of togetherness and progression in the face of adversity. The Oslo Fagottkor may be the answer, whether they like it or not.

Oslo Fagottkor can be simply explained as a gay men’s choir located in Oslo, Norway, but there is much more to the story. A 12-year history, a World Championship and even a Eurovision performance is only a fraction of this ensemble’s impact on their craft.

Ask around town and the responses one receives are glowing remarks about the choir. They seem to be a source of pride for many Norwegians.

“It is the most fun you’ll have at such an event,” one local fan said.

“Oh, they are so wonderful,” another fan added.

“Aren’t they fantastic,” said an admirer.

Thomas Strandberg, an original member of Oslo Fagottkor, smiles sheepishly at such compliments. He seemed surprised to hear such gracious reviews. Perhaps it’s easy to forget what an outlet Fagottkor has become for the 36 members.

It all started with a small group of friends, late night parties and a piano. They were eager singers whose only outlet growing up was the church choirs or the occasional school play.

“We had the church singing in our blood,” Strandberg explained, “And we needed to process that as grown-ups.”

As the men grew from religious choir kids into adult gay men, they began to distance themselves from the church. In 2004, when the Faggotkor formed, the relations with the Norwegian Church and the LGBT community were strained. Eventually, however, the church politics would catch up to current times and the religious recognition of gay marriage came in 2016.

“Politics are slow, but church politics are ridiculously slow,” Strandberg explained. “I’m just happy the church finally got around to it.”

Strandberg’s nonchalance at the longstanding religious struggle of the LGBT community doesn’t come lightly. The fact is, they’ve been doing church, wedding and funeral performances all along, even Strandberg’s own father’s funeral. The Faggotkor is simply looking forward to adding to their long resume.

“I hope we’ll sing at many gay weddings,” Strandberg said, “Hopefully some of ours.”

They are also looking to defend their Gay World Championship title in 2017. The World Outgames is a sporting and cultural competition hosted by various cities and put together by the gay community. In 2009, the games were held in Copenhagen, where Oslo Faggotkor earned their title of World Champions. The games were cancelled in 2013, but are being planned for Miami next year. Oslo Faggotkor will be there to seek global domination once again.

It’s no easy task, traveling the world and winning competitions. The group consists of a wide range of career-oriented men. There are two doctors, a former parliament member, PR consultants, hair stylists, bureaucrats, and a few teachers. These men all go through the same audition process to join Faggotkor. “You don’t have to prove you’re gay, but you have to prove you can sing,” Strandberg explained. “You have to prove you can carry a tune, carry a tune you haven’t rehearsed, and sing in harmony with the other guys.”

The process to join may be nerve-racking, but it typically isn’t for a short stay in the choir.

“Most people stay for a long time,” Thomas said, “I think most of the guys are in it for the long haul.”

Which may explain the deep camaraderie between the choir members.

“It’s fantastic, these are my best friends,” he said. “We meet each other 140 to 150 days of the year and we have such a great time.”

Oslo Faggotkor has a sense of humor, one that is obviously seen in their onstage performances, especially when the stuffed beaver makes an appearance during the “Circle of Life” number. They don’t take themselves seriously, but they do take the singing seriously. There are also responsibilities placed on Oslo Faggotkor as representatives of the gay community.

Recently, with the hate crime in Orlando, Strandberg explained the choir’s position.

“Now more than ever is the time for us and everybody else to go out in the street and show who we are. If two men kissing can cause such a reaction then we need to kiss more than we ever did,” Strandberg said.

The attack in the United States was taken very personally by Oslo Faggotkor. The choir rededicates the song sung at Strandberg’s father’s funeral to the Orlando victims.

“We are all extremely affected by it,” Strandberg said, “The most important emotion for us about Orlando is that we feel what we do is so much more important. We go on stage now with a completely new sense of motivation. They need to know in Florida that they have a bigger family. Those who died are part of our family.”

This sort of acceptance attitude isn’t a new development for the men. The pride is in the choir’s own name, Oslo Fagottkor. Roughly translated from Norwegian, fagott means “bassoon” in English. Fagottkor was chosen to show their sense of humor and to show pride in being “faggots.”

This unique blend of talent, empathy, humor and political progress is performed eloquently by Oslo Faggotkor. With 12 years, a World Championship and a loyal following under their belts already, Faggotkor is one to watch for the next couple of decades.

PRIDE COMES TO A CLOSE

 

By Amy Venn

The Oslo Pride Parade broke its own record Saturday with 104 organizations, an increase of 34 from the previous record. 30,000-plus individuals participated in the march, and another 30,000-plus lined the streets of downtown Oslo, according to the newspaper Dagbladat. The 2016 Oslo Pride Festival theme was solidarity, and organizers recognized the pain Americans have been feeling since Orlando across Norwegian media.

The 10-day festival celebrating the LGBT communities of the world ended on Sunday after hosting nearly 200 individual events. An evening ‘Rainbow Mass’ closed the ceremony on Sunday and was held at the Oslo Cathedral, which belongs to the Lutheran denomination Church of Norway.

The main attraction, the parade, included floats by all Norwegian political parties, the military, the police, labor and trade unions, advocacy organizations, religious organizations, and corporate sponsors. Three gay couples were married on a float sponsored by 7/11 and the Oslo Fagottkor entertained the crowd in their pink sailor costumes. Black armbands were worn in honor of the Orlando victims. It was a day full of love and acceptance as the parade marched two kilometers from the largely immigrant community of Gronland to the ad hoc Pride Park built in the shadows of the Royal Palace.

Important political topics were discussed by panels at Pride House, the Eldorado Book Store, in front of crowds eager for progress and change, both in and outside the LGBT community. Robert Biedron, the first openly gay elected politician from Eastern Europe, drew an energetic audience early on in the Pride festivities as he discussed his transition from gay activist to elected official.

Pride Park hosted free events from Tuesday through Sunday, including cook-outs, concerts like Swedish rapper Silvana Imam, and drag shows. The park was equipped with over 100 informational booths, shops, bars and food vendors. The park was completely built and torn down by volunteers.

​ROBERT BIEDRON ON POLITICAL ACTIVISM

Within the confines of the typically left-leaning liberal European governments lies a country in a bitter battle with the ultra-conservative right. Robert Biedron, a former parliament member and current mayor of Slupsk, entered the Polish political arena in 2011 as the first openly gay elected official in all of Eastern Europe. He’s been chipping away at the controversial face of domestic democracy ever since.

Poland is a country that’s testing the limits of modern democracy and putting citizens on the shaky ground of individual liberties versus religious and political tradition. In 2015, the country saw a complete political sweep of the Law and Justice party in Parliament. The party’s aim is to undo the policies that were passed by what they view as liberal, un-Christian and unpatriotic former politicians.

Biedron has stepped up as a symbol of hope, change and progress for many Polish citizens. In the face of the uphill battle in front of him, Biedron doesn’t let it get him down. “I’m an optimist,” Biedron said, “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” Biedron’s transition from gay activist to politician wasn’t necessarily a predictable one.

“If you had met me 20 years ago it would have been unimaginable for me to call myself a Polish politician because of the situation I was in,” Biedron said, “I am gay. I’m an atheist. In very conservative Poland, it usually means you have no chance to be in public life.”

Biedron was invited to open Oslo Pride 2016 with a panel discussion on political activism with other gay rights leaders. The next day, a discussion was hosted by Jeff Lugowe at Pride House, where Biedron was able to discuss his individual story and take questions from the audience. There was no shortage of an eager audience, with attendance skyrocketing for such an event on a Saturday afternoon. It was further proof that Biedron’s impact has gone far beyond the borders of Poland. He has become a political leader for gay rights and progress across Europe.

It’s a position that Biedron doesn’t take lightly. After he established Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia in 2001, the first LGBTI organization dealing with social injustices in Poland, his life as an activist began. For the next decade, Biedron would spend his time promoting acceptance. Soon, however, his path would take a turn. “I found out that being a gay activist was not enough,” Biedron said, “I needed to do more.”

Biedron’s political campaign did not focus on his sexuality, but instead on him being a visible and accessible human being. His approach was simple, “People see me. People can touch me. People can spit on me. People can hate me. People can do something with me as a person because before they didn’t have any occasion to meet a gay person,” Biedron stated, “I think this was the recipe for winning the elections. I spent a lot of hours on the streets talking to people. I knew this was the only chance I had to persuade people.”

Biedron’s struggles didn’t end with his historic election to Parliament. “When I entered Parliament the reaction was terrible. I remember my first speech in front of the whole Parliament and government. I was defending my colleague by saying, ‘Your arguments are below the belt.’ And they started to laugh and I didn’t understand why. So I repeated it and they laughed again. Then the media asked them why they laughed. Many of the members of the parliament said, ‘We’re laughing because he’s gay and gay people can speak only about sex.’”

These stereotypes weren’t easy to overcome. “Being a member of parliament in Poland, the first two years it was a disaster. I was beaten up several times,” Biedron said, “In the modern history of Poland there’s not even one incident of beating up a member of parliament, except me. People were calling me names, but I knew if I wanted to change something I needed to survive that.”

Biedron saw his same battles reflected in his female associates in the misogynist society. “Many of my female colleagues were struggling with the same story,” Biedron said, “They were focusing on how they look and how they dress but not what they were talking about.”

Biedron then made an unusual decision. Before completing his first term in parliament, he made a run for the position of mayor in the modest town of Slupsk, the 40th largest city in Poland.

Biedron explained the transition easily. “Being a mayor is practical,” he said, “Being a member of the parliament is more ideological.” Biedron feels like being a mayor gives him more of an ability to influence policy. “You have direct influence on issues,” Biedron said, “You can shape the city; you can talk to people directly.”