As most of us in the LGBTQ community now realize, complacency is no longer an option and social progress that seemed inevitable is no longer a given. Nonetheless, the march towards LGBTQ equality continues.
Less than twenty years ago, Gothenburg was known as the most virulently homophobic city in Sweden. Back then, it wasn’t so easy to be gay in Gothenburg, according to Alex Snäckerström, who recalls those years as daunting. Located on the West Coast of Sweden and celebrated for its natural beauty, Gothenburg remained a challenge for LGBTQ people.
Yet today, Gothenburg is widely recognized as one of the world’s most progressive cities for LGBTQ people. A city of canals and green spaces, Gothenburg hosts Sweden’s second largest Pride festival, a five-day cultural festival known as West Pride. For two weeks at the beginning of summer, more than 1,000 rainbow flags fly from the official flagpoles of municipal buildings, hotels, and restaurants, as well as Gothenburg’s trams and buses. And in 2018, Gothenburg will co-host EuroPride 2018 with Stockholm for a three-week international cultural festival.
Those who remember a less tolerant Gothenburg attribute the change to a variety of factors. As Snäckerström states, the catalyst for LGBTQ activism commenced with a horrific event in the early 1990s, which galvanized the city and, particularly, its LGBTQ population. Ultimately, the LGBTQ community began working directly with the city government, focusing on outreach.
West Pride’s Executive Director Rebecka Adin states that “the work on improving the living conditions of LGBTQ people is based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The starting point is that all people are born free and equal in value and that human rights are universal, indivisible, and mutually reinforcing.”
It’s important to remember that this declaration was adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in 1948—as a direct response to the two world wars fought primarily in Europe.
In keeping with the city’s renewed activism, Sweden’s first municipal LGBTQ Council was founded in Gothenburg in 2013. The first of its kind in Sweden, the Council includes six politicians representing the political parties in government and 13 representatives from LGBT Gothenburg. Once a year, the Council holds a public meeting where everyone is offered an opportunity to suggest how Gothenburg might become a more open and inclusive city.
As Adin states, “The real change occurred with the creation of the LGBTQ Council when the municipal government decided to investigate the situation of the LGBTQ community in Gothenburg. The board invited West Pride to discuss what needed to be done and the result was that all the committees and boards in the city presented plans designed for implementing equality.”
The chairperson of Gothenburg’s LGBTQ Council, Mariya Voyvodova, emigrated to Sweden from Bulgaria and became actively involved with LGBTQ activism in Gothenburg in support of her lesbian sister. Utilizing a norm critical approach, the Council focuses on LGBTQ issues and human rights.
One year after the inception of Gothenburg’s LGBTQ Council, the non-profit organization RFSL (the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights) measured municipalities throughout Sweden for their commitment to LGBTQ equality and awarded first place to Gothenburg, thanks to its LGBTQ Council and its ongoing educational outreach programs.
As Snäckerström contends, “Here in Gothenburg, we have caught the politicians’ ears alongside their respect. The LGBTQ Council, which was formed by activists working together with politicians, is unique for Sweden. The result, which has been a focus on human rights, and specifically, LGBTQ rights, has earned the support and respect from a wide range of political parties.”
Founded in 2007, West Pride attracts more than 125,000 visitors to Gothenburg for a five-day festival of celebration and education. More than 250 events are listed in the West Pride program.
West Pride’s Executive Director Rebecka Adin believes that West Pride has been integral to Gothenburg’s more socially progressive stance. “We are constantly educating and working to inform the public through various institutions, boards, and agencies to ensure that there is awareness of LGBTQ life in Gothenburg. In the fall of 2016, the LGBTQ Council presented a plan that, hopefully, will be implemented to ensure that equality for all is an accepted part of Gothenburg’s blueprint.”
According to Snäckerström, who is currently the coordinator for EuroPride 2018, “Gothenburg has a strong civil rights movement in the form of organizations, activists, and self-organized groups that are very active in demanding rights for all inhabitants of Gothenburg.”
In a world where LGBT equality often appears as a distant dream, Gothenburg’s commitment to human rights and its upcoming role as co-host of EuroPride 2018 is a heartening reminder that progress is still happening.