Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and Jónína Leósdóttir Speak to the Phil

The former prime minister of Iceland and her esteemed novelist and playwright wife receive the gold medal of honourary patronage from the society.

FEATURESJóhanna Sigurðardóttir and Jónína Leósdóttir were both awarded the gold medal of honorary patronage by the Philosophical society. Sigurðardóttir became the first openly gay head of government in the world when she was elected prime minister of Iceland in 2009. Her wife, Leósdóttir, is an esteemed and much decorated novelist and playwright.

Sigurðardóttir, who has now retired from politics and is focussing on raising awareness about LGBTQ issues, spoke first as her wife poured her a glass of water- joking as she did that she was Sigurðardóttir’s acting secretary since her retirement. Sigurðardóttir thanked the society for the award and spoke on a wide range of issues, such as Iceland’s economic crisis, the importance of gender equality, and human rights- particularly the rights of LGBTQ people around the world. She began by giving a short homily of her incredibly and extensive political career. When she became prime minister, Iceland’s society “burned with conflict and threats”. Sigurðardóttir explained “that’s what I had to deal with when my government came into power”.Same sex marriage “didn’t matter at all”, the people only “wanted a leader they could trust”. In contrast to the violence surrounding the government when Sigurðardóttir came into office, she received over one thousand red roses from citizens on her last day as prime minister, displaying the acknowledgement by the public of the  progress she made working tirelessly toward social and economic equality in Iceland. Under her leadership, the Icelandic government restored the economy and lowered interest rates and unemployment figures.

Sigurðardóttir then discussed examined gender equality in politics, lamenting that the majority of roles of political power are held by men. She admitted “I don’t think they have made an especially good job of it”, and that it would be “better if a similar number of women and men were at the helm”. She enthused that “equal parental responsibilities and a strong welfare system” are the only way to “ensure both women and men can take on important and challenging positions” in all fields. She went on to explain that the uneven distribution of wealth leads to societal conflicts and gender inequality, and that the “quality of life improves for everyone when conditions improve for those with the lowest wages”.

She then praised Ireland for having the first referendum on same sex marriage, and stated that “What every individual longs for, and should be entitled to is to live with dignity”. She condemned countries which criminalise homosexuality, as they “cruelly disregard the basic human rights of queer people”. She was regretful that her and Leósdóttir had lost “so many good years together” in the open as at first they had to hide their feelings “due to lack of public understanding” and life in “ruthless life in politics”. Sigurðardóttir celebrated a “small group of brave young people” who in the late 1970s established a national LGBTQ group, saying that it was because of these activists’ “struggle and stamina and gradual political support” that “at long last” Iceland passed a law for same sex marriage. She finished by saying that it is “not enough that things move in the right direction in some parts of the world and not in others”, as “love is simply love”.

Leósdóttir gave a more informal speech about her new book, Við Jóhanna, which means “Johanna and I” and shared the story of how her and her wife fell in love and began a relationship. She chose the title of the book as, for so many years, they were “words she could not say”. When the couple met, they were both married and had children. Sigurðardóttir was already an MP. By a favour to her husband, and an unintentional series of events, Leósdóttir became involved in politics and was put on a committee for equal pay with Sigurðardóttir. SHe was baffled as to why she became so excited about the committee, “counting the hours to the next meeting”. She admitted “if I’m totally honest, it was something to do with her.. it never occurred me that I could fall in love with a woman”, joking that such a thing “only happens abroad”. Passionately she described that “just being in the same room with her for a couple of hours.. It was everything I lived for”. On a business trip, Leósdóttir went to a shop and bought a bottle of sherry for courage, and “tried to explain something i didn’t really understand myself”. Apparently Sigurðardóttir sat with an infuriating “poker face” and told Jónína that her “secret was safe”. Over the years they grew closer, protesting for women’s rights together. At one strike, as women in Iceland were paid only 80% of male salaries, all the women walked out through 80% of the working day. “We were very happy and very unhappy” Leósdóttir explained. “It was a very turbulent time… I wanted to shout to the world that I loved her, but if it spoiled her career it also spoiled my life”. She joked that she “slammed a lot of doors”. A woman MP in Oslo had just lost her seat after coming out as gay. When the couple did go public, Leósdóttir admits, “people tried to use her sexuality against her in politics” but the couple’s earlier fears “weren’t really realised… It wasn’t the same society any more”. During those unstable times “everything was turned upside down”. Leósdóttir explains “nobody trusted politicians anymore but they did trust her [Sigurðardóttir]”.

Upon this she shared some more anecdotes from their relationship, international trips to the Faroe Islands, and to Beijing, where they had only just stopped recognizing homosexuality as a mental illness. She recalls fondly protesting outside the Russian embassy against Putin’s anti-gay laws. She finished by stating that her and Sigurðardóttir were looking forward to “enjoying the quiet life we thought we were getting” before Sigurðardóttir became prime minister. The couple took some questions on their children, who are healthy and well, and their growing brood of grandchildren, and then left the Thomas Davis lecture hall to a standing ovation.