STOCKHOLM (AP) — Iceland’s prime minister made history last week when she wed her longtime girlfriend, becoming the world’s first head of government to enter a gay marriage.
But fellow Nordic nations hardly noticed when 67-year-old Johanna Sigurdardottir tied the knot with her longtime partner — a milestone that would still, despite advances in gay rights, be all but inconceivable elsewhere.
Scandinavia has had a long tradition of tolerance — and cross-dressing lawmakers and gay bishops have become part of the landscape.
“There is some kind of passion for social justice here,” respected cross-dressing Swedish lawmaker Fredrick Federley said. “That everybody should be treated the same.”
Gay rights activists said Europe in general has a better record on accepting gays at the highest levels of government than the United States.
“In the current climate of U.S. public opinion it is impossible to imagine a U.S. president who is openly gay and who marries their longtime partner,” said Peter Tatchell, spokesman for the London-based gay human rights group Outrage.
“In Europe the reaction is completely different — people just don’t care.”
Although no openly gay American has made a potentially winning run for president, gay men and lesbians have made significant advances in recent years in winning other elected offices in the United States, often while being open about their same-sex partners.
In Europe, the situation varies.
Several top-level politicians are openly gay, including Sweden’s Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren and Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, considered a possible contender for the 2012 presidential elections.
But a gay head of government would be impossible in strong Catholic nations.
“We will never see a gay prime minister in Italy. The power of the Catholic Church is too strong,” said Giuseppina Massallo, 60, from Sicily who lives in Rome. “We have institutions that make us believe that … being homosexual is simply not the right thing to do.”
The 32-year-old Federley occasionally swaps his parliamentary suit and tie for heavy makeup and revealing dresses as drag queen Ursula. Federley has been openly gay for nine years and his sexual identity has never been an issue in politics.
His cross-dressing only hit the headlines when critics in February questioned which Federley accepted an alleged media junket to the Canary Islands: Fredrik the lawmaker or Ursula the drag queen?
Gays in politics would be inconceivable in Africa, where 37 countries have anti-gay laws and where Zimbabwe’s leader Robert Mugabe has described same-sex partners as “lower than dogs and pigs.”
Ugandans were shocked to hear of Sigurdardottir’s marriage to her partner with whom she had been in a registered relationship since 2002. The partnership was converted into a marriage on Sunday, when a new law legalizing same-sex marriage went into force.
“Their society is finished, they have no morals,” said Uganda’s ruling-party spokeswoman, Mary Karooro Okurutu, described the marriage as “disgusting.”
The East African nation frowns on homosexuality and is considering proposed legislation that would impose the death penalty for some gays. The bill has sparked protests in London, New York and Washington.
The Nordic countries have been at the forefront of gay freedoms.
In 1989, Denmark became the first country in the world to allow registered gay partnerships and Sweden’s Lutheran church last year ordained its first openly gay bishop.
All five Nordic nations reached top-ten rankings in a 2010 study of the legal situation for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in Europe.
Even Finland, the remotest country in the region, which has been slower than its neighbors in adapting to Scandinavian lifestyle trends scored six out of 10 points.
Russia and Ukraine both received bottom-rankings in the 2010 Rainbow Europe index by ILGA-Europe, a non-governmental umbrella organization representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups.
Even in the neighboring Baltic countries that have a long history of dealings with the Nordics, gay tolerance is generally low.
Same-sex marriages are not legal and are generally frowned upon in Estonia, Latvia and particularly in predominantly Catholic Lithuania.
Gay pride marches in Latvia and Lithuania typically attract crowds of angry counter-demonstrators far larger than the marches themselves.
Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip concedes he is “somewhat conservative” on the question of gay marriages.
“I consider marriage a holy matrimony between a man and a woman,” Ansip said Wednesday. “But I do fully accept that same-sex partners possess the same kind of legal guarantees as registered marriages currently do.”