‘In Sweden we should all understand gay culture’

The first club night for gay, lesbian and transgender people has just launched in the Swedish town of Falkenberg. But the venue's owner tells The Local he's already been threatened with violence, despite the Nordic nation’s reputation for promoting equality.

'In Sweden we should all understand gay culture'
Bar and restaurant owner Christoffer Gustavsson (right) with his chef Stefan Andersson. Photo: Private

It was a gay chef working at Christoffer Gustavsson’s restaurant that gave him the idea to run a club night at Syrran & Brorsan, the bar and dining venue he runs with his sister in Falkenberg on Sweden’s west coast.

The town, which is a popular tourist resort during summer, is home to more than 20,000 residents, but doesn’t currently have any bespoke club nights catering for the area’s gay, lesbian and transgender crowd.

“Our chef is pretty sure this is the first gay club in Falkenberg (…) it’s like a normal club but with lots of gold confetti and pride flags,” explains Gustavsson.

“It’s a special place people can go to where nobody is looking at them in the wrong way.”

But Gustavsson says the new club night’s first event took place over the weekend against a backdrop of homophobic tensions in the town.

“It started last Thursday when I got a message from someone threatening that they were going come to the restaurant and try to destroy the party, and also that they wanted to beat me up,” he tells The Local.

According to Gustavsson, around a dozen diners who had arranged to eat in the restaurant ahead of the gay party also cancelled their reservations soon after he and his sister Theresa Andersson spoke to local media about their project.

“We don’t know for sure if it was linked but the booking was made three weeks ago and cancelled two days after we started talking about it [the club night].”

Gustavsson says that while the event still went ahead and turned into a “cool and happy party”, he remains “angry…more angry than scared” by both incidents, considering his country’s reputation for embracing equality.

“I was so disappointed (…) Because we live in Sweden we should all understand gay culture. I don’t have an answer about why this happened,” Gustavsson argues.

Stockholm's Pride festival. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

Campaign group ILGA-Europe recently rated Sweden the top spot in Scandinavia for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people (LGBTQ). A new record for Pride parties in the Nordic country has also been set in 2015, with more than 30 Swedish towns and cities organizing special celebrations.

However, the events in Falkenberg are not the first to cause commentators to question tolerance in Sweden this year. Back in February, a hotel hit the headlines after a man was told he could not book a spa weekend, but managed to make the same reservation a day later after using a woman’s name.

Gustavsson says his experiences have made him even more determined to offer more club nights for the gay community in his region.

“We’re gonna make a new club night around Christmas and New Year (…) we already know we're gonna need an even bigger venue.”


Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests

Women now outnumber men as priests in Sweden, but there's still gender inequality within the Swedish Church, those working in it admit.

Inside the Church of Sweden, where women outnumber men as priests
Visby's cathedral. File photo: Anders Wiklund/SCANPIX/TT

Her white clergy robes flowing behind her, Sandra Signarsdotter walks down the aisle of Stockholm's Gustaf Vasa church greeting parishioners, a ritual of hers and a familiar sight in Sweden.

In the Scandinavian country, often hailed as a champion of gender equality, the statistics are clear. As of July, 50.1 percent of priests are women and 49.9 percent are men. It's very likely the first Church in the world to have a majority of women priests, according to the World Council of Churches.

In the Protestant Lutheran Church of Sweden, which has 5.8 million members in a country of 10.3 million and where ministers hold the title of priest, “women are here to stay,” insists Signarsdotter, who was ordained six years ago.

Since 2014, even the head of the Church is a woman, Archbishop Antje Jackelen.


Archbishop Antje Jackelen. Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

At the Gustaf Vasa church, a smattering of worshippers wait for the service to begin.

“This Sunday, the service will be conducted by three women,” the 37-year-old priest says proudly.

Coincidentally, it was in this imposing white church in the heart of Sweden's capital that another woman, Anna Howard Shaw, an American Methodist pastor and suffragette, became the first clergywoman to preach in Sweden.

That was in 1911, at an international women's suffrage conference, and long before women could be ordained in the Church of Sweden, in 1958.

“The men didn't allow her to go up there,” explains Signarsdotter, pointing to the marble pulpit above her. “She was allowed only on the floor,” she says, standing at the altar as if to mark the spot.

This Sunday, the service will be held by Julia Svensson, a 23-year-old theology student whom Signarsdotter is mentoring — and she will give her sermon from the pulpit.

The feminisation of Sweden's priesthood is also seen at universities, where the 4.5-year theology studies required to become a priest are dominated by women.

Protestants generally believe that a priest is an expert, a theologist who tends to a congregation, and not a calling, in contrast to the Catholic Church which opposes women priests.

The rising number of women may be due to priests' changing roles over the years, suggests Signarsdotter.

“The priest's role today is not what it was before. There are other requirements, (such as) kindliness … (and) being able to handle many different situations.”

“Historically men have held it for themselves but now we see it happening all over the world. Things are changing and new paths are open to us as female priests and women in general.”

Outside the Gustav Vasa Kyrka in Stockholm. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

One who has benefitted from the rising number of female priests is stylist Maria Sjodin, who designs vestments for women and whose business is booming.

In her atelier in a southern Stockholm suburb, the designer recently welcomed a regular customer, a female priest looking for a new collared top. One could say divine intervention landed Sjodin here: in 2001 her daughter
made a new friend at kindergarten, whose mother was a priest.

“She asked me to make her a priest shirt, because she didn't like the male shirt that she had to wear,” she recalled.
The piece remains one of the most popular in her collection.

'Still a way to go'

But while women priests now outnumber men, inequality remains.

Women priests earn around 2,200 kronor (213 euros, $253) less a month than their male counterparts, according to the specialised newspaper Kyrkans Tidning.

And fewer women reach top positions within the Church. Of the country's 13 dioceses, only four are headed by women.

“We haven't reached equality yet,” says Signarsdotter. “There's still a way to go.”

Her protege Svensson chips in: “We must be a representation of all people.”

After a moment of silence, Signarsdotter admits that sexism still stalks the cloisters of the Church in Sweden.
“One day, a colleague told me 'What a nice ass you have'. I am still seen as a body and not a professional.”

She says things will not change as long as “patriarchal structures (remain) in the walls and the structures of society, and the Church as an organisation.”

But she is not giving up hope. “When I retire I will look at Julia as an archbishop and will be like 'damn, we did good'.”                             

By Nioucha Zakavati