There is a wind of change blowing through Sápmi, culminating in the first ever Sápmi Pride festival in Kiruna this weekend. Gathering hundreds of people in a colourful parade along the city streets, manifesting the right to be Sámi and queer. But getting to this day has been a four-year-long walk.

Long, feathery, fake eyelashes, glittery makeup, the Sámi flag with a rainbow back-drop high in the sky. About 300 people walked in the first-ever Sápmi Pride parade through the streets of Kiruna in Swedish Lapland, many dressed in a traditional ’kolt’ or a Sámi frock. The joy was unmistakable, as well as the fighting spirit.

One begins, another ends

It all began about four years ago when Elfrida Bergman and Sara Lindquist initiated the project Queering Sápmi, queer Sámi people sharing stories about their life experiences. These stories were gathered in a book, accompanied with Sara Lundquist’s expressive photos (if you ever get a chance to read it, do so) as well as an exhibit that has been touring Sápmi and Sweden the last couple of years.

The goal of Queering Sápmi was to raise awareness, to shed light on the complexity of being a norm-breaking Sámi and improve the conditions for life in Sápmi regardless of identity, gender expression and sexuality. The project also focused on securing a long-term queer Sámi representation and during the Pride festival, the first ever queer Sámi association was formed.

– Queer Sámit will make sure that Sápmi Pride becomes a reoccurring event, to raise awareness for LGBT *Sámi issues, encourage research and create safe meeting places, says Elfrida Bergman, project manager of Queering Sápmi.

There’s a space where you can be both Sámi and queer, where you don’t need to explain the queer – or the Sámi part about yourself.

– The Queering Sápmi project comes to an end soon, by the end of this year, how does that feel? I ask.

– These recent days I’ve felt a bit melancholy, that I will not be the one who gets to carry the queer Sámi flag, the organisation will. But we have worked our butts off for the last four years, Sara and I. We were the first ones to kick the stones to make them roll. Others have also contributed to the current development, all of the people who shared their stories foremost, but it feels like we pushed for this change to happen.

– The queer Sámi issues were completely non-existent, invisible. There were no issues, these people hardly existed! But now there’s a Sámi Pride festival and we just hade a Pride parade. It feels really powerful but a bit sad to let it go, Elfrida admits.

– But it is the right way to go; we are not Sámi so there is no reason for me to speak on their behalf. I’ll, of course, keep an eye on their progress, I’ve made so many friends during the years, but this is not my fight – it’s theirs. And now they have to keep the torch lit.

Times are a-changing

– I recently read an article claiming Kiruna as the new gay mecca…

– Yeah, that might have been a bit of an exaggeration… Elfrida giggles.

– But there’s a lot going on – with Kiruna’s hockey team getting LGBT certified, we got a representative from the Swedish Feminist Party in municipal government – is a small mining town 200 km above the Arctic Circle… I mean, it’s all a part of today’s social movements, I think out loud.

– I believe a lot of people just had enough in the last couple of years. The fight against the mining companies, Queering Sápmi, the feminism movement – there’s a lot of booming resistance. The anti-racism movement as well, Elfrida says and continues:

– Sure, Sweden has come a long way with LGBT issues but there’s still a lot of work to do, especially on open streets, within families. Being queer is still associated with alienation and even danger. In Sápmi, we have gone from nothing to everything, only because there is an urgency, all these people who have shared their stories have been waiting for someone to ask, to be interested, to take it seriously.

– We could never have been able to arrange a Pride festival without all the volunteers, everyone assured that this is important, Elfrida says with emphasis.

A safe haven

– How is this day significant? I ask.

– Oh, that’s a tough one to answer, Elfrida says. Queering Sápmi, with all the stories, shed some light on these issues but I think that the Pride phenomena is something most people have heard about – even a homophobe knows what a Pride festival is. Not everyone got the Queering Sápmi project.

– This you can’t misconstrue, it’s about claiming public space, not making any excuses for who you are. I think this is a huge deal. Being here, making friends and meeting others like-minded. At the beginning of Queering Sápmi, those we talked to, didn’t even know another queer Sámi person. But now, you have a whole community backing you!

– And all of those who aren’t here, those who’re still closeted or just haven’t reached out yet – they now know who to talk to. There’s a space where you can be both Sámi and queer, where you don’t need to explain the queer – or the Sámi part about yourself. I think that is the biggest thing of all, Elfrida concludes.

*LGBT= Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.