This is a zine.
It is a possibility to share stories, learn about different
cultures and reflect on your own.
It is made with passion and openness for you
to touch read discuss.
My name is Alice
I am Italian volunteering at Nicolai since February.
I like to ask questions, listen
and that is what this zine is all about.
Enjoy it keep it
pass it around!
INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN MADSEN
Benjamin Madsen is the chairperson of Spectrum, the student organization for the LGBTQ community based at SDU. Originally started in Odense in 2014, during the last year it was also introduced here in Kolding. Despite its limited resources, Spectrum is very active through collaborations with other associations, like TRAIN, and events such as the monthly “Queer Kolding”, that provide a safe space for LGBTQ people in the southern region of Denmark.
I talked to Benjamin about being queer in Kolding, inclusion, challenging gender norms, and the religious and political differences between our Countries when it comes to LGBTQ rights and acceptance.
Alice: First of all, how did you first find out about Spectrum and how did you get involved?
Benjamin: I started studying at the SDU in 2015 on a Bachelor´s degree. I had just come out at that point, so I needed a place for myself. I just googled something like “LGBTQ SDU” and they popped up. I wrote them an email asking if they also were present here in Kolding because I wanted to participate. They responded “We are only in Odense for now, but we’re planning on it”. Three years went by and nothing happened. And then I was like “Okay, if no one is doing it, I’m gonna do it. Because if I don’t, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.”
A: How is the Odense community different from the one in Kolding?
B: If you just look at the numbers their community is bigger, because they have Lambda, a gay bar, and they have drag events. But I don’t think you can count it in numbers because there are obviously LGBTQ people everywhere. But here in Jutland they are more spread out, because we don’t have a place to meet up. You have to go to Århus or Odense – those are the nearer places. We are spread out, but we are still here.
A: Spectrum is a student’s organization, so I assume that most of the people involved are young. But I am curious about the demographic, do older people participate too?
B: Absolutely, we welcome everybody. We have some older people coming, but it fluctuates. It’s because the Kolding community is more about friends and networking, a word of mouth kind of thing. There is this new association called TRAIN for trans and intersex people that we collaborate with. Some of the students know someone who doesn’t study at SDU who is interested in joining in. So yes, it’s pretty much open, but because we are based at SDU we say we are a “student organization”.
A: I’ve been in Denmark for about three months. I work in Kolding but I live in Vester Nebel. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but it’s a very, very small town. When I first saw it I thought: “Wow, this is what a white, straight paradise looks like”.
B: Yeah, it is. Old, white, married couples.
A: Two kids, one dog. That’s the deal to live in Vester Nebel.
B: Sounds very traditional, very Danish.
A: Right. So I wasn’t really surprised that I didn’t see any queer or interracial couple. But here in Kolding, in three months I’ve seen one queer couple holding hands. And that surprised me. Do you feel comfortable being queer here? Or do you feel it is frowned upon?
B: I live with my boyfriend and we both feel very comfortable. Most times I get looks is because of the way I dress, because of the silver nail polish, that draws some looks. But I don’t feel like us holding hands draws looks. Or maybe it’s just because I am so comfortable that I don’t notice. But it doesn’t feel like there is much judgment here. And it’s funny because at the “Queer Kolding” meetings we talk a lot about how Kolding seems like a better place to live than other bigger cities. I think it is relatively open. I don’t really know why, maybe it’s because it’s a culture and study city. It doesn’t feel limiting to be here. There is vibrant energy despite it being a relatively small town compared to Odense or Århus.
A: That’s very interesting because in Italy you can really feel the difference between the city and the town mentality in the opposite way. I come from a small town near Milano, which is a big modern city where people are more or less open-minded. But the town I’m from has the same vibe as Vester Nebel. And at times Kolding feels kind of provincial too.
B: There are a lot of extreme cases, especially if you go west. People who have many issues with anything that is not a white family, man and woman, eating meatballs and potatoes. There is a saying: “Villa, Volvo, Vovhund” (“house, volvo, dog”). If you have those three things, you are set and done. You have a job for the next 30 years, two kids, one of each gender, a big house, your family in law come over every other weekend. Bam! And they are the people who don’t really want to talk about anything because they’re like “It´s fine! Everything is fine for me. If I get involved I will instantly get rainbow skin”. Calm down, God!
A: But your experience in Kolding feels different.
B: Here, when I tell people that I’m living with my boyfriend, they are just like “Okay, what is he doing?”. It doesn’t feel like a big point of the conversation. And I volunteer with a lot of elderly and they don’t seem to mind either. And that said, I don’t make it an issue. I try to be very normal about it. I think that’s the greatest thing that you can do – normalizing it. Make it like that’s just the way it is. And I think that now the next big discussion that we need to have is about gender, more than about sexual orientation.
A: Well, I guess you are many steps forward because in Italy being gay or bi is still not easily accepted, let alone being trans. Gender fluidity is not something to doubt or discuss, you are either a man or a woman, and the way you are treated in society depends heavily on which category you are put in right after you are born.
B: Is that because of your culture or because you’re Catholics?
A: Both. That’s actually something I want to talk about – religion – because I think it’s one of the main differences between our Countries. But yes, I guess having the fucking Church in our Country doesn’t help. But we’ll get to that later on.
B: I never thought I would hear an Italian person say the “fucking Church”!
A: Well, you found one.
B: How are LGBTQ rights in Italy – can gay people get married?
A: Yes, but not in a church, and gay couples don’t have the same status and rights as straight couples. And I don’t see it getting better in the near future because there is a far-right party in power now that is – surprise! – very homophobic. It’s a very slow change. Just in general, we’re very slow with changes in Italy – we also have to thank the Church for that, I guess. And we have this idea of Nordic countries as open-minded and equality driven. But I noticed this sort of detachment in Danes – this attitude of being like “I’m fine with my life, no need to change anything because I’m perfectly fine as I am” – that may lead to a lack of empathy for other people´s problems. Do you think this attitude also informs people’s feelings towards LGBTQ people?
B: I think we are scared to talk about it. Last Saturday at an event for diversity we talked about how to approach queer people if they don’t have a binary gender identity. Because of course, you don’t want to misgender people. And the first thing I said was “Well, just fucking ask!” I didn’t really say that, just “ask”. “What is your name and what is your pronoun?” because then you won’t hurt anyone. If you keep misgendering people because you’re an idiot who only cares about it’s fine. And I think this has some parallels with the immigration discussion we´re having right now too – we are scared to touch all that because we don’t know how to approach it. It’s like “It’s fine, they can do it as long as we don’t have to get involved, ‘cause it could be dangerous if we did”.
A: Might this also be connected to your culture? There is a rather individualistic mindset here, I think. People mind their own business. The work and family spheres are usually divided. And when it’s like that – of course this is a generalization – but when you worry a lot about your life and your family, you don’t have time to really get intertwined with other people lives, and for sure not with other people’s problems.
B: And for sure not with things that you cannot understand. I was talking to some straight people yesterday about the Pride in Århus that’s going to happen in a couple of weeks. And they were like “Is it a closed party? Is it only for LGBTQ people? I would never go there!”. And I was like “Just go, it’s just a party! I don’t care!” No one is telling you that you’re not allowed. We’re not excluding people!
A: Do you think that reaction could also be because of a fear of judgment and shame? Maybe they think “I’m straight, if I go to a gay parade people will think I’m gay and I don’t want that!”
B: Maybe they fear to be contaminated, like “I would at least become bisexual if I go there!”. Maybe it’s also that, yes. It goes back to the thing we were saying before: it’s okay if it’s happening, but I don’t want to touch it because if I do, something might happen to me.
A: And people might look at me differently.
B: But I think that everything that is different, that’s not the majority, will always be different. And that’s fine, in my opinion. We cannot change that because if everybody were gay there would be no humans anymore. We are a minority – we cannot change the statistics – but we shouldn’t be treated like a minority. We should have the same rights and we should be completely equal. But that’s really difficult because you know, politics and culture and religion and all that.
A: How long ago did the marriage bill become law in Denmark?
B: It was 2012. In a social democratic government. It was a big debate and after five years we still have priests in the People’s Church of Denmark – the official Church – who don’t want to marry gay couples. But the agreement was that if you didn’t want to do it, you didn’t have to. The Church can say no, it’s not forced.
A: So if one church says no, you can go to another one…
B: Yes. I personally go to church as a Christian and I’ve explored the churches around town and I felt like “okay, this church seems very open with who I am and my identity and my boyfriend, this church isn’t, so I will go to this other one”.
A: Wait – you can bring your boyfriend to church?
B: I do, yes. There are two churches – the Nicolai’s Kirke here is one of them – that are very open.
A: Wow! I’m impressed. Well, I guess we transitioned smoothly to the religion topic.
B: Yes! Let’s open that vault of wonders.
A: I am an atheist but I was raised catholic. My mother especially, she’s very religious. But just in general Italians have that catholic mindset – you know, a mix of shame and self-deprecation towards sexuality. Even if you’re straight, you’re supposed to feel guilty about having a body and sexual desires.
B: (joking) That shocks me a lot…
A: So surprising, right? The catholic imprint is instilled in our brains from such a young age. It’s a huge part of our culture, so it’s difficult to change it. Religion in Italy is very much a public thing, because the Church is in the middle of our Country and the Vatican lobbyism has a big influence on our politics, even if we pretend it doesn’t. We say we are a secular country, but are we really? Anyway, here, most of the people I meet are not very religious, and if they are, they are very private about it.
B: They don’t talk much about their beliefs.
A: No, they don’t. But from my experience, if a person goes to Church, it’s very likely they are homophobic. Here I get the impression that that is not the case.
B: I think it depends on where you live and what “branch” of the Christian religion you’re part of. Some churches, they don’t want gay and divorced people going there. Or maybe you can go but they won´t marry you. There are still churches like these because there are people who follow those beliefs. But a people’s church is for all the people. The leader of the churches, she’s been trying…
A: Sorry wait. What? Is the leader a woman?
B: Yeah! And we have many female priests. My favourite priest is a woman, actually.
A: Wow. Okay. This is astonishing to me. No female priests are allowed in Catholicism, let alone leaders.
B: But yes, even in the Peoples’ Church in Denmark there are some extreme cases. And from those to the church I go to, they just seem miles apart. They are so fundamentally different. It’s fascinating really. And it’s hard to argue against it because it’s a people’s church and those people – shouldn’t they have a place to go to, even if they are homophobic? ‘Cause I don’t want to go and try change shit. I will just go to my church and they can run their business over there.
A: And at Spectrum you’re welcoming people who are open to discuss and learn.
B: Yes, with Spectrum we also want to educate. For example, if we get questions like “What it is that thing where you aren’t really a man or a woman?”, I am like “Let me tell you all about it!”. I instantly go to lecture mode, I explain that you won’t get hurt and nobody will hurt you. Just approach it with curiosity and respect. You know, I’ve come out 5 or 7 years ago as a gay, and now I am starting to question my gender identity, and it feels like I have to come out… again! And people can understand I’m gay – I hold hands and I live with a man, and that’s fine. But then start to challenge their views on gender and oh-my-fucking-God! That’s mind-blowing. So, we’re far – but definitely we’re not far enough. We still have a lot of work to do.