If you ask a Swedish person to name a gay writer, the first name that will almost always pop up in their mind is ‘Jonas Gardell’. This famous author published Passionspelen, a gay love novel, in 1985 and has since written many highly popular books and screenplays, becoming a household name.
He is also a stand-up comedian, occasional TV-presenter and for his writings on the Christian God and Jesus, he was given a honorary doctorate at the faculty of Theology of Lund’s University. Unsurprisingly, his appointment caused some protest among more conservative members. For an openly and unapologetically gay man to be also a Christian is a bit controversial, to say the least.
Another gay man of Christian faith who without shame embraced his sexuality was the philosopher Pontus Wikner (1837-1888). Although, unlike Gardell, he did not come out during his lifetime. His diaries and an essay called ‘Psychological Self-Confessions’ were revealed and published long after his death, as was his wish. He understood that the consequences for his wife and children could be very negative if his homosexuality was revealed, so he had asked that his private writing not be revealed until they had all passed away. He still had a story to tell which he knew the world needed to hear.
It is with Pontus Wikner that Jonas Gardell starts his latest book Ett lyckligare år (meaning ‘a happier year’). This half non-ficion, half dramatisated account of real life events traces the history of the LGBTQ rights movement in Sweden.
Wikner lived in a time when same-sex attraction was still considered a perversion and when the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’ had not yet been coined, so that he lacked the very words and concepts to explain the feelings he was experiencing. It was under those circumstances that Pontus Wikner first had to come to terms with his sexuality, while studying theology of all things.
The first part of the book follows Wikner during his time as a student at the University of Uppsala, where he met Herman Björnström. Pontus and Herman soon fell in love and in a semi-fictional, dramatisated account based on Wikner’s own diaries, Gardell tells us about their love story. One true and deep but doomed to never be lived in the open.
Wikner would go on to marry a woman and have children and so would Björnström. But for a short moment in time, they got to experience the kind of love many heterosexuals take for granted.
The next part of the book is an excerpt from Pontus Wikner’s own writing where he reveals his sexuality and the pain of having to live a lie, but also about his loves and the hope he felt of a bringer future for people like him.
The book then takes a big leap forward in time, to the late 60’s and early 70’s when Gay Liberation came to Sweden. And it’s beginnings were very humble. A lesbian couple, one gay man and a few allies were the starting point for the whole movement in the country. When they organised the first Pride parade in the middle-sized town of Örebro, only twelve people came and they marched for about 200 meters. Nothing impressive and many of the attendants were disappointed with the turnout. Little did they know, they had planted a seed that would grow and grow and change everything for LGBTQ people in Sweden.
This later part of the book is I think very important for younger people – regardless of sexuality or gender identity – to read. Many might take for granted how much things have changed in the last decades. It wasn’t that long ago being LGBTQ almost always meant a life of secrecy and solitude. We need to remember how quickly things can change, for better or worse. Especially considering the threat of the ever-growing far-right, we need to keep up the fight for our human rights.
If you know Swedish, I’d highly recommend this book. Unfortunately, none of Gardell’s writings are available in English yet and neither are Pontus Wikner’s. But I still felt like I wanted to write about this great book that is Gardell’s latest. I hope this and his other works will get an English translation in the future. In the meantime, I can recommend the TV-series Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, which is based on his trilogy about two men’s love during the AIDS crisis. The BBC aired it, so there’s likely a way to find it with English subtitles.