A while ago, I had a conversation with my boyfriend that stayed with me. He's American, and just recently moved in with me in my Stockholm apartment, having lived in New York City for eight years. As I started showing him the city, I was intrigued to hear his reactions. He seemed surprised. Where were all the gay bars? Why did I seem less comfortable engaging in PDA on the subway in Stockholm than he does in New York? And where exactly, if Stockholm is so gay, were the drag queens? Stockholm's gay scene seemed poorer than my boyfriend had expected. Did he as a foreigner think I was living in some kind of gay utopia?
It wouldn't be strange. Hell, Wikipedia's page on the subject starts off with "LGBT rights in Sweden have been regarded as some of the most progressive in Europe and in the world." But what does that actually mean for queer life? Granted, Stockholm is much smaller than New York. Still, I wondered: how would an LGBTQ tourist visiting the city perceive it? And what would help them make a more informed travel choice?
Here is what every LGBTQ tourist visiting Stockholm should know.
There's a handful of gay bars--literally.
Stockholm is the biggest city in all of the Scandinavian countries with more than two million people in the greater metropolitan area. Coupled with its branding as a gay-friendly travel destination, a queer tourist might be surprised by the limited LGBTQ nightlife. While there will always be something open on any given night, don't expect to have more than 5-10 gay bars or clubs to choose from. Indeed, when scouring the web for Stockholm gay guides, many of the recommended bars, restaurants and clubs are not specifically LGBTQ oriented (but rather "gay-friendly").
Thomas Wimark, PhD and researcher at Stockholm University, has written extensively about the geographies of LGBTQ individuals and their migration patterns. I enlisted him to help me in my research. Wimark thinks part of the "blame" for the lack of gay establishment lies with Swedish society's general LGBTQ tolerance. "When everyone accepts you for who or what you are, you don't need to find friends that are sexually like-minded. Then you tend to go less to LGBTQ bars and clubs since most of your friends are not LGBTQ. Add to this the general decrease in the need for commercial places due to Grindr and you get a small queer commercial scene," says Wimark.
Photo by Yury Dmitrienko / Shutterstock
There's no Gayborhood.
As soon as they're ready to leave their hotel room, many a gay tourist will head straight to their destination's "gayborhood"--an LGBT-friendly oasis with a high concentration of queer establishments in one place. While the island of Sodermalm is sometimes called the "gayest" area of the city, Stockholm has no gay enclave that would make finding new spots and moving between them easier. You'll have to research (or ask around for) places be prepared to travel to get to them.
Why no gayborhood? Wimark speaks about what he calls the Swedish consensus policy. He says the Swedish state and society has a big capacity to incorporate social movements swiftly. While great for marginalized individuals, Wimark says it's made activism less needed. "When you don't need to organize you also don't need to congregate in LGBTQ bars and cafes."
Photo via Mariamichelle/Pixebay
Drag shows are a rarity.
If you--like yours truly--enjoy queer culture in a broader sense than just getting drunk, Stockholm is going to require some effort on your part. Queer art performances and special events do happen here, but it won't be every week that you find that niche party with just your taste in scene and entertainment. Drag is a good example of this. While everyone watches Drag Race, you're very far from somewhere like New York, where you'd have to be blind and deaf to not see a drag performance before your night out is over. Like other queer culture, drag exists in Stockholm, but in a limited scope. There are clubs that offer regular shows, but there just don't seem to be that many queens around.
Wimark says it's unfair to compare Stockholm to metropolises like Berlin or San Francisco. "A metropolis like that has a vibrant queer community and queer commercial scene due to its sheer population size, and for having been known as a gay mecca to migrate to for a long time."
Photo by Per-Boge / Shutterstock
Sweden is not a gay paradise.
Many have the perception of Sweden as being one of the safest and most liberal places in the world for LGBTQ people. While not wrong, it's important to remember that this is still relative. Sweden's ranked 12th in the ILGA-Europe gay rights ranking--by no means in a league of its own. In a 2012 survey, 35 percent of Swedish respondents said they'd felt discriminated against or harassed in the last 12 months on the grounds of sexual orientation. I have friends in Stockholm who have been beaten up after engaging in PDA or walking home alone from a gay club. I'm not trying to scare you here--Sweden is one of the safest countries in the world for LGBTQ people. It's just not a gay paradise.
Thomas Wimark says: "In most countries of the world, we speak of pockets of tolerance towards LGBTQ people that you can move between. In Sweden, we need to turn the discussion around and speak of small pockets of intolerance. We do have pockets of intolerance in the city of Stockholm and there is a lot of work to be done there but generally, you can feel safe as an LGBTQ person here."
Photo by Stefan Holm / Shutterstock
Stockholm is inclusive--just not a metropolis.
When my boyfriend saw what I was writing, he asked if I was trying to end gay tourism in Stockholm. Not at all. You should go. Just know what you're in for. "If you visit Sweden from a queer metropolis of the world and expect a large and vibrant queer commercial scene you will most likely be disappointed", says Wimark, but adds an important point: "But you can rest assure that you will be treated as anyone else wherever you might go."
Stockholm is, relatively speaking, a safe city for LGBTQ people, and does have a lot to offer--if one knows where to look. How to avoid disappointment? Talk to people. When in a gay bar, ask around for other things going on that night or week. Swedes have a reputation of being reserved, but make the first move and they're more than happy to help you out. If you know people in Stockholm, ask them for tips. If they don't have any or don't understand your taste, ask them to ask their friends.
Another tip is to use your gay apps for help. Some of my best nights out when traveling have been thanks to guys from Grindr giving me tips on where to go. Tinder is great too, and if you get Tinder Plus you can start talking to people before you leave for Stockholm. This works even if you don't plan on sleeping with anyone. I'll leave how honest you are about that up to you. Leading someone on might not be the nicest thing to do, but neither is spending your entire Friday night on your phone trying to find a bar where they know what a Stoli-Bolli is.
"If you are to compare Stockholm to other cities, compare it to cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the US, or Stuttgart and Birmingham in Europe," says Wimark. "If you do so you will see that Stockholm has a queer community and a commercial scene that isn't big--but perfectly OK."
Sorry and good luck, size queens.
Photo by Norman Tsui on Unsplash