Photography: Elsa B. Magnúsdóttir
Two married mothers fall in love, divorce their husbands, then spend 15 years in the closet before coming out, getting married to each other, and becoming the highest-profile lesbian political couple in the world. It might sound like the dramatic script for a TV movie, but it’s actually Jónína Leósdóttir’s shorthand version of her romantic narrative with her wife, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland’s prime minister from 2009 to 2013, and the world’s first openly gay head of state.
During Sigurðardóttir’s tenure, the country was recovering from a financial crisis — in which three banks crashed and the nation landed on the brink of bankruptcy — so she refused to talk about her personal life. Since leaving politics, the couple have stayed out of the public eye, and they’ve only attended two gay events in Iceland (the first was this year’s Pride Parade, and the second an Out-organized party in Reykjavík in September). Knowing that their story was of interest, however, Leósdóttir decided to publish an autobiography, Jóhanna and I, about their 30-year relationship.
“There was a lot of interest in the book in Iceland, because we had made an effort to keep our private life very private,” Leósdóttir says. “We never agreed to do any interviews about our relationship or even pose for photos together. Jóhanna suggested I tell our story in a book that would be published when she was no longer in politics. We felt we owed it to the [queer] community, both in Iceland and abroad.”
The couple remain a symbol of Iceland’s relaxed embrace of LGBT people, and through her writing, Leósdóttir continues to shape the culture of the close-knit country. After publishing her first book in 1988, Leósdóttir has since written 12 more. The work that’s made the most impact is her coming-out trilogy about a teenage girl from a small Icelandic town. From Leósdóttir’s “extensive visits” to schools, she has found that the tales have been read by both boys and girls. Yet she’s aware that her own life might prove the greatest inspiration.
“One chapter of [Jóhanna and I] describes Jóhanna’s state visit to Beijing in 2013,” Leósdóttir says. “That was the first time a Chinese prime minister received a same-sex couple like that — two old, married grandmothers. Wouldn’t that make a great scene in a film?”