REYKJAVIK, Nov 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It was not the first time that Daniel Arnarsson, a well-known Icelandic LGBTQ+ rights campaigner, had faced homophobic insults on the streets of the capital, Reykjavik.
But he had never been barked at before.
“It’s dehumanising in its worst form,” the 32-year-old head of Iceland’s National Queer Association – Samtokin ‘78 – said of the incident, which happened when a group of young men made barking noises at him from their car as he walked home.
While Iceland is ranked as one of the world’s most progressive nations in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, dozens of recent incidents involving the unusual form of abuse have raised fears of an upswing in homophobic and transphobic sentiment in the nation of some 360,000 people.
Seventeen-year-old student Andreas Tinni Waage said most LGBTQ+ people he knew had been barked at in the past few months – including himself.
While he initially laughed off the incident, he said such abuse made him feel be was “being forced to be smaller”, and feared the phenomenon showed people felt emboldened to express homophobia.
“It feels like there are people out there who aren’t afraid anymore of being rude to you on the streets,” Waage said by phone from his home in Reykjavik.
Across Europe, LGBTQ+ groups report an increase in hate speech and crimes. Research by the ILGA-Europe advocacy group showed that last year, anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech and crimes rose in almost all of the 54 countries surveyed.
According to the group, which ranks European countries according to their progress towards equality, Iceland is ranked 11th, above Finland and below Spain, and the country has two laws that address hate speech related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Earlier this year, the country’s coalition government expanded the scope of its hate speech legislation and paved the way for tougher sentences.
Police statistics show the number of hate crimes remains low in Iceland, reflecting the small population, but they are rising.
In 2021, there were two reported incidents of hate speech suspected to be on the basis of sexuality. At the end of September 2022, five had been recorded.
Former government minister Eyglo Hardardottir, who serves as director of actions against violence at the country’s national police, said the rise could partly be explained by the fact that LGBTQ+ people felt more able to report hate speech.
But she said the barking incidents reported in recent months showed there was no room for complacency.
“It’s a huge concern,” Hardardottir told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We always need to be on our toes with regards to prejudice and we need to address it.”
Police have not so far made any arrests in connection with the barking abuse.
Some rights activists think the barking insults, a phenomenon that has not made headlines in other countries, may have been spread among Icelandic users of leading social media platforms, TikTok in particular, during COVID-19 lockdowns.
A TikTok spokeswoman said there was no evidence that this type of harassment originated on the video-sharing app, adding that the platform’s community guidelines outlaw hate speech and that it removes content that contains or promotes hateful views.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation found no videos showing LGBTQ+ people being barked at on the platform.
However, an analysis of content on the site found at least five clips posted by people who said they had been targeted in that way – several of them young trans people in the United States.
Maria Run Bjarnadottir, director for internet safety for the Icelandic police force, who has researched online hate speech across Europe, said social media could sometimes foment damaging new trends across national borders.
“There are elements to social media that feed into harmful and negative aspects of reality,” Bjarnadottir said, calling the barking incidents “absolutely shocking”.
Many within the Icelandic LGBTQ+ community, used to living in one of the world’s most liberal countries, say they fear for the impact on younger gay, bisexual and trans Icelanders who could be more shaken by the abuse.
When Kitty Anderson, 40, chairperson of the board of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre, experienced homophobic abuse as she walked home through the capital carrying Pride flags, she said her age meant she was able to brush off the experience.
But younger LGBTQ+ people would be “petrified” if it happened to them, she said.
“For our generation, it’s very different,” Anderson said, citing the close-knit nature of Icelandic society that made it easy to identify anyone involved in anti-LGBTQ+ abuse in the street.
“We can literally call their mama or their grandma (to complain),” Anderson said.