Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, Iceland’s outgoing prime minister and the first openly LGBT person to head a national government, leaves a mixed legacy, with advances on gay rights but only partial success in addressing the nation’s economic problems.
Sigurdardóttir, who was the longest-serving member of the Althingi (Iceland’s parliament), having been elected in 1978, before becoming prime minister in 2009, announced her retirement from politics last year. She said it was time to end her “long and eventful” political career and that she would not seek another term as prime minister in the spring election. That vote, last Saturday, saw her party, the Social Democrats, finish third behind two more conservative parties, which will now form a coalition government.
She was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009, having been appointed to the post on an interim basis after the resignation of Geir Haarde, who had led the nation through a financial boom that turned to bust. Iceland’s top banks were deeply in debt due to risky investments, leading the government to nationalize them in the fall of 2008 and seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The country had also seen its currency plunge in value and unemployment soar.
Many citizens blamed the economic crisis on the laissez-faire policies of Haarde and his Independence Party, which has a conservative ideology. So they tasked Sigurdardóttir and her liberal Social Democratic Alliance with turning the country around; in an April 2009 vote, they formally elected her prime minister. She made history as the first out gay or lesbian to lead a nation on anything but a fill-in basis (previously, a gay man had briefly been acting prime minister of Norway) and Iceland’s first female prime minister. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo was elected prime minister of Belgium, making him the first openly gay man voted into such a post.
Sigurdardóttir, now 70, had been a flight attendant and airline union organizer before being elected to the Althingi. She demonstrated a passion not only for LGBT rights but social justice in general. As Iceland’s minister of Social Affairs and Social Security from 1987 to 1994 and 2007 to 2009, she influenced legislators to enact policies strengthening the social welfare system and expanding housing opportunities for the poor.
Most Icelanders saw nothing unusual about a lesbian prime minister. The country had repealed laws against gay sex in 1940, when it was a dependency of Denmark. In 1996 it became one of the first nations in the world to establish civil partnerships for same-sex couples. In 2006 it followed up by approving adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples. In 2010, a year into Sigurdardóttir’s tenure as prime minister, Iceland passed a marriage equality law. She and her partner, author Jonina Leosdóttir, were one of the first couples to take advantage of it. The women, both divorced mothers, had been in a civil partnership since 2002.