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Iceland: Homosexuality and the Law

30 July 2009
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1869: The first comprehensive penal code came into effect in Iceland, based on a Danish model. Among its provisions was the criminalisation of sexual intercourse between two individuals of the same sex, irrespective of age or consent. Clause §178, which covered sexual relations between two individuals of the same sex as well as intercourse with animals, was worded as follows: “Unnatural forms of sexual intercourse are punishable by a term in prison.”

The adoption of this legislation marked the abolition of the Danish penal code which had been in force in Iceland from 1838 to 1869, and which had in its turn superseded the Great Edict (1565–1838), a puritanical ethical code which prescribed harsh punishments for sexual misdemeanours.

1924: Following the adoption of the 1869 penal code, prison sentences were handed out almost every year for indecent conduct, though after 1900 the number of convictions fell. Published sources do not record the nature of these crimes against public decency. However, it is recorded that in 1924 Guðmundur Sigurjónsson Hofdal was sentenced by the Reykjavík District Court to eight months in prison for breach of clause §178 of the penal code. Hofdal, a renowned sportsman and wrestling champion, who had taken part in the 1908 Olympics, freely admitted in court to having had “carnal relations with other men” over the previous 15–18 years. He was granted a royal pardon on 8 August 1935, five years after the abolition of a comparable clause in the Danish law.

1940: The Althing abolished the provision in the law which ruled that sexual intercourse between two individuals of the same sex, irrespective of age or consent, was a criminal offence. The clause stipulating that “Unnatural forms of sexual intercourse are punishable by a term in prison” now became a thing of the past. Iceland was only the second Nordic country to decriminalise same-sex intercourse, irrespective of age or consent. Denmark had abolished a comparable clause in 1930, Sweden was to do so in 1944, Finland in 1971 and Norway in 1972. Ireland became the last country in Western Europe to abolish a similar penalty in 1993.

1940: The Althing passed a new law (no. 19/1940) which specified age of consent in the section on Public Decency. Extra-marital sexual intercourse between a man and a woman was now legal if both parties were aged 16 or above. If the man was older and the woman younger, it was judged a criminal act on the man’s part. The same law stipulated a legal age of 18 for same-sex individuals, recommending up to three years’ imprisonment for whichever individual was older. If it could be proved that the individual had used “the advantage of age and experience” to persuade a member of the same sex to participate in sexual intercourse, and if the younger party was aged between 18 and 21, the act was punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. This law was used on several occasions against homosexuals and probably discouraged them from forming closer relationships with each other.

1985: A proposed parliamentary resolution on the abolition of discrimination against homosexuals was placed before the Althing. The resolution proposed that a committee should be set up to investigate the status of lesbians and gay men in Iceland and make recommendations for reform of the law. The proposal was referred to general committee after the first debate but never got any further.

1992: A proposed parliamentary resolution on the abolition of discrimination against homosexuals was placed before the Althing. The resolution proposed that a committee should be set up to investigate the status of lesbians and gay men in Iceland and make recommendations for reform of the law. The proposal was identical to that of 1985 and was passed by the Althing in the spring of 1992. On the basis of parliament’s approval, the prime minister appointed a committee in the spring of 1993 to investigate the status of homosexuals in Iceland. The committee completed its task in the autumn of 1994 by producing an in-depth report which provided the basis for subsequent legislation relating to homosexuals.

1992: The Althing passed a radical amendment (no. 40/1992) to the clauses in the section on public decency in the penal code of 1940, now renamed Sexual Offences. The age of consent was now set at 14 – sexual intercourse between individuals, of 14 and above, was in other words legal as long as both parties consented. No distinction was now made between parties according to sex and all discrimination against homosexuals relating to the age of consent was thereby eliminated.

1996: The Althing passed a law recognising the registered partnership between individuals of the same sex (no. 87/1996). In the eyes of the law, registered partnership now had equal status with heterosexual marriage, with the exception that neither adoption nor in vitro fertilisation was permitted. Moreover, partnerships between same-sex couples could only be registered by a civil registrar, not by a minister of the Lutheran State Church of Iceland. Iceland was the fourth country in the world to pass such a law, going slightly further than its three neighbours Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which had previously legalised registered partnerships, in that the Icelandic law recognised the possibility of joint custody of children by couples in registered partnerships.

1996: The Althing passed amendments to clauses §180 and §233 of the general penal code, relating to discrimination on grounds of nationality, colour, race, religion or sex, adding the words “on grounds of sexual orientation”. This made it illegal to refuse people goods or services on account of their sexual orientation, or to attack a person or group of people publicly with mockery, defamation, abuse or threats because of their sexual orientation.

2000: The Althing passed an amendment to the law on registered partnerships, no. 87/1996. According to this, the rights of foreign nationals living in Iceland were extended to allow them to register their partnerships here, and recognition was made of the reciprocal validity of this legal act in those countries that have comparable laws. The amendment also permitted step-adoptions by this type of family, with the provison that the partners have previously had joint custody of the children. However, the legal provision denying women in registered partnerships the right to assisted pregnancy was still in force; so too was the provision denying a couple in a registered partnership the right to adopt a child which is not related to either of them. In addition, the partnership between same-sex couples could only be registered in a civil ceremony, not in church.

2003–2006: A proposed parliamentary resolution on equal rights of all unmarried or unregistered couples was placed before the Althing by all four political parties represented in the parliament. The resolution proposed that a committee should be set up to investigate and compare the legal status of gay and straight couples and make recommendations for reform of the law. Furthermore the committee was supposed to propose amendments to the law on registered partnership, regarding adoption and assisted pregnancy. In June 2006 the Althingi passed an amendment to the law on registered partnership no. 87/1996, giving full adoption right to this type of family as well as full right for women to seek assisted pregnancy in an official clinic, regardless of their marital status.

2008: The Althing passed an amendment to the law on registered partnership, no. 87/1996, making it possible for couples to register their partnership in church or any other religious congregation as well as with a civil registrar

2009: Parlamentary plans to present an amendment to the existing marriage law later this year, which includes full same-sex marriage rights. The law on registered partnership will then disappear.

2010: Parliament in Iceland votes unanimously to approve same-sex marriage.  This means the wording of marriage legislation includes matrimony between "man and man, woman and woman" and upgrades same sex marriage to be fully equal with marriage.

© Thorvaldur Kristinsson 2008. Additions 2009/2010 by Gayice.is 

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