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Jens Rydström

Jens Rydström

Professor emeritus

Jens Rydström

Modernity and periphery: The sexual modernisation of Greenland


  • Jens Rydström

Summary, in English

The paper will argue that the centre-periphery dynamics of the modernisation of sexuality is more complex and difficult to grasp than is usually shown in queer studies and gay history. Existing historiography on the emerging of a modern gay and lesbian identity has failed to study the links between different sites for the emergence of a gay and lesbian subculture.

The contacts between Greenland and German and Danish missionaries, from the eighteenth century onward, profoundly influenced Inuit concepts of sexuality by imposing Christian norms of sexual restraint. The accelerating colonial domination of Greenland culminated in a conscious effort to “modernise” Greenlandic society from the 1950s onward. Danish presence in Greenland increased from a handful of merchants and colonial officers to a substantial population of construction workers, economists, teachers, and bureaucrats. Did the colonisation of Greenland also influence Danish discourses on masculinity and sexuality? For metropolitan Danes, Greenland represents an idea of hyper-masculine adventure and extreme hardship. The diaries and travelogues by Danish explorer and national hero Knud Rasmussen are impregnated with his admiration for the arctic seal hunters he befriended during his extended stay in northernmost Greenland, and the Crown Prince Frederik’s sleigh rides over the inland ice rendered him huge popularity both in Greenland and in Denmark. Images of the weather-bitten prince travelling between the extreme outposts of his future realm was a symbolic rendering of Danish masculinity in the Arctic.

Many sources testify that Greenlanders traditionally had an open and relaxed attitude to sexuality. There were no explicit condemnations of same-sex sexuality, but childlessness in women was regarded as a tragedy, and in the tales, women who did not want to marry were severely punished. The only folklore concerning same-sex sexuality concerns women who act as men and penetrate younger women. Indeed, if sexuality was not a taboo subject, it was highly gendered. When Greenlandic activists founded a gay rights organisation in 2002, they translated the Danish words bøsse (gay man) and lesbisk (lesbian woman) into two already existing Inuit words: arnaasaq (lit. ‘womanly man’) angutaasaq (lit. ‘manly woman’). These words have been used traditionally to designate men who prefer women’s work, such as sewing or cooking, to the male work, such as hunting. As opposed to the Danish National Associaltion for Gays and Lesbians (Landsforeningen for bøsser og lesbiske) the Greenlandic activists also wanted to include bisexuals in their organisation. There was no word for bisexual, so they had to invent one, tamanoortut, which literally means ‘both ways’. The mixture of a traditional gendered conception of non-normative sexuality and the western, Danish concepts of “gay” and “lesbian” shows how Greenlanders actively renegotiate the norms that arrive from metropolitan Denmark.

Another example is how Greenlandic legislation handled the question of same-sex sexuality in the criminal law. For very long, there were separate sets of laws for Greenlanders and Danes living in Greenland, but in 1954 a joint Criminal Code was adopted. The law commission strove to preserve Greenlandic traditional laws as much as possible, but explicitly stated that they made an exception for sexual crimes, since Greenlandic customs were so different from what was acceptable in modern society. The result of this was that same-sex sexuality was regulated by the same rule as in Denmark, i.e. a higher age of consent for homosexual than for heterosexual relations.

The society for gays, lesbians and bisexuals in Greenland, Qaamaneq, was dismantled in 2007. Some activists argue that it was because a lack of interest from its members, now that it is easier to find a partner via the Internet than via the dances that Qaamaneq arranged. Others say that the homophobic climate in Greenland results in a very small number of non-heterosexual people daring to be open. More research is needed to determine how sexual discourse in Greenland – and in Denmark – has been influenced by the colonial process. An anthropological project would be the best way of investigating the exact nature of the modernisation of sexuality in Greenland and Denmark.


  • Genusvetenskapliga institutionen








  • Gender Studies

Conference name

Rethinking European (Homo)Sexual Modernity

Conference date