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Rainbows and Racism Marched Together in Sweden During LGBT Pride Week

What we saw when a march, organised by a right-wing nationalist under an LGBT Pride banner, met its counter-protest.

av Weronika Pérez Borjas
2016 07 31, 11:30am

Photos by Maximilliam Gernandt

When we arrive at Tensta square the area seems peaceful. People go about their daily business while a handful of policemen stroll up and down the square – the demonstration hasn't started yet.

That demonstration is Järva Pride, a self-proclaimed LGBT event in Stockholm's suburbs, organised by nationalist, right-wing Swedish Democrat (Sverigedemokraterna) party member Jan Sjunnesson. The march goes through the Tensta, Rinkeby, and Kista neighbourhoods – all heavily populated by Middle Eastern and African immigrants – to highlight what those marching say is a lack of acceptance for LGBT people's rights. The demo thus kicks up controversy and outrage in both the LGBT community and anti-racism movements.

At the centre of the conflict sit Sjunnesson's far-right sympathies and his association with the Swedish Democrats – a highly controversial party in Sweden, given its critical view on immigration.

Sjunnesson himself has been the editor-in-chief of the party's official magazine, Samtiden, and contributes to Avpixlat: a propaganda-fuelled website that specialises in self-dubbed "politically incorrect" news, and picks up criticism from elsewhere in the media for allegedly spreading xenophobia and Islamophobia.

I quickly spot white-clad Sjunnesson, who seems very pleased with the media attention. Before allowing us to take any photos, he asks to wait for him to assemble what he calls his signature outfit – a cap from Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

Jan Sjunneson, in his Trump 2016 best

"Gays for Trump," Sjunneson exclaims proudly. "I used to work here in Tensta as a school principal in 2004 and as a project leader for a center for immigrant youth, so I know the area quite well. I believe demonstrations like this should march through similar kinds of neighbourhoods across Sweden and all of Europe," he says.

A few minutes later I meet Fej Skantz, an activist from RFSL Stockholm – the organisation that organises Sweden's official gay pride week, and doesn't support today's parade. She holds a poster that reads ''No racists on our streets!'' and is here as a part of the counter-protest against what they see as Pride Järva's hidden agenda. Skantz explains that she herself actually lives in Tensta and that the demonising rhetoric of Sjunnesson doesn't reflect the reality of living in the area.

Fej Skantz, of RFSL Stockholm

"It's a great neighbourhood and it is important to not let the fascists march here. I am an LGBT person myself and it is crucial for me that we, the people living here, stand together and do not get influenced by those who want to divide us.

She is by far not the only one critical towards the parade. As Sjunnesson welcomes the 30 or so people who've shown up to demonstrate, a group of counter-protesters arrive, far outnumbering Sjunnesson's group. Separated by only a few policemen, the groups begin to chant simultaneously, in an attempt to drown each other out. After a few moments, it's quite hard to separate Pride Järva's ''No homo-haters on our streets'' from the rhythmic counter-chant of "No racists and Islamophobes on our streets".

The Järva Pride lot, ready to march

I approach a group of teenagers hanging out by the benches a few metres away. I want to know what they make of this circus, but they seem quite suspicious of our camera. One of the boys says that he doesn't want gay people in this neighbourhood, but doesn't elaborate further. Another one says he believes in freedom of speech and that he is OK with it.

Counter-protesters, holding up anti-racist and anti-Islamphobic signs

As the march proceeds through the fields between the neighbourhoods Tensta and Rinkeby, the line of Järva demonstrators and counter-protesters holding anti-racist slogans gets slightly mixed up. Sjunnesson begins chanting "no racists on our streets" alongside the counter-protestors for a while, to show he's not the villain they say he is. The police trying to separate the one group from the other seem rather clueless. An older woman on crutches, one of Sjunnesson's supporters, gets lost between the counter-protesters. She mumbles something about preserving Sweden for Swedes. As the mismatched line marches on, passersby stare at the unfolding scene, trying to make any sense of the whole thing.

Sjunnesson chose to wear a bulletproof vest for his speech

As the march finally arrives in Rinkeby, the police block the counter-protesters from the town square entrance, as Sjunnesson gets ready to make his speech. He talks about left-wing monopoly, the Islamist intolerance and his intolerance for this intolerance. He also avoids touching on the subject of LGBT asylum seekers. He explains everybody is welcome at his parade, pointing out that his political sympathies do not necessarily reflect the ones of all the protesters by his side.

I ask a Pride Järva supporter – a woman in her fifties – why she's here. Does she know the neighbourhood well? "I think everybody should have the right to love who they love, no matter their religious beliefs or origin," she says. "I live in Stockholm – I don't come here too often but I know of Rinkeby from police reports in the news. But I don't personally know anybody here, no."

A younger man adds he also heard of somebody from the area who was afraid to participate. He adds: "The point is to show that we exist. And that we exist here in the area surrounding Järva. That we are allowed to be here and demand to be respected."

At Rinkeby square I notice Pedro, a tall, young man with a halo of curls who wears a short denim dress. He's joined the parade to listen to Sjunnesson's speech. "I am here just to spread Pride message and leave the politics out of it," he says.

Here's Pedro

Pedro lives in another district with a high immigrant rate and tells me about his experience of being openly LGBT there. "I know that I can't go out after certain times at night dressed up in female clothes. I can in the daytime, people tend to be less aggressive when there is a crowd present. Nothing has really ever happened to me, I just get people staring at me. But I do not feel very safe. It might happen in the city centre as well, but not as much as here. I hang out a lot in Söder, which is more of a 'leftie', liberal area."

Meanwhile, Sjunnesson ends his speech saying that: "It should be possible to be a blond, blue-eyed Swedish gay individual in Sweden."

As I look around I see a group of older Kurdish men having a smoke at the local bar and notice a Somali mother is buying groceries at a Turkish fruit stand. They're all going about their daily lives. Nobody is really paying much attention to all blond Swedes demonstrating and counter-protesting, among, and to some extent, about them.