Free to be

By Simone Lindvall
Photos by Cesar Maldonado and Ángel David Castillo

It all began with an email from photographer Cesar Maldonado in July. “Would you like to do a collaboration for Pride Week?” was the central question, and although July is a busy month in the Copenhagen Pride office, and most of the work revolves around the many events that will take place during Pride Week, the answer was a definite ‘yes’. The result is the photo campaign, ‘Free to Be’ which in all its simplicity depicts ordinary yet very special LGBTI+ people exercising their right to exist as they are and their freedom to express themselves as they wish. This article is based on individual interviews with the photographed about the theme of this year’s Copenhagen Pride Week, ‘freedom’.

Simone: What does freedom mean to you?

Sonja: The first thing that comes to mind is that I identify as queer, because it is more of an umbrella term. I feel that this title gives me the freedom to be a little more fluid in my sexuality.

Sonja (she/her)

26 years old, from Aalborg but has lived in Copenhagen for the past 6-7 years, represents Q and B

Mariya (she/her)

30 years old, from Copenhagen, represents B

Niels (he/him)

29 years old, from North Zealand but has lived in Copenhagen since 2015, represents G

Mariya: Well, freedom is the absence of constraints. It is having to not think twice before expressing yourself in a way that feels authentic and right for you. Freedom for me is being able to express yourself, look, and speak as you wish without being sanctioned for it and without fear of discrimination.

Niels: It is a big word but I think freedom is very much about being allowed to be yourself, despite others disagreeing with you, because we do not all have to agree on everything, nor should we. I also think about the phrase ‘freedom under responsibility’ you cannot just do anything, you have to respect others in their freedom. So to me, freedom is basically about being able to be yourself but at the same time respecting the freedom of others to do the same.

Thalia: Freedom means that I can be myself, go to and from work and just enjoy Copenhagen as the person that I am inside and out. The most important thing is that I can be as safe as possible. Of course things happen in Copenhagen that are not good but compared to many other countries it is a privilege to be here. My partner’s family is from El Salvador and when I’m there, I have to take more precautions than I do in Copenhagen.

Simone: Can you think of a time when you felt truly free or conversely a time in your life when you did not feel free?

Nic: Part of the reason why I moved to Copenhagen was the freedom to be an LGBT person that seems to exist here. I was born in Thailand and even though Thailand is famous for being a paradise for LGBT people, there are no laws allowing LGBT people to get married for example. It is not supported in the system, there is just this image of support, and if I would continue to be myself there, I would not be able to get married and I would not have the rights that I am supposed to have. Moving to Denmark has enabled me to be me and not having to constrain my choices like I used to.

Torsten: Most often I feel very restricted if I do not have an interpreter or if I do not have texts on the TV. Pride in Copenhagen is a good example where we rarely have an interpreter. We book interpreters but it would be great if you could just come and there was an interpreter available for all the things that are happening. We struggle a lot with the National Interpreting Authority in terms of getting interpreters, grants, and preparation for the interpreters, and in connection with Pride we have actually not yet gotten any grants this year. It was the same last year

Thalia (she/her)

38 years old, from Copenhagen, represents T and L

Nic (hun/hende)

33 år, fra Thailand, men bor i København nu, repræsenterer B

Torsten (he/him)

42 years old, from Copenhagen, represents G as well as Tegnbuen (i.e. a Danish association for LGBTI+ people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or simply just interested in sign language)

Charlotte: It depends on how you interpret the word ‘freedom’ because freedom has many degrees. I have enjoyed many forms of freedom associated with being white and acting cis, white, male. There have been many expectations with regards to me coming out, but I have never felt as free as I did after I came out. If I were to mention some confining, cramped attitudes about me as a person that I have encountered, it has actually been in the healthcare system, where there has been expectations for you to be very obviously gendered in your appearance and body language even almost from the beginning before you even have the chance.

Gülsüm: When I think of a period or time when I felt really free, I would mention when I came to Denmark from Turkey as an exchange student. It was only for 5 months but I could see a huge difference in terms of what LGBT life could be like. I started going to huge women’s parties with maybe 400 women, and for me it was a huge shock in a positive way.

Rita: I feel the most free in these kinds of events that is also why I have applied as a volunteer. When I connect with the same kind of people as myself and with people that think alike, do similar things and project themselves in the same way as me.

Ivy: I feel free on stage that is 100,000% where I feel most free. There, I 100% let go of everything and am present in the moment with myself. I do not feel at home anywhere in this world but on stage I feel at home. That is freedom for me. It is my voice, and I never had one while growing up.

Ivy (she/her)

From Sweden but has lived in Copenhagen for the past 10-12 years, represents T

Felix (he/him)

29 years old, from Munich but has lived in Copenhagen for the past 2½ years, represents Q and G

Simone: What is the most liberating thing that you have done?

Felix: Moving to New York for a semester abroad. I chose to play this role of a person who had always been out and by doing so I managed to fake confidence. By faking it and not allowing it to be an outing, the confidence eventually became real. When I returned home, I realized that I did not want to go back to the patterns from before. I had felt so free for the past 6 months and I just could not imagine going back into the closet.

Emma: For me, both gender identity and sexuality are a journey for me at least it is always a bit fluid. For example, if I find out that I am this or that, then it changes. The most liberating thing for me is probably when I have the space to explore who I am and that it is okay for that to change. I think it has something to do with the fact that there has been given a bit more space for that, even in the LGBT+ community. There has been given a space for discussing that it is not just a debate about sexuality but it is also about gender.

Sonja: I think it has been learning to care a bit less. It sounds a bit like a cliché but learning not to care about what other people think. Doing things for myself and not doing things for others has really given me a sense of freedom. It feels good to not care about what others think and it feels good to do things that you want to do for yourself, instead of doing what you feel like you should.

Mai: When I met the part of the queer movement in the late 90s that first put into words that you could put gender together in different ways and divide it into biological sex, social gender and sexual desire, it was very liberating for me. I suddenly felt that I could breathe really freely. I have never felt like being a lesbian was confining, I have never been confused about my sexuality but I have felt limited in my gender. Meeting this meant that I could start to express another part of me, and now it is called being nonbinary.

Charlotte (she/her)

51 years old, lives in Herlev but grew up on Mors, represents B and T

Gülsüm (she/her)

37 years old, from Turkey but moved to Denmark around 16 years ago, represents the ‘+’ in the acronym since it currently has no N for nonbinary

Rita (she/her)

34 years old, from Portugal but moved to Copenhagen in April this year, represents both B and Q

Simone: Is there anything we can do within the community or outside the community to help everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality or background, feel as free as they can be?

Christina: Definitely information starting from childhood. It is something that needs to be talked about in kindergarten, at home, and in school. This is something that needs to be incorporated from childhood and become natural, just like so many other things are natural. Workplaces could also be a place to talk about this. I worked in a place where a new employee had to be hired and one of the candidates for the position was asked how she felt about homosexuals. She said that it was perhaps a little difficult for her, and then the person in charge of conducting the interview said “well, then the interview is over, because then we cannot use you”. And that was all for me. It is really nice that you can look after your employees by asking about that sort of thing at a job interview. You can do a lot of small things, but it is a matter of doing it, remembering it and getting it incorporated as a natural thing.

Charlotte: The LGBT+ community can meet the mainstream society where they are. I think it is all about getting information out to the mainstream society, because there are quite a lot of people who do not know what this actually is and they do not know the people themselves. I see it from a transgender and bisexual angle, and I meet many people who have really only seen this in the media, and often there has to be included some drama before something is really worth anything to the media. It would be nice if there was more knowledge about what this actually is and that it is not dangerous but not something that goes away either. My dream is that being LGBT+ will be as common today as when we once recognized that left-handed people should be allowed to write with their left hand and that it is OK to do so.

Mariya: Legally, there are some battles to be won. There is something as basic as legal gender recognition for children under the age of 18 it is a huge barrier to living as your authentic self if you have to constantly be confronted with a gender that you do not identify as. We also need to look at equality in family law. Fortunately, legislation on hate crimes has improved but that does not change the fact that preventive action is also needed to enable people to feel free in public without having to fear encountering violence, hatred, or threats. On a more cultural or discursive level, I also think that we need to get better at thinking outside boxes and conventions. We simply have to become better at thinking outside these binary understandings, not just of gender but of people, and I actually think that this will make us all more free.

Emma (they/she/him)

23 years old, from Frederiksberg but has lived in Aalborg since 2020, represents Q

Mai (she/her)

48 years old, from Copenhagen, represents L

Christina (she/her)

43 years old, from Amager, represents the ‘+’ in the acronym since it currently has no P for pansexual

As recently as in September, another email from Cesar found its way into the Secretariat’s inbox. “Shouldn’t we do another project together soon?” he asked. And it would come as no surprise if in the near future another collaboration will become a reality.

Both of the photographers are on Instagram, where you can see more of their work:

Cesar: @cesarmphoto

Ángel: @angel_d_castillo

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