When I moved to Skellefteå from Florida in the US in 2018, I had a job interview for a local teaching role. It was late summer and the walk from the car to the school was a memorable one. Not because of too early snow, or fantastic weather, but because of a sticker I saw on the wood of the main play structure in the school's play area.
The sticker, the size of a phone, was that of a rainbow. A Pride sign, right next to young, happy children. In some US states, this might not be uncommon, but it was in mine. It was an early sign that confirmed moving to Sweden had been the right choice. It was such an emotional moment that I stopped to reflect. To swipe at the tears in my eyes. To revel in the difference.
I had spent most of my years in the US living in the southeast. While the south might be known for its hospitality, open acceptance of LGBTQ+ was discouraged. But the south wasn’t just inhospitable to difference. It was actively nasty.
The previous school year, I had worked as a science teacher in Jacksonville. I noticed one day that a student of mine, previously referred to by a name typically reserved for girls, had started using a more male name. I talked to the student to discuss the changes. I learned that he wanted to use he/him pronouns and that he’d like his teachers to refer to him by his newly chosen name.
The result? Several other teachers in the school outright refused to follow his wishes. Other male students were overheard talking about ‘raping her to show her she was a girl.’ No LGBTQ+ training was given to teachers or students.
Students were never reprimanded for their anti-trans views. Instead of using the event as a springboard for learning and growing, for maybe preventing violence and ill will towards other humans, it was ignored. Our school had an openly non-gender-conforming queer teacher at the time. By mid-year they had left the school. Not long after, the student followed.
I left that toxic environment to come to a small northern town in Sweden, to find an unassuming Pride sticker in a playground for young students. It was a pivotal moment that outlined the stark difference between what I’d left behind and what I had gained.
In my parents’ generation, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. My father still has an old textbook listing it as such. The US started decriminalizing same-sex relations in 1961, but it took another 40 years to reach all states. Sweden legalized it in 1944.
Love. The human right to make a connection with another person. Legalized. Decriminalized.
There haven't only been ‘signs’ in Sweden, the US news is full of them too.
Most recently, I saw Ron DeSantis (the governor of Florida who's also running for president in 2024), surrounded by white men and women and a lot of children, signing an approved expansion of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ state law.
This means that throughout a child’s education in Florida, all the way until their last grade of high school (what would correlate to year 3 of gymnasium here), teachers are forbidden to teach about sexual orientation or gender identity.
The Swedish education system asks that we not only accept the differences of others but that we actively address and counter discrimination.
I found my way to Sweden by way of love — I met a wonderful person and asked him to be mine.
Leaving all I’d ever known to move 12,000 kilometres away was a daunting task, but through my partner I was able to not just find personal love again, but also love of country; love of Sweden. Pride.
This text is a column and the views are the author's own.