“Here inside myself, You are blossoming despite the winter, and I have sunshine and warmth from You despite the distance.”
– Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson in a letter to H.C. Andersen
This week, as Laura takes a well-deserved break from writing, we will try our best to write an article in their place. This article will be about a person who stood up for queer rights, a pioneer in his home country in the fight for the decriminalization of gay relationships, having close relationships with queer men, and being queer himself. This week, we move to Norway and a man called Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, to look at his relationships with men and his stance in society for gay people’s rights.
Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson is among the most well known and well regarded Norwegian writers of all times. Through the 77 years of his life, from his birth in 1832 to his death in 1910, he created numerous works of art, from novels and poetry to plays and speeches; he also wrote what became the national anthem of Norway, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1903. He was an emotive man, a strong-willed debater, engaged in politics, and believed in any cause that worked to lead the world towards a brighter future for all. Among the things he is remembered for today is his constant fight for those who could not always fight for themselves; this includes his participation in the fight for women’s rights and, as is to be discussed here, his hand in defending the rights of queer people.
To better understand his activism in queer politics, we first need to understand how queerness was being looked upon in society at the time. In Norway, as in many other countries at the time, being gay was a crime, and any man with a sexual relationship with another man was prone to serve time in jail or penal labour. Sexual relationships between women, on the other hand, were not mentioned in the criminal law, as it was believed at that time that women did not have any sexuality without men. This is not to say that queer women did not suffer, as the judgment from society could be harsh. The view of homosexuality as something unnatural that should not exist was shared by many and affected all queer people, forcing most to keep their relationships and sexuality hidden to avoid suffering any consequences, whether from society or the law.
Bjørnson believed homosexuality to be a disease based on DNA, as did many others within the queer rights movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Which, while not a perfect opinion in modern society, the idea that queerness was not simply someone choosing to rebel against society was radical at the time. Calling same-sex attraction an inclination that was strong and rooted in nature, he found the criminalization of it unnecessary and, as early as in 1891, he wrote an article in one of Norway’s biggest newspaper saying that gay relationships should not be illegal. He called for the criminal law to be removed. It is clear that he regrets not stepping into the debate a few years earlier, in 1889, when the law was being revised and put into place stronger and more clearly condemning towards homosexual relationships. When German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld sent Bjørnson a letter in 1901, asking for his support in the mission to decriminalize homosexuality in Germany, Bjørnson did not hesitate in his reply but quickly told Hirschfeld that he agreed and had been of the same opinion for more than twenty years.
Throughout his life, Bjørnson had close relationships with several queer people, almost as if they were drawn to him and he to them. Perhaps the one he was the closest to was Clemens Petersen, a gay Danish literature critic. They met in 1856, and the two of them exchanged letters filled with declarations of love and assurances of a special relationship. Bjørnson calls Petersen his “half life” whom he “has adored and adore with all of my love,” while Petersen tells Bjørnson “when you touch me, I spark.” When Petersen’s sexuality was discovered by the public in 1869, and he had to take refuge in the USA, Bjørnson stayed loyal and lent him money for the journey. He offered Petersen to come live with him in Norway, and he was one of the few people still publicly supporting and defending the Danish critic.
Another of Bjørnson’s queer friends was the famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Upon meeting Andersen for the first time, he later writes to Petersen: “I, of course, fell incomparably in love with him, and I think it was mutual.” Although Andersen was 56 years at the time and Bjørnson 28, they wrote to each other, sharing loving letters and telling each other what high regard and esteem they held the other in. This relationship lasted until after Andersen’s death, and on his 100th anniversary, Bjørnson held a speech calling him “the finest, the most delicate human being” he’d ever met.
Bjørnson also wrote what was possibly one of the first publications in Norway explicitly discussing someone’s queerness. It was the life story of one of his friends, a gay man called Ivar Bye, who died in 1863. At his friend's death bed, Bjørnson promised himself that he would tell his friend’s story when the time was right, and he did exactly that years later, in 1894. It is known as one of his most touching stories, about a boy who fell in love and took the blame for a crime for his beloved, and then led a long life where his most important actions were to help others and do good deeds.
Bjørnson married Karoline Reimers in 1858 when he was 26 years old, and they stayed married until he died. He was not, however, known for his faithfulness, and he had several lovers throughout his life. Among them were the Danish actress Magda von Dolcke and the pianist Erika Nissen.
And here we feel the need to mention that history is a flawed science. It’s flawed in the way that information gets lost, and unless written down or passed on in any way - and even if it is - there is no entirely certain way of preserving it. This causes history too often become a field of guessing and assuming, using the pieces that have been saved through the years. Though it can be accurate, a perfectly complete picture of any event can never be made, and no complete portraits can ever be put together. History is also biased, often silencing queer stories and preferring the heterosexual narratives. So, although all of Bjørnson’s lovers that are known today were women, we feel the need to mention that there is a possibility that he had queer lovers, and that this knowledge is simply lost in time or repressed.
In the end, there is no proof of any sexual relationships between Bjørnson and any of the men he surrounded himself with, yet the letters exchanged and quoted here in this article tell us of strong romantic feelings. And while we in this project do not wish to assume anyone’s identity, what we can do is use modern terms to try to understand history. By applying modern understanding of different kinds of attraction, we can guess that Bjørnson, from his letters and the life he led, was biromantic and thus romantically attracted to more than one gender.
While many articles were written about this side of Bjørnson’s life and the letters previously mentioned here tell us how he and the men in question are merely platonic, and that the declarations of love are simply because of strong friendships and unafraid masculinity, it can’t be denied that Bjørnson loved the men in his life strongly, fiercely and unafraid. This passion he also put to use in fighting against the oppression caused by the law. Sadly, he didn’t succeed, and homosexuality was not legalized in Norway until 1972.
However, we can say that, could he see the queer community today, being proud and open and supportive of each other, he would be so incredibly proud and would work to push us even further forward.