Icelandic couple travelled to the USA to spend christmas with family members living there but their trip was suddenly interrupted by the police at the start of the last leg of the trip. It suddenly seemed like they were living one of those indie christmas travel movies in real-time and serious social issues were revealed.

James McDaniel, who recently received Icelandic citizenship, wrote about the experience and gave us permission to publish the story here. His partner Hafsteinn Himinljómi Regínuson is a well known in Iceland as the dragqueen Ragna Rök. Their friends followed this story over the christmas holidays through Facebook statuses and messages. Many were shocked as Icelanders don‘t all realize just how good the situation is in Iceland compared to most other countries. James added some more thought after receiving feedback, especially after one of the Icelandic newspapers ran a short story on the incident.

This is a story that is food for thought for everyone and here it is in James‘ own words:

On board the train
On board the train 

December 24th 2017

Gleðileg jól!

As I write this, I am on the Amtrak crescent line moving increasingly south of the Mason-Dixon Line on my way to Alabama for Christmas. My boyfriend Haffi is asleep next to me. And I will go ahead and say we didn’t plan this strange overnight train journey to the deep south, but as has often been the case in my short young life, things have taken on a current of their own and in my own calm sensitive way, I have gone along with the flow. Please keep in mind that as I pen these words to the gentle sway of the train car, I am jetlagged and travel weary. 

I am deeply proud and honoured to announce that on the morning of October 28th, 2017 - the morning of a very important election to elect a new government of Iceland - I was awarded citizenship. Yes, I have now entered the ranks of the proud and mildly confused dual-citizens. How much American am I? How much Icelandic? The answers change day to day, but I was so delighted to cast my vote for the first time in my new country. 
Also, I have finished my first semester of Icelandic language at the University of Iceland. And very glad to get away from declensions and the nightmare that is Icelandic grammar. And here I thought Mandarin was hard.

It is the early hours of Christmas Eve, and how did an Alabamanian-Icelandic greenhouse worker and his Icelandic Drag-queen barista boyfriend end up on an train from DC to Alabama? Well, to be straightforward, an unfortunate mix of what can best be described as homophobia that led to a large outpouring of Christmas kindness. Haffi and I actually arrived from Iceland a few days ago on Wow air. Had a pretty uneventful time going through immigration, this is Haffi’s very first trip to the US, and so he went through the normal examinations, having his fingerprints taken by some sort of scanning device, answering some questions. Then after reclaiming our baggage, and in retrospect making the mistake of packing our medicines, extra US power cables, all our clothes, etc in our check luggage, we dropped it off with the next leg of our trip which was supposed to be a short flight from Baltimore to Atlanta, where we would meet my older brother and mom at the airport. We made our way through a long holiday security line and ended up having a light dinner on the other side. Haffi couldn’t find the smoking area, if there was one (no one we asked could confirm), so he left the airport to take a smoke break, before making his way back through security a second time.

The following is my initially reaction to what happened next after we had been boarded and seated on our flight, as posted a few hours after the incident that had us removed (peacefully thank goodness) from the plane:


December 22nd 2017

“So. I wanted to post a short status update for our friends and family back in Iceland as well as in the states. Haffi and I are currently in Baltimore at a hotel near the airport. Yesterday we had dinner at the airport and did some shopping. We boarded our flight to Atlanta on time and were getting cozy, glad to be on the last leg of our trip. My older brother and mom were at the airport in Atlanta to meet us and I was so excited to be back in the states to see my family, especially since I have not seen my father or younger brother in two years. Then, while we were sitting in our seats on the plane three police officers came onto the plane and told the two of us we had to leave immediately. They wouldn't tell us why. Then they started saying Haffi had thrown stuff at the flight attendants. We tried to ask them what they were talking about as it seemed they must have got us mixed up with someone else. They said if we didn't leave they would take Haffi away in handcuffs. It was unclear why they were targeting him and not me. It is still unclear why. They took us off the plane. Haffi started to cry, holding his hands up to his face. They told me that if he didn't calm down he would be arrested. Somehow, my survival instincts kicked in and I was able to talk them down and get the two of us out of the airport without him being taken away. They told me I could leave on the flight, but ethically there is no logical reason to abandon your partner three days before Christmas in a foreign country to him. It took us a long time to find a bus, not having wifi or cellphone service, to a hotel that had a room available.
And so here we are for the night, in a hotel, finally connected to paid wifi. We will sort this out, but I just feel so ashamed that this is my boyfriends first experience in the USA. You know the story where they say "First they came for the ____, but I wasn't a _____. Then they came for...." Well, now I know what that feels like. You read the news about how crazy things are under the current administration, but you feel a distance from it and you don't think it will impact you, but then when it does... I don't know what else to say. We are exhausted, but we are currently safe and will update everyone as more information becomes available. Thanks and keep us in your thoughts.” 

I have been briefly in touch with Southwest today via Twitter, but since they are now offering up a different explanation than the one we were originally given, and when I presented with them my fear of homophobic behavior they did not take the opportunity to deny it, I can only go with my gut feeling as to the way we were treated as well as the only significant factor that marked us out as being different or other from our fellow passengers, our respectful but open hand holding as well as a shared kiss and Haffi leaning on my shoulder once we were seated. These are all things that are common for any couple straight or gay in Iceland, and I am feeling now that I have been taking them for granted. In my correspondence with Southwest, they would not say which specific behavior was deemed offensive, but they did use that phrase that Haffi was acting in a offensive or disrespectful manner. Later they would change it to saying both of us were removed for offensive behavior. Nothing about this situation adds up for us, but in the day afterward we have received such a large outpouring of support and love from friends and family wide and far. When something bad happens to people you love, especially when it is completely out of your power to change it, you use what power and voice you do have to advocate and support those in need. And we are deeply appreciative and thankful for all those that have offered us help and kindness on the rest of our journey so far.

We were able to get a couple of seats on a nearly sold out 18 hour train ride from DC to Birmingham. While I can’t say I would choose to sleep in a train chair one day before Christmas, I am mostly just glad we are safe and going to get to see my family in a few hours finally. 

Today we spent the day exploring DC, walking by the Capitol Building, visiting the National Botanic Gardens, as well as the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian (their words not ours). And we were also able to meet up with Haffi’s friend who lives in DC, who is also named James. He invited us to his house and gave us food (including some Icelandic Kúlusúkk lakkrís and Brennivín from his recent trip to our island that made both Haffi and I feel much better), and even gave us some new clothing for the last leg of our trip! He was so kind and gracious enough to pay for our cab-ride from his apartment back to the train station. 

I feel like my view of the US, my homeland, has shifted. We have all been inundated with terrifying news from this administration since before it even started, but most of the time, especially from Iceland, it just feels like a distant drama. But now I think I see how much fascist, racist, misogynistic, transphobic and homophobic behavior in the US Presidency emboldens those same behaviors at all levels. And to be fair, it is possible this is not a homophobic event, but their unwillingness to tell me it was not homophobic from the corporate level lets me know there is a disconnect between what happened locally on that plane to us and what information was available to the corporate representative that I spoke to. It is a special time of year for many people around the world of all faiths, non-faiths, creeds and cultural traditions, and I have always been one to give others the benefit of the doubt, but I also have an obligation and desire to speak the truth and highlight injustice.

But I can tell you this, as we sat outside of the airport trying to collect ourselves having been followed to the door by the three officers - and to be fair they never laid a hand on us as we were able to maintain calm and composure as best as was possible under these circumstances out of fear (fear of physical assault as we have all by now seen on US airplanes especially of international travelers), and as we left the plane under duress but without having to be forced off, and as it was Southwest that asked us to be removed and not the officers just following their cruel orders - I can say this, I will never forget the sound of fear, humiliation, and sadness in Haffi’s voice as he cried in my arms outside the terminal in the sticky chill Maryland air, as he begged me to get us back to Iceland, to get us home. I will never forget that sense of despair in his eyes and my powerlessness to stop it. 

I’m not an attention seeker and I am definitely not a thrill seeker, otherwise I wouldn’t live in a remote greenhouse in rural Iceland. But it's traumatizing life events that lead people like me to remove themselves from society, and this latest venture out of the wilds has only served to reinforce that. 

I do want to deeply thank the people at the Marriott Baltimore Airport Hotel that took us in in the middle of the night and provided us with a very comfortable and quiet room at a discount especially at one of their busiest and stressful time for travelers and workers alike. Its these small acts of kindness and generosity that can help ground you and heal you after such a recent trauma. And I also want to deeply thank all the friends and family from all over the globe but especially the US and Iceland who have messaged me and help validate our experience that this is not normal. This is not right. As well as showered us with love and support. 

We have calmed our nerves for now and are just really looking forward to being at my parent’s house in Birmingham, focus on enjoying Christmas with family before we can even completely process or decide what to do next about this incident. While it's definitely a different change of pace to be living one of those indie christmas travel movies in real-time, I think we are about ready to wrap this one up. And for anyone else traveling this holiday season, may you have safe and uneventful journeys, and remember a calm trip even if delayed is a lucky gift. 

May you find joy and happiness in the coming new year,
James McDaniel

[Edit: This is an open letter I wrote early this morning detailing my current reaction and feelings. It is my own writing and my thoughts and feelings of the past few days, and only represents my own view.]


 View from the train
View from the train


December 30th 2017 - Afterthoughts and back story

I made a choice when we decided to talk to the media that I wouldn’t reply directly to anyone’s comments. Here though should be a relatively safe space for a bisexual man like myself to give his opinion. And that is just it, its my opinion. The point of us talking to the media was never for attention or pity, but as a warning, in hope that this doesn’t happen to anyone else. Or at least if you go to the US, to be cautious or at least known what you are getting into.

I grew up in Alabama. I didn’t meet an openly gay man until I was 18 and I didn’t even really understand the concept of homosexuality until then, I just felt confused that I found men and women attractive sexually, and had been told by the church and society that if I had these thoughts it was an unholy evil. I spent a lot of time and effort to just get to the point that I knew deep down I was natural and normal.

I’ve only traveled to about 18 countries, but this was the first time I have been asked to leave a plane. Of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken, this was the first and only time I have traveled back home in an openly gay relationship with a same sex partner. This is the first time I dared not hide my sexuality as I traveled home. And now I’m realizing that it was a mistake to think we would be safe.

I don’t think some of us Icelanders really understand how violent the USA is. And even now, I have to remind myself that this is a country that routinely kills unarmed black children in the street for no reason other than that they were there. I mean, this year alone in 2017, there have been 976 people shot and killed by police alone, including one here in my hometown of Birmingham two days ago while Haffi and I slept only a few miles away ( )

When I was in high school in Alabama, a student was stabbed to death in the hallways outside of a class I was in. Later in high school, my first wife died of cancer - it took about ten years for her family to pay off the medical bills from the hospital and treatment even though they had insurance. So it's not like I’m unfamiliar or blind to the cruelty that is woven into the fabric of American society. It's easy to say that millions of people lead normal lives and have a good experience, but then the one day you wake up and something bad does happen to you. Obviously, it makes you look at things differently. 

That being said, I’ve also lived and worked in China and Iceland. The first time I was in China at 17, I witnessed a police officers beating a student. I was with some Chinese friends and they shielded my eyes and made me leave the area immediately. They later told me if the police saw that a foreigner had witnessed it, it would be much worse for the student in the long run. The reason for the beating? There are no legitimate reasons for police officers to beat people. The student was kneeling in a public park begging for tuition money. The point is, I have the capacity to recognize the abuse of state power. And it's really not that hard to recognize, once you’ve seen it before. People with unchecked power tend to abuse it. People in Iceland have never had unchecked power really, we wouldn’t stand for it. And I hope we keep it that way.

Since the last US election, we have basically seen the administration greenlight discrimination at every level. When you have someone in the highest position of power, the US presidency, openly say that it's okay to be misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, to support fascists - he’s not doing this in a vacuum, but it actually empowers people to behave however they want. And when these people are in power, they now have permission to abuse it.

And I do want to emphasize that not all Americans are violent, we have seen such love and support from friends and family since coming here, it really amazes me. In DC, an american friend of Haffi’s even gave us a change of shirt and socks for our 22 hour train ride to Alabama, since we were separated from our luggage by the airline. But I can hear the fear at the deterioration of US society every time I have these conversations here. Its not getting better, it's getting worse. And this is something Icelanders who travel here need to keep in mind. I haven’t been back to the US in two years, and I can visibly feel it getting less safe, less open, more authoritarian. But keep in mind there are many americans that are dedicating their lives here to try and stop it from getting worse, so let's try to be on their side.

On my new country - I have experienced a different form of freedom in the public sphere in Iceland than anywhere I have ever lived. The first time I held a man’s hand in public in Reykjavík, I was visibly scared. My eyes were looking around. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure we weren’t being followed. But the Icelander I was with almost thought it was funny, telling me not to worry that I was safe here. It took me about a good year to get over my fear, to feel comfortable holding my partner’s hand or kissing on a street corner. It is a safe thing to do in Icelandic society. Are there homophobes in Iceland? Of course. Are they going to murder you in your sleep? So far, no.

I’ve seen a few people saying that maybe this wasn’t homophobic, maybe let's wait and hear what the airline has to say. And we should hear what they have to say, but it's not my place to speak for them, I can only speak for myself. I have contacted them, but there is such a disconnect between the somewhat friendly but ultimately meaningless and cold corporate words that come from their customer service desk versus what the people with actual power did to us that day. I mean the customer service rep I chatted with didn’t even realize we hadn’t made it to Birmingham on their airline. So obviously, it will take them more time to sort through things at the corporate level, but in the meantime our trip was already disrupted and the damage is done. And to attempt to be fair, although I have no reason to be fair or unbiased in a case so close to my heart and a man I love, people at the corporate level at Southwest at least want to have the appearance that their company is progressive enough, just enough so that they don’t alienate older conservative clientele, while still attracting younger progressive customers. And you can read for yourself their track record. 

So I think it is important to ask yourself, who was the victim in this situation. Who felt hurt and who is suffering trauma and confusion in the aftermath. Did they make us leave a situation because other people were uncomfortable? Who was made uncomfortable and why? And who is owed an explanation for their behavior?

There is an objective truth in any situation, but in an event that happens rapidly, you must depend on the narrative of those who were involved. This has been the case throughout history, and specifically for the LGBTQAI+ communities, we have never been in a position of power to enforce belief in stories about our lives, our persecution, and our own personal traumas. We are rarely in a position of power to do anything. And especially now, we have to depend on the charity of straight cis people who compose the majority of society. Those who own the media, who own most corporations, all governments, etc.

And so it is important to consider whose narrative you chose to support. Do you support the corporation who has nothing to lose, who has the power, and the money? Do you only listen to the armed officers of the state called in by the corporation? Or do you want to take a chance, and roll the dice to actually listen to how gay people experience their own trauma, how we perceive our own life and experience? That's a choice you have to make. 

So when I see my fellow Icelanders question my perception of what happened to me and Haffi, I can’t help but cringe and feel disappointed at their naivete. If you only knew how good you have it. 

This is a list that includes most of the known homophobic murders in the USA within my lifetime. These people no longer have a voice to defend themselves. They weren’t asking for it and they come from all walks of life. Their only crime was loving each other openly. So I’d be happy to talk to anyone and discuss things further once you have taken the time to familiarize yourself with the actual fear of being homosexual in the USA, after you read their names: History of violence against LGBT people in the United States

And if you still feel you have a vested interest in discussing any of this further, I won’t be available at all to do it online, but I would be happy to set up a time for coffee when we are back and safe in Reykjavík.

Finally home
Finally home

Introtext by Pall Gudjonsson