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Living as an LGBTQ+ Expat in Denmark

Navigating acceptance and change.

Photograph: Pexels

Text: Nanna Hauch

When I proposed the idea of writing about living as an LGBTQ+ expat in Denmark to my editor, little did I know that I was embarking on a research journey that would expand my knowledge of the mental strain of living as a minority expat.

My initial assumption was that Denmark, with its liberal mindset and progressive legislation, would be a utopia for LGBTQ+ individuals. However, as I delved deeper into the topic, my preconceptions of Denmark as a liberal country where LGBTQ+ expats would automatically thrive were challenged. Even if Denmark provides a high degree of rights and acceptance to sexual minorities relative to other countries, how much did I truly understand about the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals, regardless of their nationality and residential status?

As a family and couple therapist who sees expats in my clinic and conducts workshops on diversity, culture shock, inclusion, and emotional agility, I know the hidden costs of global mobility. Expats often struggle with mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression, and face higher divorce rates.

But what about the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ+ expats?

Before diving into the research, I sought insights from my friend Benjamin Schenkel, an American and LGBTQ+ spokesperson living in Copenhagen. Benjamin emphasised that while Denmark might be welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, and he never felt the need to hide his sexual orientation at work, it was still something he preferred to downplay at first. "In my experience, being LGBTQ+ is not seen as a big deal. But this acceptance has a flip side: we can do better in Denmark at promoting active inclusion and not coast on passive tolerance."

In my quest for a deeper understanding, I encountered a thought-provoking podcast featuring Christian Graugaard, whose work with Project Sexus, an individual-based, prospective cohort study exploring sexual health among approximately 63.000 respondents, also exposes the divide in somatic and mental health between heterosexuals and the approximate 7% male and 10% female who define themselves as "non-heterosexual" individuals.

The research revealed alarming statistics related to loneliness, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of suicide among LGBTQ+ individuals. The study reports that 9% of heterosexual women, 26% of homo-sexual women and 45% of bi-sexual women have exposed themselves to self-harm. The study clearly indicates that the sense of not belonging to either group (bi-sexual women) is a heavy mental burden causing 45 % to self-harm. Adding what we know about the struggles for expats to feel a sense of belonging, there is a need to address these mental health issues for the LGBTQ+ expat community.

Moreover, the concept of minority stress, stemming from trans and homo negativity, adds to the burden faced by individuals who already grapple with cultural differences.

"The country's cultural values of acceptance and tolerance make it an attractive destination for LGBTQ+ expats."

Despite Denmark's reputation for progressiveness, it is crucial to recognise that the journey to full acceptance is not yet at its destination.

Conversations with Benjamin also illuminated the complexities of Denmark's liberal identity. While the country has historically supported the LGBTQ+ community, the recent push among companies to back such initiatives is not without pitfalls. For one, there is the risk of "pinkwashing", wherein companies superficially embrace LGBTQ+ causes. Less obvious and just as relevant in this discussion, Benjamin noted, was the feeling of minority pressure that can accompany these well-intended initiatives. Benjamin did not give much thought to his gay identity when he started his career in Denmark nine years ago.

For some members of the LGBTQ+ community in Denmark, an overlooked side-effect of increased focus in D&I is the pressure of attention a minority group like LGBTQ+ individuals can feel when organisations begin to market themselves as "pink organisations". The potential backlash is also significant, as we have recently seen with the Danish company Christian Hansen's attempt to balance their LGBTQ+ profile on the US market.

Although, compared to many other countries where homosexuality and gender fluidity are not accepted or even banned illegally, Denmark is not without challenges concerning the inclusion and acceptance of sexual minorities. In the Project Sexus study, One-fourth of middle-aged men expressed trans and homo-sexual negativity - one-fourth!

The country's cultural values of acceptance and tolerance make it an attractive destination for LGBTQ+ expats, but it also comes with navigating a society that may sometimes take its progressive reputation for granted.

We all have a responsibility to continue the conversation of navigating healthy inclusion – both at the workplace and in Danish society, and we must not take it for granted that because structural and legislative conditions are relatively better in Denmark than in many other countries where LGBTQ+ individuals experience prejudices, that there is not work to be done to increase mental health for LGBTQ+ expats living in Denmark.

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