FEATURE: Come Out, Come Out

By on May 17, 2016

An Icelandic drag queen inspires a Jackson Hole identity check.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sitting in front of the mirror, Málfriður Markan, Neskaupstaður’s most eccentric resident, places the finishing touches on her makeup and pops her lips. She arranges her breasts, steps into her heels, and walks out into the front yard. The six-foot-tall elderly widow steps over to her garden, and begins her morning duties. A car drives by her yard and nearly veers off the road at the sight of her.

Dressed in her mini skirt and flamboyant top, Frú (Mrs.) Markan is certainly a sight to behold in this little town. And her keeper, Hákon Guðröðarson knows it full well. “I’ve told the hospital that I want 15 percent of all head injuries for all the car crashes she’s caused,” he said.

Frú Markan is Hákon’s drag persona. She’s a big-hearted grandmother with a penchant for cake decorating and a mouth like a sailor. And when she walks the streets in this quiet Icelandic town of 1,500 people, she stands out like a sore thumb.

But this isn’t just an act for entertainment. Hákon’s grandmother was the puppeteer of his childhood; she introduced and encouraged everything from knitting to baking to offering inappropriate sex advice to unwilling ears. And that grandmotherly part of Hákon is just as alive as his boyish masculinity.

Frú Markan fascinated me. I’d heard stories of her exploits, but didn’t get a chance to meet her until very recently, when she showed up at my work while I was slicing up racks of lamb. Utterly star struck, I pulled off my gloves and apron, and sat the celebrity down to learn about her life.

That interview quickly transformed into two interviews with two completely different people. I met the troublesome socialite Frú Markan as she sipped away, chin high, at a mojito. And then, without changing the venue or subject, I met Hákon, 28, a hotel manager, who offered his own perspective.

Seeing this transformation, I was enthralled. How could a well-to-do member of the community like Hákon get away with dressing like a woman in such a tiny Icelandic town? Surely there would be nasty whispers and a sense of bafflement among the town’s more conservative citizens. After conversing for an hour, the dialogue got me wondering if a character like Frú Markan could ever survive 3,700-plus miles away in Jackson Hole, Wyoming—my hometown.

What I learned from the two of them sparked questions about personal identity. What parts of ourselves do we keep hidden from others? And does the friendly community of Jackson Hole have a strong enough appetite for people like Frú and some of the more colorful members of the LGBT community?

The Socialite

Hákon’s family is fairly well known around town thanks to their deep roots in the community. Hákon himself is a born-and-raised Neskaupstaður native. After spending some time in Reykjavík, as well as abroad, he returned home to start up the Hildibrand Hotel with his family. The Hildibrand is a high-end apartment hotel with a regionally renowned restaurant, and hosts thousands of tourists each year. And yet, few of those tourists have any idea that this ambitious Icelandic entrepreneur possesses a grandmotherly drag persona.

[Frú Markan] is a channel for me because I have a masculine boyishness about me, and I also have this old lady inside,” Hákon said. “I always loved baking and doing things guys my age would not be thinking about. For a two-year period, I was almost as much her as I was me. And at some points I was way more her than I was me. I took her to some extremes and went morning until night without breaking character. I felt like I released a demon.”

Hákon’s social life in Reykjavík was far more active, as was Frú Markan’s.

“She gets invited to so many cooler parties than me,” he said. “She would have her own weekends. Whatever she would do, she would just do. And way different men would flirt with her.”

He explained that despite Frú Markan being “so fucking unsexy,” men of all types would gravitate towards her, some men who, Hákon said he would have no chance with. There were plenty of guys with “mommy issues” and others who just wanted to let loose around her. Seeing Hákon being so comfortable in his drag persona in a bar or club made strangers flock towards him. Restraint or discomfort was thrown to the wind.

“People thought, ‘I can go even further and express myself even further. I can share secrets with her that are forgotten by Monday,’” he said. “She’s definitely seen her fair share of celebrity titties.”

When Hákon returned to Neskaupstaður, Frú Markan was also yanked away from her life as a socialite. But Hákon said she’s still the queen of the party even in rural Iceland. She now appears at various club gatherings and women’s parties, offering baking advice and sex tips to even the more older, traditional women of the area.

Gurri (Hákon’s father), Þóra (Hákon’s mom) and Hákon Guðröðarson.

Gurri (Hákon’s father), Þóra (Hákon’s mom) and Hákon Guðröðarson.

“I’ve been trying to teach her English,” Hákon said. “I’m really good at English, but she’s bad. Her vocabulary and mine are not the same. She speaks like an old Icelandic woman and can be very witty with sexual undertones. The ladies love her because she’s allowed to say things to women that I would never be allowed to say. Just now I was dirty-mouthing with women with an average age of 55, and they loved it.”

When I asked Hákon if he knew what other people in the town said about his dual life, he took a sip from his vaping pen and laughed through a cloud of smoke.

“I don’t give a fuck what people say about me,” he said. “Part of the drive, especially when I toured the country giving blowjob lessons, part of that was me trying to break out of this community. Separate yourself like a rebellion. The best review I ever got was from an old professor who said, ‘She’s exactly what the countryside needs. It’s the shock factor.’”

Hand in Hand

Jackson Hole’s community isn’t too far off from that of Neskaupstaður. While 10 thousand residents versus 1,500 may seem like a massive difference, a town like Neskaupstaður in Iceland is basically on the same scale as Jackson is to the rest of Wyoming. Everyone knows just about everyone, and there’s plenty of majestic beauty, tourism, and outdoor activities to go around.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if Jackson’s community culture was strong enough to support someone in the vein of Hákon and Frú Markan. To glean perspective on the current state of Jackson’s acceptance of the LGBT community, I turned to Jacksonites.

Former JH resident Anne Marie Wells identifies as queer, a word she describes as “all-encompassing not straight.” Even though she’s had relationships with men and women, she doesn’t identify with the words “lesbian” or “bisexual,” because she says they can be limiting.

She is an avid travel blogger and is currently planning out a month-long trip through Iceland that she will document and write about. Whether or not she’ll cross paths with Frú Markan on this adventure is uncertain. During her time in Jackson she regularly volunteered with the Conservation Alliance and Hole Food Rescue, as well as directed Riot Act, Inc.’s “The Vagina Monologues” in 2015.

As far as being openly queer in Jackson, she says that it’s a struggle. She believes that Jackson should be far more progressive than it currently is. “I’ve been harassed in the street while walking holding hands with a partner,” she said. “Most people are accepting or tolerant, but it can be nerve-wracking to not be sure if a prominent member of the community is accepting or not. Since the town is so small and connected, if someone or some group is anti-gay, you can feel like it will negatively impact your life.”

Wells currently makes her home in Boulder, CO, but ventures up to Jackson often. But she says even in Colorado she worries about running into “skier bros” who are less than accepting of queer women.

“They try to seem accepting by saying things like ‘lesbians are so hot.’ That’s not accepting,” she said. “That is sexualizing my relationship for their pleasure. It’s gross and uncomfortable.”

Wells says that non-LGBT members of our community should be more open and outward with their support to make Jackson a gay-friendly place. “If someone says something homophobic or transphobic, don’t let it go to be polite,” she suggested. “We too need to be accepting of others’ identities and also accepting of change. It’ll help people be more open and help people who feel like they have to be closeted to protect themselves; instead they could maybe feel more confident to be who they are without reservation.”

Full Throttle

Ever the adventurer, Zoë Taylor is a queer trans woman who currently lives out of her car as a result of the Jackson housing crisis. She had the task of transitioning from male to female while living in a town famous for its “skier bro” culture, and, much like Hákon in Iceland, she didn’t let anyone’s perceptions get in the way of her happiness.

“At the beginning of my transition it was kind of difficult, as a lot of people, especially those outside of my core friend group knew me as the hyper-masculine guy I was struggling to portray when I moved here,” she said. “Dating is still next to impossible, but I don’t have any issues when I’m out and about, except from 90-day wonders that don’t know anything about me, and the occasional out-of-towner.”

Taylor believes that the town’s acceptance of her can be attributed to her athletic pursuits, which, like many Jackson locals, have a predominant hold on her daily life. She refused to tone down that side of her to fit a gender role stereotype.

Frú Markan is a source of inspiration to folks living in small towns that are struggling with their identities and issues of acceptance.

Frú Markan is a source of inspiration to folks living in small towns that are struggling with their identities and issues of acceptance.

“To anyone here in this place struggling to be yourself and live a life you desire, know that there are resources and kind people in Jackson,” she said. “When you encounter someone that treats you like a second- or third-class citizen, it’s simply fear that has a hold on them. Shine. Do not let anyone make you feel like you don’t belong as [a] part of this beautiful and complex community. Stand up for yourself and move forward in your truth.”

She also thinks that being true to yourself is the key to happiness, and having a good group of friends in Jackson was integral to her successful transition. She said it’s important to inform those close to you of your true self, no matter how hidden, and to not be afraid to lean on people when things get overwhelming.

Native Brew

James DuPont is one of few out and open LGBT members that was born and raised in Jackson. While his job with Epic Brewing, Utah’s first brewing company, has sent him to Raleigh, North Carolina, DuPont is now on a journey back to the Rocky Mountains. Like many Jackson natives, he’s an outdoorsman that loves skiing, climbing, hiking, and naturally, drinking beer. But growing up gay in Jackson certainly had its potholes, and his experiences at Jackson Hole High School were difficult, to say the least.

“In high school, I took drama classes, mainly hung out with girls, and was called gay for doing so,” he said. “Calling someone ‘gay,’ or saying, ‘don’t be such a fag’ was common slang among homies. Being raised Catholic did not help the situation either.”

DuPont ultimately decided he couldn’t come out as gay in Jackson because of the pressure he felt to be accepted by his peers. He said that one of the hardest experiences was having friends stand up for him when he was bullied.

“I felt terrible,” he admitted. “I felt as though I was lying to them because, at the time, I wasn’t out, or even sure if I was gay, and they were going out of their way to defend me. It happened enough that when it did, I lied, and would get pissed at whoever called me gay, or, my favorite: ‘that gay kid.’”

As a result, it wasn’t until after high school that DuPont was comfortable enough to make his sexuality public. When it happened, the support from his family and friends was overwhelmingly positive.

“Now when I am back home visiting family, I have no problem living my life openly because of this support,” he said. “I know now that even if I said I was gay [in high school], my friends would have still stood up for me and that’s all that matters.”

As far as the level of LGBT support in Jackson, DuPont thinks Jackson is in a good place, all things considered.

“Jackson is still a part of Wyoming, and I know many ideals held by some members of the community are less than progressive, but I have found there are far more individuals in Jackson who support equality and the LGBT community,” he said.

DuPont’s experience makes it clear that growing up gay in Wyoming, like in any conservative state, can have its levels of fear and uncertainty. But with such a strong support group at his back, the weight of having to hide his sexuality has been lifted.

“As my wonderful mother has told me on many occasions, ‘At the end of the day, it’s just you and your happiness, and that’s all that matters. Do not let someone else define your happiness,’” he said. “So many feel the need to define and point out one’s sexuality, but these people should realize there is more to that person than who they choose to love.”

Kook-sexual

Artistic powerhouse and Planet scribe Meg Daly identifies as bisexual and has had an admittedly positive experience living in Jackson Hole. Born and raised in Jackson, after stints living in San Francisco and Portland, she moved back to Jackson in 2007 with a blue-mowhawked female partner. She recalls being embraced by neighbors, family, and acquaintances. Today Daly lives with a male partner. “It’s been completely unproblematic for me to live my life openly in Jackson,” she said.

The LGBT community can be notorious for rolling eyes in the direction of bisexual individuals, and Daly has been accused of basking in “straight privilege.” But thanks to her friends in Jackson, she says she feels included and respected.

“LGBT friends here seem to accept that I’m kind of one of them,” she said. “Or maybe they simply acknowledge that I’m kind of a kook, which I am. Can I change my identification to kook-sexual? That’s what I’d really prefer.”

Overall, she’s confident that the Jackson community is welcoming to LGBT individuals, and that, in general, people are more accepting. In her eyes, LGBT people have nothing to fear and should feel unashamed to come out in this community.

“LGBT people have this wonderful opportunity to be leaders and models of being true to oneself, and being oneself in the world,” she said. “Because really, everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation has something they are hiding, something they feel ashamed about, something about themselves that they think makes them weird or unacceptable.”

Daly thinks that acceptance of sex as a whole is just as important as sexual identity, and disapproved of Christian abstinence advocate Shelly Donahue’s visit last month.

“When it comes to sex, Jackson in general is under siege by a moneyed group of evangelical wing-nuts who want to police everyone’s sex lives,” she said. “I think straight people are suffering as much as queer people in Jackson right now because of a hateful minority who would like us to feel ashamed of being sexual beings and ever having sex at all.”

The nationwide legalization of gay marriage in June 2015 was a step in the right direction, Daly believes, but she acknowledges the country still has many miles to go.

“Of course the next obvious step,” Daly said, “is to pass strong, thorough anti-discrimination laws so that LGBT people are protected at work and in life.”

Inequality State

Wyoming has had some trouble living up to its “Equality State” nickname in modern times. Once a territory famous for laying the groundwork for women’s voting rights, Wyoming is now considered to be the most conservative state in the Union, according to a February 2016 Gallup poll. When it comes to anti-discrimination rights, Wyoming lags behind the rest of the country on a variety of issues. And with the raincloud of Matthew Shepard’s 1998 murder in Laramie still looming, it’s no wonder why LGBT members are hesitant to come out into the open, even in a town as liberal as Jackson.

Frú Markan bestows the author with special advice and delicate company.

Frú Markan bestows the author with special advice and delicate company.

Last February, an anti-discrimination bill, Senate File 115, was shot down by state Republicans. The bill would have added the verbiage “sexual orientation or gender identity” to state laws that protect people regardless of their creed, race, age, pregnancy, disability, or otherwise. Wyoming is among 29 states that does not have laws designed to protect folks from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Currently, Cowboy State employers are free to discriminate against their LGBT employees, and landlords may freely choose to deny housing to LGBT renters. Hotel owners even have the ability to turn away paying LGBT guests seeking accommodation.

In 2009, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expand the 1969 federal hate crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The bill provides federal financial aid to law enforcement agencies to help cover the costs associated with the investigation and/or prosecution of a hate crime. However, if a state doesn’t recognize and thereby indict accused parties with hate crimes, the funding is less than helpful.

Today, Wyoming is one of five states without hate crime laws on the state level; the others are Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, and South Carolina. Locally, the Jackson Town Council passed a resolution in 2015 that condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity.

It’s clear that if Wyoming wants to live up to its state nickname and its state seal, which features a banner proclaiming “Equal Rights,” there is much that still needs to be done. Especially in light of the latest news—that Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and state school officials say they reject the idea of a new federal mandate handed down by President Barack Obama that would protect the rights of transgender students in school. 

However, if a town like Jackson, with all its influence, can set the standard for acceptance and equality, then perhaps one day the rest of Wyoming will follow suit.

Finishing Touches

Sitting in front of me sipping her mojito, Frú Markan batted her lashes behind her oversized glasses. Just being in the presence of someone as unabashed and open as Frú Markan was refreshing.

“What do you do with your life?” I asked.

“I’m an ambassador. A special ambassador,” she replied.

“Of what?”

“Of being special, dammit.”

Her quips and comments about life and how to please a man without compromising your womanhood had me rolling with laughter, and I knew the community, especially one as small as Neskaupstaður, was richer for having a character like Frú Markan around.

Frú Markan and I spoke for more than an hour, and by the end of the interview, as her heels clacked across the wooden floors of my apartment and out the front door, I was bewildered, inspired, utterly motivated to get the word out about this wonder of a human being. I went to the balcony to watch Frú Markan as she precariously wandered down the sidewalk. She passed a group of teenage boys, and for a moment I feared that they would poke fun at the bespectacled, boozy madam.

Góða kvöldið [Good evening],” Frú Markan sang.

“…kvöldið,” one boy replied, perplexed.

The boys glanced over their shoulders at her and then continued chatting away, unfazed.

She turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

Before departing, Frú Markan left me with these words of wisdom:

“Your hand is your best tool. Don’t let other people do something for you that you can do better,” she said with a wink.

Hákon also left me with some words to live by:

“Accept who you are before you allow other people to,” he said. “Do absolutely whatever you want to do. It’s OK to be way different. We are way bigger people than whoever we are in everyday normal life. Be that fun playful thing that lives inside you. It’s your creativity; it’s your outlook.

“And if people can’t accept you for all of you, you should give them none of you.” PJH

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Some Dirty Advice From Frú Markan

Every marriage should have two simple rules: 1.) The woman is always right. 2.) If she is not right, see rule number 1.

Don’t aspire to be anything less than what you’re worth. For example, I don’t aspire to be an elderly porn star. I aspire to have my own empire of elderly porn stars.

If you mess up a cake, don’t panic. Just mash it up with some instant pudding and make a new cake. Or just forget the cake and get drunk.

Men are very simple tools, but they’re impossible to sharpen.

Women are like diesel engines. Sometimes it can take us a while to get started, but when we’re heated up, we can run as long as you want us to so long as we’re lubricated.

Don’t make grand announcements. Follow your heart, show up somewhere, stay, leave in a hurry, but always remain mysterious.

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