Lesbian couple’s heroic actions saved 40 teens during Norway massacre. Has the media ignored them because they’re lesbians?

Posted on 03 Aug 2011 at 11:33am

Unless you have been hiding under a big ol’ rock somewhere since July 22, you probably know who Anders Behring Breivik is. He is the Norwegian right-wing extremist who bombed a Norwegian government building in Oslo, killing eight people, and then that same day headed over to Utoya where he massacred 69 people — mostly teens — attending the Norwegian Labor Party’s Workers Youth League camp there.

Toril Hansen and Hege Dalen

Breivik has since described the attacks as a necessary tactic in a war against a Muslim invasion of Europe.

You’ve probably heard of him. But have you heard of Toril Hansen and Hege Dalen? They are the married lesbian couple who were camping across the lake from Utoyan, eating their dinner, when Breivik opened fire on the young people there. When the women heard the gunshots and saw the screaming teenagers running into the lake to escape, they jumped into their boat and motored straight into the line of fire to try and rescue the young people. It was a small boat, so the couple made four trips into the danger zone, to pull the fleeing teenagers from the water or pick them up from the shore.

Other people camping in that same area, also rushed to their boats to help rescue the teens. European news site The Independent — which by the way reported on Hansen and Dalen, referring to them simply as a couple, including the information that they are a lesbian couple but not making any big deal about it — pointed out that the campers rescued a total of about 150 teenagers fleeing the shooter that day.

Hansen and Dalen rescued 40 teenagers during the shooting, even though Breivik was shooting at them and their boat, too, actually hitting the boat several times.

Hansen and Dalen are heroes, but you may not have heard anything about them, because most of the press hasn’t been reporting on their story. And some media outlets in Europe are wondering if that’s because they are, first of all, women, and secondly, lesbians.

(The Huffington Post and several U.S. LGBT blogs and news sites have been reporting on the couple, by the way.)

Pink News, an LGBT news site in the United Kingdom ran this story that briefly outlines the couple’s actions and then talks about the lack of media coverage. Mail Online, another U.K. news site, ran this similar report. The articles on both sites garnered plenty of comments along the lines, “These women are heroes, but why do you have to focus on their sexual orientation?”

The International Business Times also ran a report about Hansen and Dalen that questioned the lack of media coverage of their heroism. The first — and at the time I write this, only — commenter there pointed out that the women are responsible for rescuing about 10 percent of the 423 survivors, asking how such an “amazing” story has been overlooked by the media.

But this report in The Guardian, yet another U.K.-based news site, asks the questions most pointedly. Why have we hardly heard of Hansen and Dalen, the Guardian asks, then offers three possible — probable? — reasons:

1. They are women, and “A lot of the press like their tales of heroism to fit standard narratives, in which men protect and women nurture.”

2. Hansen and Dalen are lesbians, and “In television narratives, the few heroines we are allowed to see are always heterosexual; even when they are allowed to be competent, and wear sensible action-adventure outfits, they always end up melting into some man’s arms in the end. Mainstream culture does not like the idea of lesbians being people who would put themselves in danger to save teenagers, probably heterosexual teenagers, that they have never met. We are far more used to lesbian couples, in very special issue-driven episodes, being in danger, and having to be rescued themselves.”

And 3. Hansen and Dalen are married, and “you can just imagine news editors in Washington worrying that, if they pushed the story, they would be accused of promoting ‘the gay agenda.’”

The Guardian also takes to task America’s “right-wing pundits” for seeming to approve Breivik’s goals if not his tactics. As evidence, the article includes a link to this separate Guardian report about “U.S. broadcaster and Tea Party favorite” Glenn Beck, who after the massacre said on his syndicated radio show, “There was a shooting at a political camp, which sounds a little like the Hitler youth, or, whatever. I mean, who does a camp for kids that’s all about politics. Disturbing.”

The Guardian goes on to note that Beck’s supporters in the Tea Party might have been surprised by his comment since the “anti-tax, anti-immigration movement has been holding summer camps in states including Florida and Missouri where children have been taught a curriculum based on God, the U.S. constitution and ‘the defence of economic liberty.’”

Obviously, you can see from the links included in this post that the story of Hansen and Dalen and their heroism is no longer being ignored by the media, at least not the media in Europe. I haven’t seen anything here stateside about it yet. And yes, I would like to see a story more about these two women and less about the “controversy” over their story being ignored. And yes again, I agree with many of those commenting on the referenced articles that the story is their heroism, not their sexual orientation.

But as one of those commenting on the Guardian report noted, what’s important is whether their orientation and/or their marital status and/or their gender led to their story being ignored by the big media folks. And it is quite likely that if it had been an LGBT person doing the killing every report on the tragedy would have made a big deal about that.

Here at Dallas Voice, when we report on stories like this, we deliberately note that the person — whatever they did — is L, G, B or T, because that is the focus of our newspaper and website. We are an LGBT news outlet, and noting those things explains why we cover the stories we do. And the reason we exist is because mainstream media outlets have historically ignored news about our LGBT community, and when they did report on our community, those reports were slanted — and not in a good way.

That’s changing, more slowly in some places and with some media outlets than others. But cases like the story of Hansen and Dalen and the media response to them are, I think, very clear indicators that we have a long way left to go.

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