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Bjørnstjerne Martinius Bjørnson (8 December 1832 – 26 April 1910) was a Norwegian writer who received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature "as a tribute to his noble, magnificent and versatile poetry, which has always been distinguished by both the freshness of its inspiration and the rare purity of its spirit", becoming the first Norwegian Nobel laureate. Bjørnson is considered to be one of The Four Greats (De Fire Store) among Norwegian writers, the others being Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, and Alexander Kielland. Bjørnson is also celebrated for his lyrics to the Norwegian National Anthem, "Ja, vi elsker dette landet".
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 (1824–1863), a Norwegian actor and dresser, who died in 1863. Bye had been so in love with an older friend that he went to prison for him. Bjørnson felt sorry for the former convict and took care of him. In the fall of 1857, violonist and composer Ole Bull asked Bjørnson to become artistic leader of Det Norske Theater [The Norwegian Theater] in Bergen. Bjørnson accepted the offer and sent money to Ivar Bye, asking him to follow. Bye died in 1863, only 39 years of age, while Bjørnson was visiting Bergen. His death was made public by Bjørnson and another friend. At Bye's deathbed, Bjørnson promised himself to one day tell the full story of Bye's life. However, because of the theme, Bjørnson had to wait. In 1894 Bjørnson finally published the story Ivar Bye, a portrait of the beautiful man whose mouth could
"[smile] erotically with a gleam of splendid teeth in a wide circle. These grey eyes and the mouth served him well, ceaselessly conquering men and women, young and old. But quietly. [...] they noted his handsome gait, as they felt its pleasant rhythm. Never had anyone anywhere seen him in the foreground: but where he caught their eye, he attracted the finest of natures."
Bjørnson wrote a poem for Ivar Bye in 1861, Alone and repentant, which begins as follows
A friend I possess, whose whispers just said,
"God's peace!" to my night-watching mind.
When daylight is gone and darkness brings dread,
He ever the way can find.
(translation by Arthur Hubell Palmer, 1915)
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