Heroes of the Month: Toril Hansen and Hege Dalen

When an LGBT person is involved in a crime, whether as victim or suspect, attention focuses on that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. But when LGBTs do something heroic, a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” reigns, as if the good deeds would be tarnished somehow by an acknowledgement that the do-gooder is LGBT. Two cases in point illustrate this disconnect.

The Larry King trial is an example of the former. Larry King was the 15 year old gender non-conforming boy shot point blank in front of his classmates by 14 year-old Brandon McInerney. It would seem that the case for first-degree murder could not be more clear-cut or straightforward. Yet whenever you read about the trial, it is not McInerney’s acts, but Larry’s gender non-conformity that seem to be on trial. The gay panic defense apparently still holds sway with the public at large. We will soon see whether it holds sway with jurors.

The acts of Torill Hansen and Hege Dalen illustrates the tendency to keep LGBT heroism in the closet. Hansen and Dalen, a married Norwegian lesbian couple, rescued 40 young people from certain death at the hands of the gunman Anders Breivik while coming under fire themselves. Hansen and Dalen were scarcely mentioned in the mainstream U.S. press. Yet they displayed extraordinary bravery in a dramatic situation worthy of a made-for-TV movie.

The German website queer.de reports that Hansen and Dalen had been celebrating the 10th birthday of their daughter at a campsite on a nearby island when they heard shots and screams. Dalen recounted those moments:

We ran to the dock and could smell gunpowder. Then we heard horrifying screams. We saw many people swimming away from the island. In a split second, residents and campers threw themselves into boats.

Hansen and Dalen were among them. They managed to make five trips to the island. Hansen said:

The boat was on the brink of capsizing. It was awful to have to decide who to take. There were so many people in the water. I ask myself how many drowned.

On one trip, Hansen and Dalen landed directly on the island and rescued people who had been hiding in a cave. Even though they managed to save so many, their conscience is troubled by those they could not save.

Of course, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly why their story was not picked up by the mainstream media here in the U.S. One British commentator identifies three reasons for the neglect — a triple whammy as it were: (1) a reluctance to portray women as rescuers rather than the rescued; (2) an inability to view lesbians in particular as heroic; and (3) an unwillingness to deal with the issue of gay marriage. To sum it up: “married lesbian heroes would just have made … heads explode.”

I would add a general lack of interest in foreign affairs to the commentator’s list. But I think she is essentially correct. In a culture that is still caught up in vilifying and othering LGBT people, the heroic deeds of LGBTs will be downplayed and hidden.


Liz Newcomb is an attorney by day and committed LGBT activist by night and weekend. She has worked as a researcher at the Williams Institute. While in law school at UCLA, she was Articles Editor of the LGBT law journal. Liz lives in West Hollywood with her wife, Lynne. They are one of the 18,000 California same-sex couples who got married during the summer before proposition 8 passed. Liz has lived in California for over 20 years and brings a left coast perspective to AMERICAblog.

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