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LGBT Outlets Praise Heroic Lesbian Couple in Norway; Mainstream Media Missed the Mark

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Media coverage was prevalent last week after news broke of the major role played by a lesbian couple from Norway during the massacre that took place in late July. Hege Dalen and Toril Hansen rescued 40 teenagers from a merciless murderer, but received very little coverage for their heroism until recently.

The couple gave just a brief interview to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, which was published on July 24. According to a translation by Talk About Equality, the women were camping across from the island of Utoya when the massacre broke out. They and other campers immediately climbed into boats and headed for the island, and managed to save 150 escapees who had run into the lake. Hege and Toril saved about 40 of them, making the trip four times in all, even as bullets hit the side of their boat.

After their feature in the Finnish paper, a small number of LGBT outlets in America subsequently picked up Hege and Toril’s story, including Towleroad on July 25 and the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News the next day. The blog Just Out also covered the story on July 26, saying, “We applaud Dalen and Hansen for their bravery and selfless action, which helped to save dozens of lives in the midst of the largest spree killing in known history.”

But the story was missing in larger, more mainstream news outlets. After the piece in Talk For Equality—which was released August 1—criticized the lack of coverage of Hege and Toril in publications that frequently profile other heroic stories, other outlets finally followed. The Atlantic Wire picked up the story on August 2 quoting Talk for Equality, as did the Huffington Post, reporting that the “lesbian couple’s Utoya Island rescue of 40 children” went “unnoticed by media.” “Some are calling the muted response from the international media an act of discrimination … Some authorities were quick to suggest the week-plus delay in coverage of the rescue was an indirect act of homophobia,” it reported, also suggesting that perhaps the couple had simply not spoken to many journalists.

The Telegraph printed a piece the same day, explaining that outlets like the New York Times, BBC, Yahoo! News, the Guardian, and the Independent all talked about other heroic acts by civilians during and after the massacre, but that this couple’s story was picked up only by “a few specialist blogs, a Finnish newspaper, and thousands of people on Twitter.” The writer, Tom Chivers, is skeptical that many liberal outlets would ignore the story, and suggests that maybe the couple just hadn’t interacted with the media. “I can’t imagine many reporters ignoring their story if they met them; indeed (no great improvement though this might be) the lesbian ‘angle’ might make it more appealing to a certain, more salacious brand of journalism,” he points out. The International Business Times printed a similar story quoting the Telegraph piece, as well as an Oslo-based author and journalist who agrees that it’s most likely that the couple has not spoken out much.

Still, an article on August 3 from the Guardian opposed this view. It criticized the media, calling it “a shame” that we didn’t hear about the story until almost a week later. It suggests that the story does not fit the standard heroic narrative because Hege and Toril are women, they are lesbians, and they are married. It argues that perhaps media were scared of being “accused of promoting 'the gay agenda,'” and states that the women “deserve their place in Norway’s heroic narrative.”

Whatever the reason for the delay in coverage, GLAAD applauds Hege and Toril’s heroism. We urge our constituents to continue to inform us of unique stories, defamatory language, or lack of coverage on important issues such as this one in the future.

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