Drammen HK handball star Ola Hoftun Lillelien (left) and his boyfriend, Jonathan Hoiland, connected on Tinder two years ago. | Image via Ola Hoftun Lillelien

Seeing a Pride rainbow flag flying at his school would have meant the world to the young Ola Hoftun Lillelien.

Growing up in the small town of Svelvik in Norway, an hour from the capital Oslo, he never saw any symbol back then that “the boy who loved handball” — as he put it in an Instagram post — would one day feel safe to say he was gay.

The 24-year-old plays as a right wing for one of the country’s top clubs, Drammen HK. He’s also a team captain and recently signed a three-year contract extension.

Handball is a fast-paced sport, hugely popular on the European continent, and always guaranteed to pick up new fans worldwide in an Olympic year.

“I’m so lucky that I’m in a really good team,” Lillelien tells Outsports. “I have my best friends around me every day. We’re really close.”

He came out publicly as gay a little over two years ago — it’s another of his pinned Insta posts.

He wrote at the time: “I hope today’s society has come so far that boys and girls don’t have to feel the fear of not being accepted for who they are.

“As an athlete, I’ve only felt warmth, joy and togetherness, and that’s what sport is all about.”

But although locker-room life and his on-court experiences have matched those expectations, he looks at the society around him and sees it sliding backwards.

It’s why Lillelien is working with the national branch of Amnesty to raise awareness of the need for Pride, through a “Love is a Human Right” rainbow wristband initiative.

Norway has been more progressive on LGBTQ rights than most other nations. In recent years, some schools have been known to fly rainbow flags in June.

In the municipality of Aalesund, however, this practice has just been banned.

Lillelien says: “The government there announced that local schools are not allowed to fly this flag, because that would put the principals in a ‘difficult situation.’

“It really made me emotional because I have myself been in the closet and I know a lot of people have been struggling with that and with being gay. We know what we needed when we were kids.”

Pressure was coming from a vocal minority of parents who oppose Pride and who made it clear they were prepared to withdraw their children from classes if they didn’t get their way. Lillelien felt he had to use his platform as an athlete to say something.

“I get a lot of messages from young boys and girls, and also adults,” he says. “So I have to stand up for this.

“I can’t sit here, with all these feelings and all these stories that people are telling me.”

He spoke out again via Instagram, asking “should I tell you what is difficult?” He listed 11 disheartening challenges that cause unease, shame and even fear in LGBTQ people.

From afar, Scandinavian countries can sometimes appear almost utopian on human rights but there is a growing backlash to visibility coming from within, insists Lillelien.

“They say ‘enough pride!’ and ‘you gays in Norway have all the rights, you have nothing to complain about — just shut your mouths and be happy.’

“I talk about this in the new Amnesty video. A lot of people recognize the feelings I wrote about.”

‘I was afraid for my life’

The timing of Pride this year coincides with the wait for a verdict in a trial that has brought back painful memories for the LGBTQ community.

Two summers ago, a mass shooting incident that began at an Oslo gay bar on the day before the capital’s annual Pride parade left two dead, 21 wounded and many others traumatized. The gunman, Zaniar Matapour, was arrested within minutes.

The “London Pub” on Pilestredet is the oldest gay bar in Oslo.

“2022 was ‘gay culture year’ in Norway, because it had been 50 years since it was made legal here,” says Lillelien. “Then this happened.

“I had said to my family when I came out, ‘don’t worry, I’m safe, I live in Norway, it’s 2022.’ But two months later, a guy attacked the gay bar and no one was safe anymore.”

The trial began in March and lasted for nine weeks. The defense says Matapour — an Iranian-born 44-year-old who has lived in Norway since the age of 11 — is insane and should not be jailed for terrorism. A verdict is not expected until July.

Lillelien, who works part-time at a refugee asylum center, has a better handle than most on the arguments in this case, partly because he has a degree in psychology. Immediately after the shooting, the police stated publicly that Matapour had been radicalized and was part of an extreme Islamist network.

“Many people went back in the closet,” recalls Lillelien, “and I was really scared too because I had been out there so much, in the news, talking and fighting for people who can’t fight for themselves.

“Suddenly I was afraid for my life. Those were some tough weeks and months. I was always reading the room, or looking over my shoulder, when I was walking outside.”

He references a statistic about there now being around 1,000 hate crime reports every year in Norway. “It’s a lot because if three people a day are going to the police, imagine how many people don’t feel able to make a report.”

Lillelien’s sources on legal matters are sure to be solid — his boyfriend, Jonathan, is a trainee lawyer.

They connected on Tinder before the handball star came out publicly and as with most couples, sharing moments together via social media comes naturally.

However, showing happiness as a high-profile out couple also means they get targeted with anti-gay comments online. Increasingly, says Lillelien, these reference the fact that two men in a loving relationship cannot start a family without surrogacy or adopting.

“It’s like I’m worthless for them because they feel the only reason humans are here on the planet is to make new generations.”

Despite this, they would love to raise children together — but the high costs involved have made that dream unaffordable, for now at least.

Stars and spirit

The situation demonstrates how there is still so much education work that needs to be done and that’s where sport can make a difference, says Lillelien.

He was encouraged by the recent story in his homeland of Bodo/Glimt footballer Patrick Berg calling out a homophobic fan in the stands, mid-game.

One of the biggest names in world soccer, Erling Haaland, is also Norwegian — what could a star name like the Manchester City striker achieve in terms of being an ally? Would a simple message for Pride from someone like him help much?

“Yeah, he’s a big idol for a lot of kids — and kids can be brutal to each other. So I think that would be great, if one of the biggest idols in every sport was doing that.

“But I also think we should work on this the whole year. June is Pride but it’s also the month when I’m feeling more afraid.

“So let’s have more courses for coaches and teams, so that it’s happening every month of the year, not just in June.”

The Norwegian handball federation is marking Pride on social media but there is no suggestion that the international governing body, the IHF, will be showing support for LGBTQ people any time soon.

Lillelien agrees that is disappointing. “We should be saying to everyone that wherever and whoever you are, you’re welcome here, and that sports should be really healthy for you.

“It’s important that everyone is feeling included because the power of our sport is in that team spirit.

“I want young athletes to feel the same as I do, in my team. I want them to feel that power for themselves.”