Same-sex marriage in Finland means standing up to Russia

Russia won’t like this. Cliff Gilmore, CC BY-NC-ND

Russia won’t like this. Cliff Gilmore, CC BY-NC-ND

Finland and Russia are next door neighbours and have a long shared history. But when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, the two countries are worlds apart.

Finland has often sought to placate Russia over the years by allowing it to influence internal politics, but it is now taking a bold step. Following a parliamentary vote in November 2014, it looks like same-sex marriage will soon be legal in Finland – whether its neighbour likes it or not.

The November vote overruled a decision made by the parliament’s legal affairs committee, which had rejected a citizen-backed drive to amend marriage legislation and make it more inclusive. An amended marriage act is now predicted to come into force in 2016. This would bring Finland up to date with its Nordic peers to the west.

Further east, Russia continues to take the opposite path. In June 2013, the Russian parliament voted unanimously (with one abstention) to approve a law that effectively criminalises any public presentation of homosexuality as normal or equal to heterosexuality that could conceivably be seen by minors.

The decision sparked international condemnation in the lead up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Paavo Arhinmäki, Finland’s minister for sport at the time, refused to attend the opening ceremony, citing concern over Russia’s human rights record. A few months earlier, he had made his feelings about Russia’s stance clear by waving a rainbow flag at the World Athletic Championships in Moscow.

The gap between these two countries on LGBT rights has implications not only for how Finland sees Russia, but also how it views itself. A veiled wariness of Russia persists in Finnish politics and society, and this now extends into concerns for Finland’s LGBT community.

Testing the boundaries

Credit: Itella Posti. Artwork: TOM OF FINLAND © 1979 Tom of Finland Foundation

Credit: Itella Posti. Artwork: TOM OF FINLAND © 1979 Tom of Finland Foundation

Lappeenranta, in south-eastern Finland, is one of Finland’s primary border towns with Russia. A significant part of the local economy is geared towards visitors from Russia, who cross the border looking for good deals on luxury items.

In September 2014, a local newspaper, Lappeenrannan Uutiset, interviewed a handful of Russian visitors on what they thought of a new series of Finnish postal stamps honouring the iconic gay artist Touko Laaksonen, better known as Tom of Finland. The stamps featured his famous drawings of muscular men in various states of undress. The reaction, it appeared, was uniformly negative.

Lappeenrannan Uutiset followed their report up with an experiment. Two male journalists were sent walking around the streets of Lappeenranta hand-in-hand, in full view of Russian tourists. They reported some rubbernecking, stares and snickers, but no outright intimidation or hostility. The local police assured gay couples they should have nothing to fear.

Yet, the Lappeenranta articles showed how divided Finns and Russians are on this issue – many Russians see LGBT rights as a symbol of western moral decay, while Finns see the changes taking place as a symbol of modern Nordic social progress.

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Finland welcomes equal marriage, though not until 2017

Image Credit: IAEA / Flickr

Image Credit: IAEA / Flickr

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö has signed into law a bill that brings marriage equality to his country.

The move puts Finland in line with its Scandinavian neighbors — all of whom have equal marriage laws. Finland, known for its excellent education system and Tom of Finland’s incredible gay art (incredibly NSFW), lagged behind Norway and Sweden — which legalized equal marriage in 2009 — and Denmark, which introduced same-sex marriage in 2012.

The bill itself has made history, not only for allowing same-sex marriage, but for being the first publicly-backed piece of legislation to make it into law. Finnish citizens can request that parliament review proposals for bills with sufficient public support — 50,000 signatures in support, and lawmakers are obliged to review it. The same-sex marriage bill received 167,000 signatures, or three percent of Finland’s total population.

“It’s incredible,” Aija Salo, secretary-general of the LGBTI group National Seta told Gay Star News. “We are, of course, extremely happy with this result. Not only because of the changes of the Marriage Act itself, but because this carries a huge symbolic value.”

However, it’s those changes to the Marriage Act that have led to a lengthy delay in the law taking effect — Finland’s same-sex couples won’t be able to legally wed until March 1, 2017. Salo claims that the delay was a political move, designed to ensure the bill gained sufficient support from politicians and secure its passage through parliament.

Once it reached the desk of President Niinistö, however, its success was assured. He addressed parliament in December in support of the legislation, telling lawmakers, “Finland should strive to become a society where discrimination doesn’t exist, human rights are respected and two adults can marry regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Two years from now, they can.

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Second vote approval of gender-neutral marriage bill

The Finnish Parliament passed a citizens’ initiative-based bill to allow same-sex marriage in a second vote on Friday .

Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

On the 28th of November, Parliament decided to move ahead with same-sex marriage legislation voting down a decision by the Legal Affairs Committee calling for the rejection of a citizens’ initiative bill on gender-neutral marriage.

In effect, that vote approved same-sex marriage by 105-92 and referred the bill to committee as the next step in the passage process.

On Friday, in a second vote, Parliament gave its approval to the citizens’ initiative bill in a vote of 101-90 with one abstention and 7 MPs absent from the session and one abstention.

The reform will require wide-ranging changes in other legislation, which will take well over a year to finalise. The law will therefore not take effect until 2016 at the earliest. Finland has allowed registered same-sex partnerships since 2002.

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