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
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.