In conversation with Petteri, a gay man from a small town in Lapland, Finland. We look at how liberal Europe is when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights and equality.
Finland is often presented as a modern, liberal and progressive country. Did it feel like that growing up as a gay male here?
Finland as a whole is not a liberal country. There are two types of people: left-leaning liberals like me as well as conservatives. When I grew up in Northern Finland, gay people only existed on TV, and when they did people either laughed or switched the channel. In the last 15 years however, society changed. Even most conservatives accept gay people now, but many people still don’t condone public display of affection.
When you grew up on rural Northern Finland, how open-minded were people and what did you learn about sexual minorities at school?
People there are not open-minded towards others who don’t fit into social stereotypes. The atmosphere there is extremely hetero-normative, back then I got fed-up with questions about finding a girlfriend. At school we were not taught much about gay people, not even in biology class. The first time I heard about any of this at school was when I was in my last year of school in the town of Rovaniemi. While most teachers just laughed along when students made fun of gay people, one of the more progressive teachers actually stood up to them and tried to explain that having a sexual orientation was nothing abnormal. Until I moved to the larger city of Oulu when I turned 16, this remained however an exception.
When did you decide to come out?
I kept denying my sexual orientation but other students started making suggestions, which made me feel more and more like there was something seriously wrong with me. After all, I still hadn’t met any openly non-straight person. I never really decided to, at some point I simply stopped denying my homosexuality when classmates suggested it with their jokes. My closest friend at the time started telling everyone about it, which really annoyed me and didn’t exactly made me feel more secure.
How did your family members react to that?
I told my mother soon after that happened, but she did not want to talk about it, saying she needed a lot of time to accept me like this. My father only learned about this later on together with my sister and they even met my first boyfriend, which my mother refused to do. They were separated since I was young so my mum didn’t have to deal with any of this as long as she didn’t want to. Only later on she came around.
What do you think were the biggest challenges for gay people in Finland?
I think the greatest difficulty with growing up other than straight in Finland was that there was not really anyone to talk to and share experiences or learn about anything related, neither at schools or anywhere else in a society that de facto only accepted straight people. By now that probably improved somewhat at school-level at least but it still really depends on where you grow up, for instance cosmopolitan Helsinki versus rural northern Finland. The vocational school I currently teach at for example has a much more liberal atmosphere than other schools I worked at before.
How would you describe the situation for older LGBTQ people?
I think gay culture in general is getting weaker as people feel more integrated in society and discrimination becomes less obvious. In a way that is good, but it also has disadvantages when it comes to finding acceptance and finding a network of like-minded people. After I broke up with my first boyfriend, I met many other gay people in rural gay bars full of people of different ages. There is a strong culture of older gay guys chasing younger and less experiences ones as the night goes on. Many older men led a double life and did not come out at work or to family members; some were even married and had children. The situation was very hard for some of them and often led to alcohol abuse. Especially online this was often the case as people live widespread over a large area and personal LGBTQ networks are rare.
What makes people there so conservative?
On the one hand it is a lack of exposure to alternative life models but religion also plays a role. Many people in such rural areas belong to small denominations of Lutheran churches and are rather strict in their interpretations. Ironically, some of the guys I encountered online or in bars did not consume alcohol or television and I heard of some refusing to use condoms for religious reasons. This local culture of hook-ups and self-denial was one of the reasons I wanted to move away.
Do you have a ‘gay network’ now or are you part of any ‘scene’`
Not anymore, since I felt like I wanted to distance myself from all that, particularly after I found my current boyfriend over two years ago. I feel like I now live a more homonormative life and I really enjoy it. I don’t mind meeting other LGTBQ people at work or in university, but I don’t really go to related bars or parties anymore.
Did that affect your ‘gay identity’ and your perception of it?
My ‘gay identity’ in a way has weakened the more normalised it has become. I don’t think about it all anymore as much as I used to and feel like it is no longer the most important part of my identity. I am turning 30 soon and my more revolutionary mind is turning on other issues. Sometimes however other people manage to put me into the position of ‘the gay one’ again, which in turn marginalises gay people as it sets them apart from ‘normal people’.
You are now in a happy long-term relationship, was it hard to find a boyfriend like that?
In my experience it was very hard and frustrating to find someone. For a long time I did not know what I wanted and neither did most other gay guys I met that were my age. In what was a largely sex-based culture, many men that I went on dates with could not comprehend my desire for a relationship. Others wanted a relationship but turned out to be extremely clingy. When I met me current boyfriend he still had another boyfriend but after they split up we started seeing each other more often and it gradually all worked out. I liked how trustworthy and kind he was, as well as how he valued family and home.
Were you ever discriminated against or bullied?
I mainly experienced such things at school, barely outside of it, as Finnish people tend to keep their opinions to themselves. Once in Oulu I was shouted at by a drunk guy who considered gay people ‘disgusting’. I had no such problems at work and our landlord was actually relieved we weren’t ‘normal’ male roommates as they caused in his experience noise problems with neighbours. I was quite lucky in that regard.
Finland just introduced gay marriage. How does that affect your life?
It is definitely an option in the future, but nothing we consider right now. Many befriended couples were however very happy about this opportunity for them and want to use it soon. To me, its importance is more symbolic as it normalises LGBTQ people in society. This was actually the subject of my thesis research, in which I concluded that there is a huge variety of how LGBTQ people want to celebrate their weddings, as some of them want something traditional and some do not. But marriage still keeps a huge symbolic value to almost all gays I interviewed and traditional marriage concepts of one man and one woman are very problematic for queer people.
Would you say Finland is a great country to be queer in?
I guess in the great scope of things, compared to most countries in the world, it is. Things are far from perfect here but since most people don’t openly speak their minds if they disapprove one is free to surround oneself with liberals and like-minded people. It is definitely a very democratic atmosphere as people respect differing opinions and lifestyles more nowadays and one can simply ignore the other side. Some of our friends for instance are more conservative but we still get along.
What do you think needs to change the most in Finland for LGBTQ people?
In the future, I want to see more recognition for LGBTQ children particularly in schools and public institutions, but also in families at the ages when they are most vulnerable to bullying or desperation. It is such an easy thing to put a ‘pro-gay’ sticker on a shop window or classroom door. I’m particularly annoyed at people who say that they feel uncomfortable when they see openly gay people – how does it affect their lives at all? What is possibly uncomfortable about it? Another problem is that many people superficially support equal rights and treatment for sexual minorities, but then turn around and don’t want their own children or neighbours to be gay.