LGBT+ Activism in Estonia

An interview with Manu Moreno Tovar

Before we start, for those people who don’t know who you are, could you tell us briefly who you are, what you do, and what your relationship with activism is?

My name is Manu and right now I’m doing a PhD in translation studies in Tartu, which is the second-largest city in Estonia. I focus on what is known as intralingual translation (that is, within the same language), and my emphasis is on gender and queer perspectives.

Furthermore, I’m a part of the Scientific Committee of the Congress, and before I started my PhD, I was translating and editing for a research unit of the University of Granada, where I got my Bachelor’s in Translation and Interpretation. I’ve also gotten a Master’s degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

I’ve been involved in LGBT+ activism for some years, although here in Tartu I’ve also become involved in the movement Fridays for Future, which organizes around the climate crisis, and in Rhythms of Resistance, which is a transnational network of percussion groups that bring some noise and energy to protests.

What is the situation of the LGBT+ community in Estonia today? Is it similar to that of Spain?

The situation is complicated, but there’s no country where there isn’t work to do. In the first place, I’d like to combat the notion that Estonia is a particularly LGBT+-phobic country simply because it’s post-Soviet. Just speaking for myself, wearing a rainbow bracelet, having painted nails, etc., I haven’t felt more unsafe here than in Spain, but it’s also certain that this could be because of the circles I move about in or because of my other privilege.

From my perspective, the trend is slow but is progressing towards a greater acceptance of LGBT+ people. For example, the president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid (whose position gives her a status equivalent to that of the king in Spain), recently received the Rainbow Hero Award from the Estonian LGBT Association for her support. She even went so far as to post the moment she received the prize on her wall on Facebook—Facebook is still really common in Estonia—which has an amazing symbolic power.

What is the state of Estonian LGBT+ activism? Could you tell us a little about the LGBT+ organizations that there are in Estonia and about their activities, such as Baltic Pride?

Well so, being a very small country, Estonian activism is really centred in Tallinn, which is a shame for the smaller cities, but it’s also necessary for activists to join forces. The most active association here is the Estonian LGBT Association, which is located in Tallinn. They organized tons of events this year, from the fun to the educational, also focusing on the needs of specific groups at times. But there are other associations worth mentioning of course. For example, there’s one called Vikerruum in Tartu that organizes a monthly queer party, self-styled as “hetero-friendly.” There’s also an LGBT+ film festival every year called Festheart. That took place this fall in Tartu and in Rakvere.

Additionally, the Baltic Pride is a Pride organized in the Baltic countries. It takes place once a year, moving between the three countries in turn. It was going to be in Estonia this year and was expected to be the biggest Pride to ever take place in the country, but its original format was cancelled because of the coronavirus. But still we had the good fortune that in June there were very few new cases, so we were able to go forward with a program than combined events online and in person. For example, there was a little symbolic march through the streets of Tallinn. I had the good fortune to participate as a member of Rhythms of Resistance (pictured).

In comparison with Spain, where Pride is very often understood as a party, here in Estonia there isn’t such extreme pinkwashing. So when a business changes its logo on social media and adds a rainbow flag, the activist community understands it as a real message of support and not as an attempt to capitalize on the movement.

I understand that as a language, Estonian has no gender. Does that make it therefore inclusive? Or if not, are there proposals to make it even more so?

It’s true that there is no grammatical gender—although, obviously, there are words that mean “man” and “woman.” For example, for the word “friend,” though there do exist the feminine suffixes -anna and -atar, it’s also possible to use the word “sõber” for a “friend” without indicating the person’s gender, just as in English. Furthermore, neither the adjectives (as in Spanish) nor the verbs (as in Arabic) change according to the gender. Nothing depends on gender—not even the pronouns! This specifically is a great help for trans people, who in English are frequently in the difficult position of feeling like they have to choose a pronoun. I recommend this article for anyone who wants to learn more.

But it’s still important to point out that no grammatical gender doesn’t mean no linguistic problems. For example, there are words that designate professions that have endings that imply “man” or “woman,” which makes them not really neutral, and there is a lack of terms to describe non-binary people, like when discussing family for example. Ultimately, the grammatical characteristics of Estonian don’t necessarily imply that there are no inequalities or discriminatory usages in the language. On this topic, I’d like to emphasize that the Estonian LGBT+ community has put a lot of effort into creating terms that reflect their realities, as much in Estonian as in Estonian Sign Language, like re-appropriating existing terms and making new signs that don’t carry stigmas.

In terms of legislation, what is the situation of the community? Are there institutional protections against LGBT+-phobia?

I’m not an expert on the legal issues, but I have been looking into this and I understand that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is legally recognized. Despite that, there is research that casts doubt on the idea that existing protections are sufficient or that they’re properly applied. In any case, there is a lot to do in the legal sphere, although “progress,” so to speak, also depends on the country you’re comparing Estonia with. For example, if we look at ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Map, Estonia does recognize more rights than the other Baltic states, though fewer than Finland.

If we’re talking about civil unions, then those are legal, but they’re a nightmare in practice, because there’s no legal framework for implementing them yet. For example, it isn’t possible to file joint income, and you still can’t adopt. Something similar happens with the laws around gender recognition. Trans people end up stuck in a tedious, antiquated process, because they have to pass a medical examination and provide a psychiatric diagnosis. In addition, they have to demonstrate their gender identity over a period of two years, among other things. Ultimately, the situation isn’t anywhere near ideal, which is also a result of the current political situation.

I’m of the mind that the rise of the far right is a global preoccupation—could you talk about that? Are there any ideas among Estonian activists to try to combat that rise?

LGBT+ activism in Estonia continues to fight, but the situation is grave, to be honest. There is currently a coalition government between a centrist party, a conservative party, and a far-right party (see translator note’s below), and so for that reason the far right is really integral to the decisions of the government. The coalition formed under an agreement, and one of the conditions of that deal was that they would hold a referendum proposing to change the constitutional definition of marriage to “a union between a man and a woman.” This fall, the government reaffirmed its intention to hold the referendum that, despite the protests of activists and the opposition, will take place in the spring of 2021. It’s disheartening that none of this appears in any major Spanish media.

Another event we had to go through—and you can consider this a direct result of the political situation—in December last year was an anti-LGBT+ demonstration organized by a member of EKRE (the far-right party) in Tartu. The spark for this was when a youth centre wanted to hold some workshops on gender and sexuality, and the news found its way back to EKRE. Thankfully, there was a spontaneous counter-protest of many more people, and many businesses displayed the rainbow flag as a show of solidarity. But still the atmosphere remained really tense.

Lastly, members of the far-right party have tried to boycott events of the Estonian LGBT Association and spread false information, fear, and hate towards the community. It’s not at all a surprise, given the statements of the (now former) Minister of the Interior, who said in an interview with a German media outlet that he hoped “the gays” would all “run to Sweden.” The list of EKRE’s offences only continues to grow. Therefore, the problem of the far right in Estonia is the main obstacle in the fight for LGBT+ rights. On the positive side, this is also causing the community to join forces with, and indeed empathize with, countries that are facing similar situations, as in the case of Poland and Hungary.

As a final question, what would you say to all those people who believe that the fight for LGBT+ rights no longer has any purpose, because it’s already achieved everything it had to achieve?

Well, I would say that they should widen their perspectives, because that idea probably arises from a point of view that lacks any intersectional dimension and that’s only LGB-centred. That would be why they think that everything has already been done. Nothing could be further from the truth. If they turned their attention to the needs of trans people, intersex people, asexual people, etc., it’ll become very clear that we’re far from finished. It’s not only an issue of hate crimes, but also of harmful prejudices, lack of representation, legal obstacles … Certainly it’s a question of continuing to educate ourselves, which doesn’t have to take place only in an academic context. I recommend for example the documentaries Disclosure on Netflix and Welcome to Chechnya on HBO, or the series Gaycation on VICE TV, with Elliot Page and Ian Daniel. I consider it absolutely essential that our LGBT+ education not depend solely on influencers who are detached from the range of realities that other people experience (with an absolutely western perspective and without taking into account the accessibility of their content). It’s crucial that we fight for a common cause while recognizing the complexities of our society.

Translator’s note: In January 2021, the Centre Party came under a corruption investigation and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned and disbanded the coalition. The following coalition was formed by the Centre Party and the Reform Party and did not proceed with the marriage referendum.

Interview by Victor Manuel Sánchez Paterna
Translated by Charley Cotton

This initiative is organized by Inserta Andalucía and the University of Granada, thanks to the funding provided by the Consejería de Igualdad, Políticas Sociales y Conciliación, and the Project «Educación Transversal para la Diversidad Afectivo-Sexual, Corporal y de Género» (code 419) of Plan FIDO UGR 2018-2020.

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