For the entirety of last week, Helsinki was flooded with diverse expressions of sexuality and gender thanks to Helsinki Pride. Arranged annually by HeSeta and partners, Helsinki Pride is easily Finland’s largest event for sexual and gender minorities and takes place the week after Midsummer, with an attendance of tens of thousands.
For an onlooker observing the culmination of the week, the parade through Helsinki on Saturday, it’s easy to feel joy and solidarity over how far Finland and many other countries have come in respecting basic individual rights. After an exceptional tear gas attack on the Helsinki Pride parade in 2010 by perpetrators with ties to neo-Nazi groups, the popularity of the event has only increased.
Major urban areas in Finland appear to be pretty good places to openly live as an LGBT person. History is far from rosy in this regard, though. We could do worse than to remember that Pride parades enjoy a very recent past as demonstrations for basic human rights, rather than leaning towards a smiley-faced opportunity for institutions to remind us of their open-mindedness.
As we will learn, the present is also far from perfection for LGBT people in Finland. The situation remains deeply flawed for transgender and intersex individuals in particular.
But first, read on for a selection of milestones in Finnish legislation relevant to LGBT issues. We’ve sourced these from Seta, Finland’s main LGBT rights organization.
Stockholm was the gay utopia
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1971, with “promotion of homosexuality or homosexual acts” (similar to the British ‘Section 28’) remaining illegal. The classification of homosexuality as a medical condition was abolished a decade later.
Many older people remember the post-war years of an era when Stockholm was a promised land. Indeed, Finnish tabloids cultivated the idea that all Swedes must be gay, ever since homosexuality was decriminalized in Sweden in 1944.
In Finland, discrimination based on sexuality was prohibited in 1995 and discrimination based on gender identity or expression thereof in 2005.
In legal recognition of life partnership, civil unions, or “registered partnerships”, were introduced in 2002, granting access to limited rights similar to marriage. Rights were amended to include adoption of the other partner’s children (to ensure legal custodianship) in 2009.
The debate over gender-neutral marriage dragged on seemingly forever after the 2011 parliamentary election, with one disappointingly downvoted bill. The new system of citizen initiatives was put into play, resulting in 167.000 citizens signing a petition which resulted in approval of the bill in November 2014.
So, what are the problems then? We’ll explore a couple of them in broad strokes, but we acknowledge that this is merely scraping the surface of systemic discrimination inherent in a binary view of gender.
The confusion over sexuality vs gender vs anatomy
In itself, the term “gay rights” isn’t a very inclusive affair. While mainstream culture around the western world seems to be increasingly accepting of the presence of homosexual behavior as a fact of life, many issues related to gender minorities are still clouded by ignorance.
As a complicated topic worth exploring further, it’s necessary to point out that the appearance of someone’s body isn’t always very indicative of their gender; especially when many cultures insist on a binary where gender corresponds to, and is determined by, one of two “acceptable” sets of reproductive organs.
But this is simply not the case. Put briefly: each day, intersex babies are born all over the world with visible or invisible ambiguity in their gendered anatomy: reproductive organs, hormones, chromosomes, etc.
Each day, doctors make random choices and, to put it bluntly, mutilate many of these children. The intention is to produce genitalia that conform to the prevailing norms of what boys and girls look like. Oftentimes, these alterations to infants’ bodies cram them into a set of expectations of gender that may end up being wrong at some later point in their life.
Oftentimes, such mutilation is performed in utmost secrecy; in recent history, parents and doctors have kept this information hidden even from the child well into adulthood, denying them the opportunity to explore the actual reality of their gender.
This is by no means a strictly Finnish problem, but some doctors defend this practice. Yet, such a level of guesswork seems amazingly lax for the scientific standards we otherwise expect from the medical profession.
Finnish transgender rights are dented by punitive bureaucracy
One alarming omission in Finnish human rights can be found in the treatment of transgender or non-binary persons; individuals who identify as the opposite of the gender they’re assigned at birth, or who find neither of the available categories correct. This also includes intersex individuals whose gender has been misassigned at infancy, often through surgical mutilation.
Some individuals who wish to reassign their legal gender to the other of the two available categories feel comfortable with their options; for others, the other position of the gender binary can be just inoffensive enough to be the less mismatched one. Again: two genders based on reproductive anatomy is far from adequate. (And gender isn’t tied to sexual preference either.)
Here comes the nonsensical part of the Finnish system: the process of reassigning one’s legal gender requires a doctor’s diagnosis. This is more hair-raising than it may sound, because people expressing too much gender non-conformity, or with comorbid conditions such as depression (itself often just a symptom of untreated gender dysphoria), are routinely denied diagnosis and care.
After this diagnosis, the person can apply for a differently gendered name and receive new ID papers. Only, the ID papers are prescribed to the same gender as before. One consequence of this is that people are legally forced to carry ID papers that may involuntarily expose them as transgender for at least an entire year before they may have their gender marker changed; information which may be exposed in countless systems that needlessly file people by gender, causing endless everyday inconvenience, and worse.
How would you feel about being sterilized to get a new passport?
For a transgender person in Finland to be a candidate for the final, actual legal gender reassignment, a second doctor must confirm their ‘diagnosis’. Before 2015 people with one of the two possible diagnoses (which roughly correspond to ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’) were even completely ineligible for legal gender reassignment, but recent activism has made it possible, albeit difficult, to choose the “less incorrect” option even with the ‘non-binary’ diagnosis.
Only, that’s not all: the individual must also be proven to be infertile. This usually achieved as a byproduct of hormone replacement therapy, which many transgender people choose to alter their bodies – and brains.
However, not everyone who needs to change their legal gender wants hormonal therapy or is able to access it due to medical concerns. So, in effect, Finland is practicing forced, or coerced sterilization of transgender individuals and other gender minorities. The price of not conforming to certain expectations about fitting into a gender binary is to be bereft of reproductive ability.