Estonian conductor Erki Pehk and his boyfriend appeared together on the red carpet at the president’s Independence Day reception last February. It was the first time a gay couple had stepped on that carpet, and their public appearance seems to have reignited public and political debate on gay rights in Estonia.
The Baltic Pride in Tallinn, a manifesto by the euro MP Kristiina Ojuland calling for more tolerance to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Estonia, and the recent opening in Tallinn of the only information center in Estonia on these issues are just a sample of what has been going on here since February. But it is the step forward taken by the Ministry of Justice proposing the introduction of a civil partnership law around which debate has centered.
Supporters of LGBT rights now see a chance to advance their agenda in Estonia, while opponents have argued that current legislation is enough. Estonia lacks a civil union law while the general rate of unmarried couples living together is on rise. Three of the four political parties represented in Parliament have agreed to act on the issue. One of the government-coalition parties, IRL, opposes.
The Ministry of Justice stresses that new legislation would not just be aimed at the gay community. “The proposed idea is to draft a gender-neutral law that is not intended specifically for same-sex partnerships or gay marriages”, explained Minister of Justice Kristen Michal to ERR. With as many as 58 percent of Estonian children born to unmarried couples, the ministry finds a need to address practical issues faced by this kind of partnerships. These range from inheritance rights, adopting partners’ children, and sharing economic burdens, to receiving social benefits and filing joint tax returns. These problems are shared by couples both straight and gay.
A Lack of Knowledge
“Normally there are no problems when living together. The problems arise when there is a fight, a break-up or a partner dies,” said Reimo Mets, a lawyer at the Sexual Minorities Protection Union. His and other groups have been meeting with Estonian MPs to discuss a new legal framework and are hopeful that new legislation could be enacted as early as next year.
The current concern of Estonian gay organizations is to raise social awareness about their situation. “There’s a lack of knowledge. People do not know what it is to be gay. Some think gays are a kind of devil who will come to their yards and rob them or spread disease,” said Mets.
This seems to be part of the problem. According to a 2008 Eurobarometer on discrimination, only 13 percent of Estonians profess to have homosexual friends or acquaintances, compared to a 34 percent average in the EU. However, Estonians ranked higher than the European average in willingness to grant equal opportunities to sexual minorities.
“The attitude towards LGBT people is becoming more tolerant and caring. However, there is still a lot of ignorance regarding homosexuality and thus there is much prejudice,” said Helen Talalaev, director of the OMA LGBT information center in Tallinn and board member of Estonian Gay Youth. In this sense “Estonia is a rather typical Eastern European country where homosexual people may still experience prejudice and discrimination, hence the argument that society is not ready for such a law has been used,” she added.
Homosexuality is a Sin
On the political front, IRL, one of the two parties in power, opposes any reform. “We as a conservative party believe that marriage is a relation between a man and a woman. We do not see any reason to change that. Our constitution says that family is the base of the growth of population. If we want to guarantee the sustainability of our nation we should protect the family institution and family values. We need to deal with possible problems associated with the weaker part of families - children and their rights,” explained Margus Tsahkna, MP for IRL.
The party declined to elaborate concerning how to address specific needs voiced by the gay community, stating that no changes in the family law are needed. IRL derailed a previous attempt to introduce similar legislation in 2010.
The Council of Estonian Churches (EKN) has also voiced an opinion against any “form of cohabitation than inhibits […] [a] reproductive relationship.” A document released last week noted that, according to the Bible, “homosexuality is a sin in all its forms of manifestation.” “The member churches of EKN share the understanding that vices and sins should not be socially accepted or justified with reference to personal freedom,” read the document.
However, after cautioning against discrimination against straight individuals due to their “traditional heterosexual convictions or statements arising from such convictions,” the EKN voiced “disagreement” with the stigmatization of gay individuals and noted “the Bible teaches us to condemn sin but to love the sinner.” Further questions on what a homosexual should do when facing the same problem the proposed law is to address went unanswered by the time this article was published.
A Matter of Rights
Despite the opposition, the Ministry of Justice is planning a gender-neutral Draft Act on Co-Habitation for next year. “We do not see this as a political question, because we are convinced that the main idea is to protect the rights of the weaker party, couples living together without marrying and to strengthen the basis of sound family relations in Estonia. That is the starting idea agreed upon between all parties,” said minister Michal.
With Finland poised to approve gay marriage in 2012, Denmark and Estonia would be the only countries in Northern Europe not allowing it. However, Denmark was the first country in the world to introduce a civil partnership law in 1989. Adopting this law would make Estonia a pioneer in civil rights among post-Socialist countries, some commentators have pointed out.
LGBT activists in Estonia are not aiming at marriage. On one side, they seek to avoid a conflict they regard as unnecessary for solving their daily problems. On the other, they seem uninterested. “To be honest, marriage is a bit of history nowadays […]. People are not getting married,” said Mets. He views the issue as a matter of democratic quality: “To me, democracy means that the minorities' rights are protected […]. As long as they are not, there’s a question of what kind of democracy it is.”
Pablo Veyrat is a freelance journalist living in Tallinn.
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The Spanish Precedent
Spain legalized gay marriage in June 2005. In 30 years of democracy, the country has gone from legally imprisoning LGBT individuals and trying to cure them through behavorial therapy to having 66 percent popular support in favor of full marriage rights for this minority. How did it happen?
“We did a lot of teaching,” recalled Agustín López, president of COGAM, the main Spanish LGBT association. “Little by little, with a lot of patience and creating a network of contacts with political parties and other associations outside the gay movement, as well as civil rights organizations. This was very important, since it gave us a lot of support each time we demanded rights,” he added.
Also, the press played an important role in mustering social support for the movement. “Gay media would encourage well-known gay people to come out of the closet,” explained Luis Algorri, journalist and gay activist. “The appearance of Jesús Vázquez, a much loved TV presenter, on the cover of the main gay magazine was very important. Subsequently, a high-ranking army officer wearing his uniform and even a priest in his robes were featured on magazine covers declaring their homosexuality […] So many people saying ‘I’m gay and I’m fine’ ended up having an impact,” said Algorri.
Mainstream media also adopted an editorial line denouncing every single insult or aggression towards LGBT people much in the same way it does today with violence against women.
“The biggest challenge for the gay community in Spain has been visibility, and I assume that is probably similar in Estonia,” said Algorri. “If a child born in a village 200 kilometers away from Tallinn thinks he is the only one and feels alone, that’s a tragedy. If he can see that important politicians, artists and famous people are like him and they don’t hide it, that’s a very important support for him.”
Conservative associations still oppose gay marriage in Spain, but some admit civil unions as a legitimate way of addressing daily issues. Since 2005, 23,000 new same-sex families have registered in Spain, according to COGAM.