Ian Gustav Ahlberg is the first Estonian to be nominated for a British LGBT Award, and has been recognised for his leadership skills promoting the voices of the Financial Times' LGBTQ+ community. ERR News caught up with Ahlberg last month to discuss his life, work and the differences between LGBTQ+ rights in the U.K. and Estonia.
The 25-year-old is a Communications Executive at the prestigious Financial Times (FT) newspaper in London and is the co-leader of Proud FT, the company's LGBTQ+ employee network. Since its launch in 2017, Ahlberg has helped build Proud FT into a global network, with 12 active committee members and a presence in London, New York and the Philippines.
Ahlberg was born in Tallinn and attended Tallinn Secondary School of Science (Tallinna Reaalkool) and Collegium Educationis Revaliae (Vanalinna Hariduskollegium). He moved to London to study Public Relations at the University of the Arts London (UAL) in 2013 and decided to stay in the city after graduation.
Ahlberg has been socially active from a young age. At high school he used to organize parties, events and theater shows. "My teachers used to joke I did everything else other than studying or my homework," he says.
Following on from event productions at high school, Ahlberg became involved in the LGBTQ+ Students Union when he started university. He said it was then a natural move for him to get involved with LGBTQ+ topics when he joined the Financial Times.
He has worked at the company for three and a half years and says the FT and his colleagues have been very supportive and embraced his work. He had no fear about "coming out" to them when he joined the team.
Launching Proud FT in 2017 was a huge step in his life, and as one of the founding members, he has been a mentor to new members of the team since 2018.
Ahlberg explains the main aim of the network is to bring together the LGBTQ+ community at the company, to make sure their voices are heard in the decision-making process.
The network works closely with senior leadership to develop policies and ensure their community's voices are heard. They also organize and host events such as movie screenings, book club events and panel discussions.
Having a safe space where people can come together and share their experiences of being part of the LGBTQ+ community is one of the most important aspects of the network, he says.
Ahlberg thinks his greatest achievement has been to be a part of the committee. It brings him joy as he sees how every member develops themselves. "To be working in the committee is a really great opportunity professionally and personally, I just love it. It's so important for me that our community is speaking up for itself and coming together," he said.
He feels honored to have received a nomination for the Top 10 Future Leaders Award. At first, he didn't believe the news. Other nominees include American Broadway theater performer Billy Porter, British singer-songwriter Sam Smith and other well-known LGBTQ+ celebrities and musicians.
"When I saw my name next to them, I cried and it was emotional," he says. "It's a testament to what the FT has done over the years and how the FT has really embraced our network and given us the tools to be our best. So, I'm really proud and happy about the nomination and I know Proud FT is as well."
One of the network's initiatives was to take part in London Pride in 2018 - the first time the company had taken part in the event in its 135 year history. The FT took part as part of InterMedia, an LGBTQ+ network group for people working across all areas of the media.
This was Ahlberg's first Pride event, and he describes the experience as "very beautiful and amazing". While growing up in Estonia, there was not an event he felt he could join.
The first Baltic Pride march, which rotates between the states, took place in Estonia in 2004, but a subsequent LGBTQ+ event was not well received. At the 2006 Tallinn Pride, violence broke out and six people were arrested – protesters threw sticks and stones and a bomb threat was made. The next Tallinn Pride was held in 2007. and passed with one arrest. The event was then held peacefully in 2017, after a decade-long break.
Speaking about the 2006 parade, Ahlberg said: "I was too young to take part in that parade but I remember hearing stories about how the police handled it – and the impact it had on people. When I took part in London Pride, it was incredibly heartwarming to see so many people coming together to stand up for what they believe in. It was a momentous day and one I'll never forget"
The London pride parade has a celebratory atmosphere and is often attended by families. Not only LGBTQ+ people march – thousands of people come and join in from the sidelines. Ahlberg hopes the future of Estonian Pride marches will look like this.
"Pride marches should be a celebration of a diverse and inclusive society," he said.
When it comes to differences between LGBTQ+ rights in the U.K. and Estonia, Ahlberg says he thinks these are substantial. In Estonia, he did not get the "LGBTQ+ experience", as he left the country at 18. He had already come out as gay in his teens to his friends and family and was never afraid to be himself at school, although he was bullied and called names. Ahlberg adds: "You don't even have to be gay to get bullied at school. It does not take much for teenagers to be mean to each other."
In London, the experience was completely different for Ahlberg. "When I came to London, it was just beautiful to see how people do not really think about [sexuality], and in a way, that's great. Here I see gay and lesbian couples all the time, holding hands, being affectionate. Every time I see a cute gay couple walking with their dog down the street on Saturday near Borough Market (near London Bridge - ed.), my heart flutters with joy. It validates your existence to see that," he said.
He also keeps up with Estonian LGBTQ+ issues and topics, although he is not involved with any organizations inside the country.
Ahlberg's biggest concern is how the current government views LGBTQ+ people. He thinks anti-discrimination legislation should be developed by the government in the areas of education, health and social care. International corporations or big companies should also be leading the way in promoting anti-discrimination in the workplace.
Training and workshops for teachers, youth workers, judges, health care workers and the police are also needed, he said, so they are aware of the struggles the LGBTQ+ community faces every day. These are things that are already commonplace in Britain.
Ahlberg adds it is important to give a voice to LGBTQ+ organizations and the community in Estonia, and they should be consulted more widely when legislation is created. Next year's potential referendum, accompanying the local elections, on whether or not to include the definition of marriage in the constitution, worries him.
He says: "Thankfully, the public's sentiment towards the LGBTQ+ community is improving and it's on the side of the community. It's just worrying that a minority in the government has the power to call for a referendum. The majority should never decide the rights of the minority."
However, he is optimistic that the change will not be implemented. Currently, there is no definition of marriage in the constitution. "Estonia has historically been conservative about changing the constitution and I think any change should be thoroughly considered by legal scholars and civil servants and not by right-wing politicians calling for a referendum just to speak to their voter base," he said.
He has also seen positive changes since he moved away, and tolerance of LGBTQ+ people is gradually improving: "Estonia is more forward-thinking than other countries where it is really difficult to be an LGBTQ+ person. You can be yourself and be free. There have been improvements in Estonia and I don't think that most Estonians have anything against LGBTQ+ people."
The British LGBT Awards recognize individuals and organizations that display an outstanding commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. The winners will be announced in October, though the date of the ceremony is yet to be announced, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Editor: Helen Wright, Andrew Whyte