Leaving aside slogans and political technology, the red line in the marriage referendum and gay marriage debate runs along the question of whether gay couples can have and raise children on equal grounds. "Pealtnägija" spoke to the sides of the conflict once more.
Sexual intercourse between two men was a criminal act throughout the Soviet period until newly independent Estonia repealed the section following the example of the West in 1992. By 2014, things had progressed far enough for the Riigikogu to pass the Registered Partnership Act that allowed civilian partnerships irrespective of the gender of partners. Protesting against the act saw the public debut of Catholic jurist Varro Vooglaid who is about to have his eighth child and his Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK).
Vooglaid and President of the Riigikogu Henn Põlluaas (EKRE) claim that the Registered Partnership Act was forced through parliament against the people's will and the planned spring referendum over whether marriage needs to remain a union between a man and a woman in Estonia is a direct consequence.
"Therefore, the entire cohabitation polemic that split society, created this whole confrontation, including the referendum at hand is all a result of this /…/ feint," said Põlluaas, father of two and a married man of 31 years.
One of the key architects of the Registered Partnership Act and the one who came up with its name was MP Imre Sooäär. While Sooäär does not wish to discuss his personal life today, he has said in previous interviews that he has had both male and female partners. Sooäär and head of the Estonian LGBT Society Kristel Rannaääre say that they have never made it a secret that giving rainbow families marriage equality has always been the end goal, while one needs to move gradually by taking steps society finds acceptable.
"Looking at the countries around us, that is how these things happen. First, cohabitation is legalized in some alternative form from where we start moving toward marriage equality. That is how societies prepare for it," Rannaääre said.
"Let us recall how this thing really happened. It was one of the few laws the Riigikogu passed based on the free will of MPs. /…/ Isamaa was the only party to vote against [the Registered Partnership Act]. The remaining parties allowed their MPs to vote freely. There was no attempt to force it through the parliament, contrary to what is being claimed now," Sooäär said.
But the next composition of the Riigikogu was no longer willing to go through with it. The Registered Partnership Act has been in force for six years, while its implementing provisions have not been passed to this day. While major parties' comments remain vague, those opposed to the act make their stance clear.
"Marriage is a sacred institution," Põlluaas said.
"Marriage by very definition is a union between a man and a woman. That is why concepts like same-sex marriage or gay marriage are about as nonsensical as talking about square circles or round triangles," Vooglaid explained.
"Children are born out of a life shared by a man and a woman, not from same-sex partnerships. In that sense, same-sex cohabitation is utterly fruitless and a negative phenomenon in terms of society's longevity," Põlluaas added.
"Whether people have children or not does not depend on their sexual orientation. We have a lot of families, including rainbow families, that have children – families with many children and those that only raise a single child. And, of course, we have families with no children. However, all of it applies to heterosexual couples. It is a deeply personal decision. And sexual orientation has nothing to do with it," Rannaääre said.
Same-sex couples having children at the heart of the matter
Rannaääre (36) who teaches high school economics in addition to running the LGBT Society is in an official partnership with another woman. Her partner had a child with the aid of artificial insemination and a sperm donor whom Rannaääre adopted. The process had to be completed in court as the implementing provisions of the Registered Partnership Act have not been passed.
"I was able to adopt my child from inside the family so to speak. This means that obligations and rights associated with the child also apply to me. This makes things much easier for us when dealing with administrative agencies. I am an equal partner when decisions need to be made.
Taivo Piller and Mart Haber who have been a couple for over 20 years salted the conservatives' wounds when they had two children – one from Mart's seed and the other from Taivo's – with the help of a surrogate mother. The successful interior decorators got married in the United States for the purpose of being legal parents of equal rights to their children.
"What people do not want to talk about is the stark reality that these children were bought. It does not sound good, I know. And I suppose it is not something the parties involved and other people associated with such business want to hear. But when it comes down to it, we are talking about a commercial transaction. A woman has been paid to carry to term a pregnancy – twins as far as I know. And to then surrender these children to these homosexuals for a fair bit of money. It is basically the buying of children," Vooglaid said.
"Well, you can try to go to the States, pick out a couple of kids and call it human trafficking. It cannot be done. It is so heavily regulated and everything is covered with contracts, down to what would happen if we both were to die during the pregnancy. /…/ These are just empty words being thrown around here," Mart Haber said.
Haber (43) and Piller (51) are not much for gay activism, but because they are financially secure businessmen and spend most of their time outside Estonia, they also have nothing to hide.
"The fact is that we have had gay fathers and mothers, well, since the dawn of time, I believe. These children were simply had in a different way and we have been brave enough to tell the story. I still think children are happy with their parents who love them very much," Haber said.
In summary, couples are free to enter into a registered partnership in Estonia but because there are no implementing provisions, several benefits this entails need to be gained by employing trickery or going to court. One side is talking about the sanctity of marriage, while the other about equal treatment of minorities; however, it seems to boil down to the question of same-sex couples having children. Something the opponents would not allow and the proponents will not give up.
"It is abnormal if people can just buy children, pay mothers to give birth to children who have to live in this kind of a cohabitation /…/ cell that lacks the shape and life of a normal family. No mother, no father," Põlluaas commented.
"I believe that no one can argue a child's right to a mother and a father. Legalizing this so-called gay marriage basically equals not recognizing that children have this right. In a situation where two homosexual people want a child to raise, their wish to satisfy this ambition is considered to be more important than the child's right to have a family made up of a mother and a father," Vooglaid said.
"It is quite frightening. We can see steps aimed at restricting human rights. It has gone beyond the LGBT subject matter today. It is a much broader topic," Rannaääre said.
Rannaääre: EKRE wants attention and to frighten people before elections
Critics say that the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) doesn't care a fig about marriage and that combating the alleged gay steamroller simply helps them stay relevant and mobilize voters.
"The marriage polemic does not have its origins in the community nor did we raise it in society. It has been sparked by a government party that needs attention going into elections, to secure votes by intimidating people," Rannaääre said, pointing to EKRE.
Põlluaas refutes such claims. "It is a completely absurd notion. I wholeheartedly disagree. Our goal is not to keep anyone in suspense, fan fears or incite panic. On the contrary. We are holding on to what is natural and normal and it is a very important, fundamental matter for us. It is in no way a propaganda topic," Põlluaas said.
"Democracy is not the majority's rule over the minority. Democracy is finding the weakest link and addressing it. And making sure everyone can have a good life in tiny Estonia. /…/ The matter being put to a public vote is artificial in its origins and only concerns a very small community, meaning that it cannot be decided by people whom it does not concern," Rannaääre said.
"One is often ashamed to think about what they are doing up there. It's a shame and you feel embarrassed just thinking about it. There are more pressing matters to attend to, while we are bogged down in pseudo-problems, "Taivo Piller said.
Sooäär would like to see the Family Act complemented, EKRE and SAPTK remain opposed
This matter of principle for some and a pseudo-problem for others will soon see the opposition try to block the marriage referendum in the parliament using some 10,000 motions to amend. Opposition parties have filed nearly 10,000 motions to amend that the Riigikogu would theoretically have to vote on individually that would completely paralyze the parliament's work.
Põlluaas described the opposition's conduct as worse than piggery. "It could tie down the parliament for a year or longer. I think that all sensible boundaries have been crossed as concerns this attempt at obstruction. It is an attack against parliamentarism as such and against democracy. So yes, it's much worse than piggery," Põlluaas concluded.
It is somewhat symbolic that Imre Sooäär, who worked as a diplomat for a time, landed back in the Riigikogu as an alternate member recently and sees it as his role to solve the impasse. His oath of office caused a small storm and he remains against the referendum, while he voted in favor of the bill during its first reading for he has a bigger plan.
"Voting the bill off the agenda during its first reading would only be wind in EKRE's sails as it is their game and aim to keep this pot boiling. Voting it down at the first reading would have suggested the Riigikogu wants nothing to do with it. There would be no progress. EKRE would just file it again and the entire circus would begin again, with efforts to split and intimidate the people retained," Sooäär explained.
His solution would be to bin the Registered Partnership Act and the referendum and complement the Family Act to include protection for all kinds of families.
"If we were to add to the Family Act section 2 that would treat with cohabitation of registered life partners that would remain in force next to marriage between a man and a woman, the problems of all Estonian families would be solved. All different family models would have legal protection. This would help solve legal protection for heterosexual and same-sex couples alike and ensure legal protection for couples in open marriages should they decide to register. We can find a solution to everything," Sooäär explained.
Varro Vooglaid finds that such an amendment would change nothing.
"I see no difference whatsoever. In a situation where the concept of marriage is already included in the act, complementing it with cohabitation that would have virtually identical legal power would constitute nothing more than hocus-pocus. It is exactly the same thing they tried to do when steamrolling the Registered Partnership Act into force in a slightly altered form," he said.
Both EKRE and SAPTK oppose the plan as it would once more clash with their red line of gay couples' right to have children.
Sooäär even paid for a Norstat poll out of his own pocket that was held before Christmas and found that 87 percent of citizens with the right to vote support the Family Act regulating the rights of all families.
"I really have come to Toompea to help smooth these things over. All such families, loving families like that of Mart and Taivo and many others the press knows nothing about. Also, members of EKRE – I know many EKRE members who are in a same-sex partnership without the party's knowledge – support my proposal. Perhaps we are scared of phantoms and a solution is actually near at hand and we have simply missed it," Sooäär suggested.
The second reading of the marriage referendum bill is scheduled to take effect on January 11 (now January 13 – ed.) and believed to get bogged down in thousands of motions to amend. Sooäär plans to look for allies, introduce a new bill and secure 51 votes for it in the time left. The MP said that it would also help avoid the parliament's work being paralyzed for more important topics, such as the effects of the coronavirus, to be addressed.
Editor: Marcus Turovski