Shameema Binte Rahman explores Estonian companies' support during the Baltic Pride Festival and for the LGBT+ cause in Estonia in general.
She is pliant in allowing others to address her as "she" or "they" but implores to remain anonymous when talking about her experiences as a lesbian in Estonia. She says, "My girlfriend is Estonian, and we have lived here together for five years now. This year the government passed the long-awaited law on same-sex marriage, which will come into force in January next year, and we too plan to get married next year. Now the legal protection of same-sex relationships is settled, but society still has a ways to go in terms of accepting me.
The recent incident in which a gay pastor was stabbed in the name of God in a Tallinn bar during the Baltic Pride Festival in June is a stark reminder of the rigid and violent heteronormative prejudices that still persist today.
Stories of violence and hatred against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and other self-claimed identity – LGBTQIA+ or LGBT+ people in Estonia are mounting, both anecdotally and in public discourse. Although Estonia legalized same-sex activity immediately after its independence from the Soviet Union, attitudes toward lesbians and gays have remained intolerant since Soviet law deemed it criminal.
With the passing of the same-sex marriage law, another significant event took place in June, the month of the Pride festival. Several local and multinational companies openly declared their support for the LGBT+ community. According to the official website of Baltic Pride 2023, a total of 16 organizations showed their open support; nine of them are businesses and the rest are NGOs, funding agencies and embassies. These companies have made a mark, while thousands of companies in Estonia are silent about their support for the LGBTQIA+ community.
While corporate support fuels high hopes, some questions become apparent, such as: What kind of support do these LGBT+ supportive businesses provide, or what does that support actually look like? Are there products or services for the Estonian LGBT+ community, or are there visual representations on social media that focus exclusively on the Estonian LGBT+ community?
The author explored these questions on the websites, blogs, and social media pages of LGBT+ supportive companies and conducted some interviews with representatives of the companies, some of whom did not respond while others wished to remain unnamed and simply referred to as a "company spokesperson."
No offers, no products, no representation
Keio Soomelt, project manager for Baltic Pride, says sponsors provided logistical support such as free rooms and technical facilities, and financiers funded the cost of the festival. He refused to describe each company's contribution separately due to his organization's policy.
However, Soomelt eloquently delineates the support, "This year was special because they did it openly – the supporters were announced, some of them were with their brands in the Pride march and some also made public announcements where they explained why they support Baltic Pride."
Trawling these companies' Facebook pages and Instagram profiles, not a single post was found that specifically declared support for Estonia's LGBT+ community.
Two companies openly declared their support for the Baltic Pride Festival 2023 on their social media channels, but this is not a clear reference to the Estonian community. There are no campaign or promotional posts that feature an LGBT+ person from the company or community. There are also no specific product offerings from any of the companies for the group or a voice against local social prejudice. Only a few posted vaguely about Pride month. There were some rainbows, but they were tagged with very generic Pride month hashtags.
Their websites are no different. There are some blog posts about LGBT+ people, but none of them contain stories from Estonia.
Wise, one of Estonia's top fintech companies whose Facebook page has 700k likes and 276k followers on Instagram, featured a blog series called "Celebrating Queerwisers" about personal stories from the company's LGBT+ community during the Pride, but there were no stories from Estonia; instead, there were stories from England, the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region.
A spokesperson for Wise, who wished to remain anonymous, said that Wise hasn't run any ads or influencer campaigns for Wise products in Estonia that feature LGBT+ topics. The Wise account and Wise business offer the same experience to all users, with no specialization for LGBT+ or other diversity.
However, in an interview with ERR, Brett Lemsalu, people operations lead at Wise, says, "Wise supported Baltic Pride 2023 financially and one of our team members gave a speech at the picnic event following the Pride march."
Another LGBT+ sponsor, the award-winning Estonian beer brand Punch Club, has not posted any content on social media about Pride month, nor made any textual or visual references to its support for the Estonian LGBT+ cause. The Punch Club Facebook page and Punchdrinks IG profile seem so empty that it is hard to recognize that this company is listed as a sponsor of the Baltic Pride Festival 2023.
Besides these two Estonian companies, three L'Oreal subsidiaries, skin, hair care and cosmetics companies – Garnier, Kiehl's Since 1851 and NYX are listed as sponsors. Like Punch Club and Wise, the French company Garnier draws a blank when it comes to showing support for the Estonian LGBT+ community on its social pages. Not even during the Pride month.
L'Oreal's two other subsidiaries, New York-based Kiehl's Since 1851 and Los Angeles-based cosmetics company NYX, have made posts on their social handles regarding the LGBT+ cause. However, their posts are not specific to the Estonian LGBT+ community, and NYX's post is somewhat tricky.
During the Pride Festival, NYX shared an LGBT+ representative image post on its Facebook and Instagram page with the mention of Baltic Pride Festival. This company is the only one among all Estonian LGBT+ supporting companies that presented an LGBT+ representative face on social media. However, an online investigation shows that this post was originally created for its headquarters' Los Angeles Pride Festival campaigns and the image shows entirely Asian facial features. The image has no relation to the Baltic States or Estonia.
The rest of LGBT+ supporting companies in Estonia are originally from Sweden and are considered top-notch companies in Estonia in the arts, telecommunications, and financial sectors: Fotografiska, Swedbank, Nordea, and Telia. Of them, Swedbank hasn't shared a single post on social media about its openly stated support for the LGBT+ community in Estonia.
The contemporary museum of photography, art and culture, Fotografiska, has also not enunciated its support on social media. There is nothing on its Facebook page, and only a single post on its IG account. It posted on June 6: "Today the Baltic Pride 2023 solidarity festival kicks off at Fotografiska."
In an email interview, the question, "Why hasn't Fotografiska featured any Estonian LGBT+ artists or events on its social media channels, even during Pride month?" was ignored.
Instead, Margit Aasmäe, CEO and co-founder of Fotografiska, said, "Fotografiska regularly provides a stage for LGBT+ and queer artists and artwork because it's a natural part of our philosophy."
Financial services company Nordea and telecommunications company Telia Eesti are the only two companies among LGBT+ supporting companies that have openly declared their support for the Baltic Pride Festival on social media pages.
On June 7, Nordea shared the same post on its Facebook and IG pages that read: "This year again, Nordea Estonia is a proud sponsor of Baltic Pride, and we will be marching for LGBTQ+ rights in the parade!" The post included hashtags such as NordeaEstonia, Blaticpride, Balticpride2023, and the rainbow flag.
During the same period and the Pride Festival, Telia showed its support by sharing several posts from June 2-7 where it shared Baltic Pride's website link, names of LGBT+ films, LGBT+ survey data with questions about homophobic marks in school-goers etc., but no Estonia-specific words or visuals were there.
LGBT+ friendly or LGBT+ washing?
When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, came out about his sexual orientation in 2014, the world was thrown into turmoil, but he became an inspiration to thousands. His openly stated and visually identifiable stand inspired companies to be authentic in their support of non-normative, non-heterosexual identity.
Latsin Alijev, activist and executive director of the nonprofit organization NGO EHPV (Estonian HIV-Positive Network), points to the need for this kind of authenticity in corporate support for the LGBT+ community in Estonia: "We need open people with open faces to come out and say: 'I'm gay,' like the Latvian president or anyone, a non-famous, everyday person, whoever; and businesses need to portray them for the community, out loud, not silently in a non-inspiring, invisible way."
In response to LGBT+ allyship training, all or most Estonian LGBT+ supporting companies assent that they regularly provide allyship training for internal employees, which is one of the requirements to be classified as an LGBT+ friendly company.
A 2021 Forbes report, based on a study by four Finnish academics, said that companies with LGBT+ friendly policies tend to have both higher profitability and a higher stock market valuation. Another estimate from a Time magazine report illustrates the benefit of business by stating that "the global LGBTQIA+ community has a purchasing power of $3.7 trillion."
Hence, there's a lot of opportunity for multinational businesses to be known as LGBT+ friendly, and that's why Pride month is usually flooded with thousands of businesses flying the rainbow flag. This is what LGBT+ washing business support looks like, which includes no effort to bring any change for the LGBT+ cause, despite dressing itself in the rainbow flag during Pride month.
Helgi Saldo, a drag performer, and activist, said, "I do however think brands and corporations are capable of much more than slapping rainbow stickers on things, and this is where we need to pause and think about whether they are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons." He then punches, "Will selling 'gay beer' solve the hate and violence that has existed in systemic form? Will it have an effect beyond inebriation? Let's see."
Despite the fact that businesses make profits by including the mainstream-excluded LGBT+ community, they also engage in business activism to ensure that their support is meaningful, of course to those who only have the purchasing ability.
Recently, in April and June of this year, American beer brand Bud Light and retail brand Target faced backlash for portraying transgender persona in their ad campaigns, but they were not dissuaded from their trans representation.
After drawing attention to this type of business activism, Elo Võrk, lead of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Telia Estonia, says, "We are only taking baby steps in this regard. I agree that the posts we shared on our Facebook page during Pride month were very general and did not specifically represent the Estonian LGBT+ community.
She continues, "But we received a lot of positive feedback from the community. And we hadn't offered any commercial offers for the target group. Basically, we haven't started segmenting our customers yet. This is something we should do now and figure out how to picture them in our campaigns and communications."
Editor: Marcus Turovski