Some people get caught up in the celebrations of Pride and forget about its important contributions to social justice. For others it’s just as easy to become disenchanted and cynical with the corporatization and commercialism of our movement. Beyond Gay was about the many contradictions and variations of Pride around the world, and it struck a chord that continues to resonate with many different people. I can say this with confidence because in April I was contacted by Stewart Wheeler the Canadian Ambassador to Iceland, who, along with his counterparts in Stockholm and Helsinki, were interested in showing the film during their Pride festivals. They were also hoping I was available to travel the events to present the film in person. The Harper government wants to send me to these amazing places to screen Beyond Gay and advocate for queer rights? It seemed too good to be true. How could I say no?
The first stop is Helsinki, Finland, and as with many places in Beyond Gay, it comes with its own unique set of LGBTI issues and social circumstances. Finland was occupied by Russia from 1721 until 1917 when it gained independence. Today it continues to share a 1300 km border with Russia, the overwhelming majority of new immigrants come from Russia and after Finnish and Swedish, its two official languages; Russian is listed as the most common mother tongue of the citizens. It’s fair to say, Finland’s population of 5.4 million people are significantly influenced by Russian culture. One look at the incredible communist era architecture of Helsinki and that point becomes even more obvious.
The Helsinki Pride week evolved out of earlier sexual and gender rights demonstrations known as Liberation Day in the mid 90’s. It is organized by Heseta, the largest of member of the umbrella organization of Finnish LGBTI advocacy, known as Seta, which was founded in 1974 and homosexual acts were removed from the penal code in ’71. In November of 2014 the Finnish Parliament passed a gender-neutral marriage bill by a vote of 105 – 92, a result that had been expected to be much closer. But then in stark contrast, a predominantly conservative government was elected in April of 2015, a situation eerily similar to Canada in 2006.
All this sets the stage for Helsinki Pride. As preparations for my trip begin, I learn that the US embassy is planning to gather several activists from the region for an afternoon of discussions and networking, and I am invited to participate. In addition to the screening of Beyond Gay, the Canadian embassy is also organizing a float to host these activists and dignitaries from Finland and other embassies to lead the parade. This is getting very interesting.
The Heseta Pride program includes over 170 events, and the first thing that stands out to me, is that there are several events every day specifically for youth. Beyond Gay screens the Wednesday before the parade and I’m looking forward to meeting the Canadian ambassador, Andrée Cooligan, an out lesbian. She is one of the first to arrive. All concerns that this woman could be a stuffy uptight diplomat are quickly dashed. Like my own partner, Cooligan is Montréal Canadiens fan from Ottawa, and we are fast friends. There are several events happening simultaneously, so I’m pleased that about forty people attend the screening, including the program coordinator from Heseta, Minna Kalenius, and Jeffrey Reneau, the liaison organizing the events at the US embassy. I’m warned that Finns are notoriously shy and it might be difficult to get the conversation started afterwards but the Q&A afterwards goes great. After the screening several of us go out for dinner, and then the ambassador personally drives me back to my B&B and gives me a fantastic tour of the neighborhood. It’s a great start to the tour.
Friday is the US embassy program. We start with lunch in rooftop restaurant in a hotel in the heart of the city. Reneau and a few of his colleagues from the Embassy in Helsinki welcome us. There are also representatives from the US embassies in Riga and Moscow, ten Eastern European activists, as well as some from Helsinki. It’s an impressive group of people and the conversation at the table lively and electric as everyone gets to know one another.
Next we are taken to the US embassy and are welcomed by the US ambassador, Bruce Oreck, a handsome body builder who has apparently gathered quite a following in the Bear community. I can see why. Then each of us gives a presentation about our work and Karspars Zalitis from Riga gives a recap of EuroPride that took place there a week earlier. Riga first attempted Pride in 2005 when 3000 protestors outnumbered the 70 LGBTI who came to march, and it ended in violence. This year, over 5,000 people marched, more than double what they had predicted, with 90% of the participants being allies. For Zalitis the joy on the faces of the participants was the true measure of success.
There is a reception planned for after our presentations called Eat, Drink, Forge a Link, with another 75 key people from Helsinki invited to join us. As the day unfolds, word comes out that the US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of same-sex marriage. What a day to be at the US embassy.
So far the summer in Helisinki has been unseasonably cold and the forecast for the parade day has been dodgy. But I awake to a mostly blue sky, and the warmest day since I’ve been here. I pack up my stuff and head to a brunch before the parade, also hosted by the US embassy. Their newly appointed Special Envoy for LGBTI rights, Randy Berry explains that not only is he new, so is the position, and I am struck by the fact that US is really making some pretty remarkable efforts at the highest levels of government, as well as connecting the on the streets activists seated at the table.
As we continue with brunch the sky slowly darkens and torrents of rain begin to pound down outside. Everyone tries to ignore it at first but it’s hard not get anxious. My heart is breaking for the Pride organizers, all the incredible activists I’ve met this week, some who are here to celebrate their first Pride. It’s hard to tell from narrow band of sky we can see from the window, how serious the storm situation is, but it doesn’t feel good.
But by the time we get outside the rain has passed, and across the street in the plaza everyone is assembling for the parade in glorious sun. People from the Canadian embassy are hanging the flags of the nations that have legalized same sex marriage off the side of the truck that is our float, and the one by one dignitaries from their embassies arrive and climb on board. Thousands of people fill the plaza, Ambassador Cooligan arrives in a Habs jersey with a giant rainbow Maple Leaf flag, and hundreds of small Canadian ones to hand out to the crowd. The DJs she’s arranged managed to keep their gear out of the downpour and the playlist of retro disco she’s ordered is fired up and our crowded truck lurches into the street.
It’s a remarkably non-commercial parade; there are just 10 “floats”, some gay bars, a newspaper, a few LGBTI groups and ours. The bulk of the parade is made up of about thirty LGBTI groups, human rights organizations, unions, individuals and their allays. Everyone can join in the march however they wish and from an activist perspective, I really appreciate Pride’s like that offer this ability for everyone to participate on their own terms. There are no registration fees, or rules about where you’re positioned. It’s wonderfully organic. When asked about sponsorship, Kalenias says it would be great to say they didn’t need it, but that is not the case. Helsinki Pride keeps growing and they need more support to keep up. The fact is that although local companies aren’t opposed to LGBTI rights, the idea of marching in the parade or participating in some other way, simply isn’t even on their radar.
Ambassador Cooligan explains that the impetus was for our embassy to host a float this year was that after marching in the parade for the first time last year, she realized how incredibly important it was to be involved. While much of the work the embassy engages in is about assisting with foreign investment in Canada, and Canada’s in Finland, another very important part is human rights. And it’s not really so much about the Finns in particular, although that is important, it’s more about Finland’s geographic location in the region. With the new laws in Russia and other Baltic states having serious human rights issues for LGBTI people, Helsinki Pride was very significant in the region, and it is an important symbolic gesture that Canada participate and show our support.
The parade empties into a beautiful park on the edge of the Baltic Sea for a giant picnic. There are no fences, barricades, or fees to get in, and local performers entertain the crowd from the stage for hours. Several tents of food, drinks, merchandise, and information about community groups are spread throughout the park, and because it’s legal to drink alcohol while having a picnic, everyone can bring their own and enjoy what they like without waiting in line or spending a fortune. Over 25,000 people took part, making it the largest one ever. These aren’t astonishing numbers by North American standards, but it’s a huge success for Heseta, and many people tell me that the large turn out was about expressing concern over the recent election of the socially conservative government, and the celebration of the same-sex marriage votes here and abroad. Whatever the reasons, it was like the perfect storm for Helsinki Pride, and I’m reminded that sometimes leaving North America is the best way to feel the genuine spirit of Pride. If you get the chance, try it in Helsinki.