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At Helsinki Pride, a Mix of Joy at NATO and Concern for US

Marchers at Helsinki Pride

Finland LGBTQ+ community celebrated the country’s acceptance to NATO, but fear the spread of America’s religious conservatism.

Earlier this summer my  partner and I were on vacation in Copenhagen, Denmark and Helsinki, Finland. We were far away from the turmoil in the U.S. but it seemed to follow us thousands of miles away.

We were in Finland in time for the annual Pride March in Helsinki. Rather than stand along the march route, I spent most of the afternoon talking with some of the marchers, and I was surprised at how much they knew about what was happening in the United States

You could say the U.S. is like the most popular person at school, so when something happens to that person, particularly in a negative way, the news travels fast. America has long been depicted as a shining city on a hill for all the world to look up to. That hill began to slip in 2016, and by this year it seems like we're in danger of being swallowed by  a sinkhole.

Among the marchers were signs about protecting women’s right to choose (Abortion is legal in Finland and in most cases free of charge.). Other placards talked about saving the planet from ignorant politicians (Finland is a world leader in addressing climate change and instituted the first carbon tax in the world in 1990.). And other marchers called for stronger gun legislation. (Finland is among the safest societies in the world when it comes to gun violence.)

 

Helsinki Pride Abortion Sign

 

The point is that the signs and sentiment about these issues seemed to be not only addressed to the U.S. government but also to the Finnish government. Marchers wanted to send a warning that what happened in America could also happen in Finland if conservative Christians succeeded in influencing laws.

Invariably, when I introduced myself to the marchers as being from the United States, most everyone was incredulous. “What’s going on in your country?” one young woman asked. “It sounds like it's turing into Russia” another woman retorted.

That really stung, even more so because there are many LGBTQ+ Russians who have fled to Helsinki to seek asylum.

Perhaps most Finns may have a better grasp of what happens in Russia since the countries are so close geograpically, compared to an understanding of how the U.S. government works 5,000 miles away. Likewise, we in the U.S. don’t have much of an idea how the Finnish government works. So, the Finns, like most people around the world, assumed the worst about what was going on in the states based on the headlines they were reading and seeing.

When I explained to everyone I spoke to about the fact that the vast majority of U.S. citizens don’t’ support the Supreme Court’s decisions about abortion, climate change and, guns, I think I left them even more confused.

I was also asked, if we are the model of democracy in the world, and in a democracy, majority rules, how can all of this be happening? People were generally upset about the dwindling rights in the United States. "Your gay marriage is going to be illegal too," one woman said to me as less of a question and more of a statement. And she was mad about that.

I began to understand the raw anger in the crowd about what was taking place in this country, and it made my anger much more palatable in a way I didn’t expect. Perhaps, we as Americans, need to be doing a hell of a lot more than just waiting to get angry at the next Supreme Court ruling or the next bright shiny object that comes along.  Or have we all been gobsmacked into a static shock?

 It wasn’t all doom and gloom about what was transpiring in the United States at the march. In fact this year’s Helsenki celebration took on a whole new dimension. There was a sense of added festivity among the marchers this year. During the week prior, Finland along with Sweden, were cleared to join NATO. For many in the country, it was a huge sigh of relief, since Finland borders the ever-threatening Russia.

If Sarah Palin could see Russia from her window, Finnish people have an even closer and more foreboding view. The added sense of security of belonging to NATO has alleviated, to a point, the fear of Russian aggression. But that will never go away as long as Russia looms large and foreboding.

I had the wonderful opportunity to connect with the Chairperson of Helsinki Pride, Panu Mäenpää. He first validated my observation that the march was quite large. “On the streets there were around 80,000 people and about 15,000 alongside the streets! It was packed and I was very happy,” he said.

I began by asking him how much it meant to the marchers to know that Finland was accepted to NATO. “I think this feeling of relief is shared by many in Finland at the moment,” Mäenpää explained. “The Russian attack on Ukraine certainly got us all thinking about defense, and I think all those fears, instilled in all Finnish people for so long, really surfaced after the invasion of Ukraine. What would stop them from attacking other countries along their border? So yes, this year’s Pride March had that added sense of relief.”

I explained to Mäenpää my conversations with the marchers about what was happening in the U.S. and the fact that I saw so many signs about abortion, climate change, trans rights, and guns.

“I think we are all looking towards the States to assess how conservative voices and powers are taking action,” he pointed out. “Hence, for example, the abortion issue is very relevant, because we fear that the conservative movement, that is probably funded also from the States, will come to Europe as well. We can also see countries like Hungary and Poland adopting much tighter laws already.”

With that said, I asked what he thought are some of the most important issues affecting the LGBTQ community in Finland, and if there was an overlap to what is important in the U.S.? “Yes, there are some,” Mäenpää began. “Transgender people and the laws that guide their life, need to be changed so that they can live more freely and safely. We also share a concern for the rise of the far right and Christians. Like you, we are determined not go back in time. And finally, creating more accepting attitudes. We still have a lot to do, so that LGBTQ+ people can live with broader acceptance and peace also in Helsinki.”

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