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‘What the new generation wants’ Estonia becomes the first Baltic country to cross the marriage equality finish line

Source: Meduza

Story by Aliide Naylor for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

It’s late spring in the Estonian capital, and the city’s trendy Sveta Baar is hosting an event called Kweer AF as part of the Tallinn Music Week international festival. Couples dance happily under green-and-blue strobe lights while Estonia’s blonde-curtained DJ Dyke (Marlene Leppänen) mixes dark techno tracks. 

“Sveta has really changed the scene,” recalls Hanna Kannelmäe, who performs there as drag king Eeben Früülep. “Before it came [along], the queer community didn’t have a place to come together, especially the young queers.” 

Stickers plastered throughout the venue carry heartwarming messages, like “Always Look Out For Each Other.” Outside, the club’s patrons are discussing Dutch colonialism, in English. Sveta draws a diverse and generally progressive crowd, though the club’s popularity comes with certain problems, Kannelmäe notes. “Having allies there is great,” the performer says. “[But] it still happens that they let in people who actually just don't know how to behave.”

Tallinn’s nightlife took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, but its subsequent resurgence has also boosted the city’s queer scene. “Through its programming, Sveta Baar has definitely been a melting pot of different backgrounds and cultures, and has probably encouraged other venues to throw queer parties [and] hire queer artists,” says Heinrich Sepp, another Tallinn-based drag performer. “This was a big PR move from politicians and establishments that were struggling, and it definitely helped the queer scene be more visible.” 

Last April, two months after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sveta Baar hosted a major event called Drag for Ukraine, where Estonian drag queens and kings performed to raise funds for the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community. The event featured Kannelmäe’s own tanned, mustachioed drag king act, which mocks an Estonian far-right politician, as well as Sepp’s drag alter ego, Helgi Saldo. “We managed to raise around 4,000 euros [$4,400] for LGBT+ Ukrainians at the auction and [through] ticket sales,” recalls Sepp. 

A crowd gathers around a destroyed Russian tank, installed to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Tallinn, Estonia. February 25, 2023.
Sergei Grits / AP / Scanpix / LETA

A year later, Ukraine remains at the top of the country’s agenda — and Estonia feels like a global hub. While the music festival featured psychedelic, electronic, and folk acts from as far away as Uganda and Canada, the Lennart Meri Conference hosted policymakers and experts from around the world to discuss Russia’s ongoing war. Domestic officials were in a seemingly endless cycle, rotating between the conference and Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, which opposition parties were filibustering over family benefits and changes to the tax system. 

Estonia was also in the throes of amending its Family Law Act to redefine the legal concept of marriage as between “two physical persons” instead of between “a man and a woman.” The Estonian parliament approved the legislation on June 20, with 55 lawmakers voting in favor of it and 34 voting against. 

“It is all done now,” Laura Kurs, a PR advisor to Estonia’s minister of social protection, told The Beet the day the bill passed. “We join other Nordic nations with this historic decision,” Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted. “We're building a society where everyone’s rights are respected and people can love freely.”

The law will officially come into force from January 1, 2024, making Estonia the first Baltic country — and the first nation formerly occupied by Moscow — to legalize same-sex marriage. But as recently as last month, the future of the marriage equality bill was still uncertain. 

‘The time is right’

One bright Friday afternoon in mid-May, Estonia’s Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo was giving interviews to a glut of news cameras outside the broad, pastel-pink parliament building. The Riigikogu is usually closed on Fridays, but with the ongoing filibuster, it was far from a normal day.

Inside the building, Riisalo had set up camp in a temporary “office.” An inflatable air mattress lay on the floor, adorned with yellow-and-blue bedding. The minister ended up spending most of the weekend in the parliament, in order to present her new family allowance bill.

Riisalo is a member of Prime Minister Kallas’ center-right Reform Party, which formed a coalition government with the liberal Estonia 200 Party and the Social Democratic Party back in April. Together, they hold a 60-seat majority in the parliament, leaving the opposition with 41 representatives. 


Europe’s new ‘Iron Lady’ The steady rise and future potential of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas


Europe’s new ‘Iron Lady’ The steady rise and future potential of Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas

Marriage equality emerged as a key issue during the coalition talks, with some speculating that backlash from conservative parties — and from among the coalition partners — would hamper efforts to legalize same-sex unions. Nevertheless, the Estonian government approved a corresponding draft law on May 15 and submitted it to the parliament for consideration. “We do have [an] extremely strong opposition right now. But I believe that the time is right,” Riisalo said when asked about the bill. 

Just days earlier, opposition politician Martin Helme, the leader of the far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), had said openly that obstructing the proposed changes was a priority for his party. “For us, attacking the traditional family and attacking families in general is one of the most unacceptable parts of today’s government,” Helme told Estonian state media. 

As expected, the draft law received immediate pushback, with 59 Estonian public figures (including an editor at one of the country’s biggest newspapers) signing an open letter asking the Riigikogu not to change the existing concept of marriage. “Marriage mostly stands for family, while family is primarily understood as a man, woman, and their children,” said signatory Martin Mölder from the University of Tartu. Kallas deemed the letter “painful to read.” 

Another 600 public figures, including former Estonian Presidents Toomas Hendrik Ilves and Kersti Kaljulaid, sent the parliament their own letter in support of marriage equality on May 22. “Any kind of discrimination is prohibited in Estonia. It is especially incomprehensible and sad when a distinction is made on the basis of characteristics that we cannot change ourselves,” Kaljulaid told the press. 

In turn, Ilves argued that restrictions on human freedom belong to a bygone era, alluding to the fact that homosexual relations between men were criminalized during the USSR’s decades-long occupation of Estonia. “Let’s not allow the Soviet mentality to keep us in the past,” the former president said. 

Undeterred, opposition parties submitted more than 700 amendments to the bill in an apparent attempt to delay its passage.

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‘We haven’t hidden who we are’

More than half of Estonians support same-sex marriage, according to a recent report from the Estonian Human Rights Center. What’s more, the proportion that supports marriage equality rises to 75 percent among people aged 20–29. “There has been a shift [with] so many young people being out and brave,” said Kannelmäe, the drag performer. (People over 30 might operate on more of a “don’t ask — don’t tell” basis, they added.)

“We can see that people with higher education and younger people — they support it [marriage equality] more,” Riisalo observed. 

According to the polling results, Estonian speakers are also much more likely to support gay marriage than Russian speakers. Some even speculate that Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine may have had an impact on popular attitudes, widening a perceived ethical gap between Russia and the “West.” “It's really like, where are your values?” Estonian television host Taivo Piller asked rhetorically. “Like [in] Soviet times — or are you looking towards the European side?” (Kallas also alluded to Estonia’s social progress since the end of the occupation era. “We have developed a lot in those 30 years,” she told Reuters on June 20, “We are equals among same-value countries.”)

Two young people display a rainbow flag on Tallinn’s Freedom Square. October 2020.
Julia Kuznetsova /

Piller and his husband, model Mart Haber, were two of the first people in Estonia to formalize their relationship under the country’s 2014 Registered Partnership Act. However, they also decided to get married outside of the country, in New York City, so that the Estonian state would afford their relationship an extra level of recognition. The couple had fraternal twins via a surrogate in Ohio in 2019.

As public figures, they never had the option of hiding their relationship, Piller said. “People know our faces,” he explained. At the same time, Piller maintained that he and his husband “have had a lot of very positive support.”

“We haven’t hidden our life, who we are, or how we live,” added Haber. “And we have done it in a kind of very honest and open way, and people have seen it.” Asked about his personal experiences with homophobia, Haber brushed the question away. “I don’t feel it at all,” he said. 

According to the couple, piecemeal progress on LGBTQ+ rights has come from an ongoing dialogue between politicians and the population — but perhaps with politicians lagging a couple of steps behind. “This is what the new generation wants,” Haber concluded. 


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‘They’re taking our futures away’ Transgender Russians on what Moscow’s coming ban on medical and legal transitions will mean for them

One step at a time 

Estonia has long enjoyed the reputation of being the most progressive of the three Baltic nations, promoting a close linguistic and cultural association with its northern neighbor, Finland. In Rainbow Europe’s 2023 assessment of LGBTQ+ rights in 49 countries on the continent, Estonia comes in 25th, while Lithuania and Latvia rank 36th and 37th, respectively.

Lithuania’s own civil unions bill passed the second reading last month. Latvian lawmakers abandoned a similar piece of legislation in December 2022, although same-sex partners can apply for civil status through the courts. 

Both countries also have yet to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention). The European Council approved the E.U.’s accession to the convention on June 1, but constituent states will still need to ratify it via their own national procedures. Conservatives in Latvia have opposed the legislation, arguing that its defined concept of “gender” could pave the way for same-sex marriage. In Lithuania, meanwhile, the ratification process has been similarly hampered by some politicians’ fears that it would legitimize the concept of “social gender.”  

Riga Pride participants. June 2022.
Evgeny Feldman / Meduza
Onlookers watching the Riga Pride march. June 2022.
Evgeny Feldman / Meduza

Nonetheless, Latvia managed to hold one of its largest ever Pride Week festivals in Riga at the beginning of June, with the participation of dozens of companies, organizations, diplomats, and “thousands of happy people who stand for human rights,” organizer Kaspars Zālītis told public broadcaster LSM. 

Earlier, at the end of May, Latvia’s parliament appointed Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs as the country’s new president, making him the first openly gay head of an E.U. member state. 


Progresīvie and Gen Z: A leftward shift for Latvia?


Progresīvie and Gen Z: A leftward shift for Latvia?

In terms of what’s next for Estonia, Riisalo said that changing the country’s outdated procedure for legal gender recognition is not on the table as yet. At present, there are no legal options for identifying as nonbinary and updating one’s gender in official records remains a lengthy bureaucratic process. “Currently the situation is extremely offensive,” said Kannelmäe, who is non-binary. “They put you into a position where your gender expression definitely does not match your gender marker [on paper].” 

Policies in support of LGBTQ+ rights are moving forward one step at a time, Riisalo assured. “We do have ideas,” the minister said. But given the near 10-year gap between Estonia legalizing civil partnerships and same-sex marriage, some activists have long accused the government of dragging its feet on equal rights. 

For her part, Riisalo seems all too aware that passing the marriage equality law was a hard-won victory. “I'm very thankful and grateful for [LGBTQ+ rights] organizations because they have been very patient in waiting for the right time,” she told The Beet.

Indeed, for LGBTQ+ people in Estonia, the value of changing a few words in a state document cannot be underestimated. “I really feel like this [sends] a really strong message that I am equal in my own country, [that] I am not some second-class citizen who needs to beg for their rights,” Kannelmäe underscored.   

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Story by Aliide Naylor for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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