Based in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, the Estonian LGBT Association aims to create a fair and safe state for LGBT+ people by influencing government policies and legislation. I spoke to Anette Mäletjärv about their work with the organization and what LGBTI activism looks like in Estonia.
How did you initially become involved in activism? What led you to join the Estonian LGBT Association?
I first got involved in more political activism during Estonia’s civil partnership bill debates. This union for traditional family rights, a Catholic organization, organized a protest against the civil partnership bill, and my friends and I — we were all teenagers back then and a bit more radical — went there to counterprotest with our gay flags. So we were there amongst the homophobes, trying to show that there are people in Estonia who support the bill. Somehow, I was the one who gave an interview to the national news. Later that evening, when they were broadcasting it, I got a lot of positive feedback from people who I hadn’t seen in years, who were watching the news about this protest and said it was so depressing because so many people were aggressive with nasty signs about how gays are pedophiles. But then they saw my interview and said it gave them some hope. It was the highlight of the news for them, and I think that encouraged me to do LGBT activism a bit more.
I was always outspoken about it and tried to promote it in my own way. I went to study in Amsterdam for university, but in 2018, I returned to Estonia for the summer to intern with the Estonian LGBT Association. And in late 2021, after graduating, I started officially working there.
What is the focus of your work?
My work is focused on cooperation — I am the cooperation officer. This includes cooperating with other organizations in Estonia, like partner organizations and other international organizations like ILGA or Transgender Europe. My work also includes communicating with different LGBT+ groups and solo activists, in other words, people who were like me before. For example, I was doing activism and had a meme page and stuff like that. I’m trying to bring people together to do stuff together.
Can you tell me more about the Estonian LGBT Association? What led to its founding back in 2008?
Before, activists in both Tallinn and Tartu were trying to organize events together and were cooperating with each other. In 2008, they were in Sigulda at a meeting for the first Baltic Pride, and there they decided to combine forces and founded Estonian Gay Youth. Then, in 2012, they changed the name to the Estonian LGBT Association to make it more inclusive.
What are some of the services you provide?
Currently, we are focused on advocacy, creating awareness, and lobbying. We also provide psychological and legal counseling and workshops for people in educational, medical, and professional fields.
I remember organizing games with people during my internship to raise awareness in society. We would play “My picture, your label,” so basically, there are pictures, and you have to assign them certain labels. You would then describe how you chose these labels — for example, why you think this person is a lesbian and talk through stereotypes. Most of the people who participated in the game were already aware, but some people had certain stereotypes in their heads, and later they were like, “Oh, this person doesn’t look like a gay man or a feminist.” It was interesting to see how people perceived others and their unconscious biases.
How would you describe what life is like for LGBTI people in Estonia right now?
It’s complicated. Of course, it’s better than it was a few years ago when EKRE — the far-right party — was in government. At that time, they were directly working against LGBT people and the LGBT Association, and there was more fear and more uncertainty. Some people were talking about moving abroad because they didn’t feel safe anymore in their own country. I moved back to Estonia for that reason, but it depends on the person.
I would say that right now, LGBT+ topics are very politicized in Estonia. It’s very exhausting being this political topic that people talk about in the news. People don’t understand that it’s not just a political topic populists are using for their own agenda, but people’s lives.
Even though EKRE is not in government anymore, there were a lot of hate crimes in Tallinn last summer, in 2021. There have always been hate crimes, but now they have been portrayed more in the news and talked about more, thanks to social media. We have learned to film the incidents when they happen or take photos and talk about them. Still, a large percentage of hate crimes go unreported. For example, I organized a Pride in the summer of 2021, and one of the volunteers was attacked by neo-Nazis. It’s still quite scary, but it depends where you live. In Tallinn, for example, I’ve seen people holding hands on the street, and people have a community. But when you live in the countryside in a small village, and you don’t know anybody, then it’s, of course, worse for you because you’re alone. It also depends on your family background and your nationality — for example, people from Russian families generally have it worse because these families are more religious.
How would you describe the LGBTI-activist community in Estonia right now?
The Estonian LGBT Association is one of the few NGO-s in Estonia focused on LGBT+ rights. We also have a queer feminist organization and platform, Feministeerium and EHPV. There is also EHPV, an Estonian HIV-positive organization, which not only focuses on LGBT people but also works with them to prevent HIV spread among LGBT+ people. In Tartu, there is a Tartu LGBT+ group, but they are a bit more community-focused; they mostly host events to bring together the community, which is how it started in Tallinn as well. I think they also tried to start one in Pärnu, but then the far-right came to the event. Also, in Saaremaa, on one of the islands, the creation of an LGBT+ group was disrupted by some conservative politicians. There are more groups now. In 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests happened in the US, Estonians wanted to get involved. There was this global discourse about racism, so in Estonia, they organized the Ühine Festival (Ühine means coming together in Estonian) with local activists and artists, some of whom were queer. So this festival was organized to promote inclusivity and tolerance. They are not necessarily an LGBT+ group, but some are queer and activists, so they get involved in LGBT+ stuff. Then there is also the drag scene, which is growing. Quite a few people in the drag scene are also activists. Now we also have quite a few podcasts. Two transgender people started the first Estonian LGBT+ podcast, and the Associaton now has a radio show. In addition, a drag artist and I started a radio show, Homokringel, so that’s been happening. Finally, there’s Rhythms of Resistance, which is a drum group that has participated in protests. So there are quite a few groups and even more people doing individual things or just participating in protests.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
We were not able to host community events anymore, and most of our work went online during the pandemic. Reaching out to the community, in general, became more difficult. The biggest impact was that in 2020, there was supposed to be Baltic Pride in Estonia, but we had to go online and couldn’t celebrate it as we usually would. However, now we can organize in-person events once again.
Can you tell me more about the role the Association has in organizing Baltic Pride?
Baltic Pride is organized by all three Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In Estonia, the main organization is the LGBT Association; in Latvia, it’s Mozaīka; and in Lithuania, it’s the Lithuanian Gay League. So these are the three main organizations that organize Baltic Pride. Each country takes turns hosting the Pride, so Baltic Pride is in Estonia every three years. But I am hoping to have Pride each summer on a smaller scale.
Would these yearly Prides take place in Tallinn?
I’m from Tallinn, and I’m currently living there, so the one I organized in 2021 was, but I’m hoping Pride events will take place all over Estonia. Unfortunately, the Association has limited capacity, but hopefully, other activists and groups will take the initiative. For example, in Tartu, until this summer there were no official Pride events, just good meaning demonstrations to support gay marriage equality in general. So, there have been LGBT+ protests and demonstrations happening, which are like Pride in a way. However, those events were not organized by the Association but by the Young Social Democrats or the Young Greens. However, this year, the Association organized the first Tartu Pride with a Tartu LGBT+ group.
Can you tell me more about your own personal experience organizing Pride in 2021?
We had a bike ride. The idea came about because the Association gets a lot of comments asking why they don’t organize Pride every year, but we don’t have enough people working here. So that summer — this was right after Covid restrictions eased — I felt that I wanted to do something to bring the community together. After quarantine, everybody needed to socialize and see each other face to face. So I was thinking about a picnic or a bike ride, but then realized that we also wanted a Pride, so why not do a Pride on bikes. So we did it, and we had a very small budget, but my goal wasn’t to have a big Pride, but rather something for the community to come together and enjoy the ride, but also make it political. After the ride, we had speeches from the feminist organization, the human rights organization, and previous and current Association members. Then at night, we had a party in collaboration with Sveta Bar. It was nice, except for the neo-Nazis who came. We had to work together with the police. But otherwise, it went quite well; many people showed up, which was interesting because we only started organizing it two weeks before the date.
How can readers support your work?
Definitely by donating money because being an NGO in Estonia — and in Eastern Europe in general — funding is the main issue that prevents us from doing our work the best way possible. Much of our funding is project-based, so we don’t have independent funding. Independent support would mean we have our own funds to rely on in times of crisis — for example, the Covid-19 pandemic or when we lose funding due to a change in government. So, for example, if an LGBT person has a psychological crisis, we could offer counseling instead of saying we can’t afford it right now.
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