Tell us about youself.
I am Esa Setälä, a doctoral researcher on the field of gender studies at the University of Helsinki. I have been at the doctoral programme in gender, culture and society for a little over a year now. So, I am at the beginning of my doctoral research journey. My research has been supported by OLVI-foundation, Kansan Sivistysrahasto and Olga and Vilho Linnamo Foundation.
You are doing your doctoral dissertation on queer families. How did you end up researching this subject?
I graduated as a master of gender studies in 2021, and in my master’s thesis I already researched queer families and their lived experiences. I found the subject interesting and it kept bringing up new questions. I wanted and was encouraged to continue with the same subject, especially because queer families in the Finnish context are under researched.
Initially I ended up studying gender studies itself as a minor subject during my undergraduate studies. At that time, I got interested in the subject and its socially critical view. Especially when I found out about queer theory, its norm-critical view on gender, sexuality and other social norms, I got really invested. I graduated as a bachelor of French language in 2017.
How would you describe the current situation of queer families in Finland? Has it changed or is there something specific you would like to bring up, whether it was a deficiency or an accomplishment.
For one, we have had three major amendments that can be seen as positive improvements.
- Marriage equality law (2017) which equalised, brought juridical status and made adoption technically possible for all couples, although in practise same-sex adoption still rarely takes place.
- Maternity law (2019) which makes automatically makes the two mothers in a female couple juridical parents, in other words one does not need to go through the process of domestic adoption. Both maternity law and marriage equality law have been important steps regarding the life of queer families in Finland and the people I’ve interviewed have brought this up a lot.
- Most recently we had the updated trans law (2023), which has been a major improvement for trans people in the sense that in order to receive gender affirming care one no longer needs the be sterilised. This makes it possible to freeze one’s reproductive cells and thus eases trans people’s abilities to have children. Nevertheless, said amendment is flawed in a sense that it completely disregards trans youth and nonbinary people.
Regarding deficiencies in the current situation in Finland, I would bring up the reproductive abilities for cis men as an example. Sateenkaariperheet ry (Finnish organisation for queer families) has especially highlighted the possibility of gestational surrogacy. We should start researching how we could put it into practice as ethically and sustainably as possible. I see the rise of the anti-gender movement and extreme Christianity in different parts of Europe as one of the biggest threats for queer people – will they become more prevalent in Finland as well? For example, in Italy they have started to dismantle already achieved rights for queer families.
You are a gender studies researcher. How do you view the role of gender studies in academic field? What does it offer and what do you think about the fact that the whole discipline is now forbidden in many European countries?
I consider gender studies to be an important discipline. It has the ability to produce and create feminist social critique, which can be seen as a threat to conservative values. This has led to shutting down whole academies, like here in Hungary. I think gender studies might criticize just those values that Orban stans for, such as conservative family values and racist laws, like being against immigration.
And when you think about what kind of research is done in gender studies, it is easy to say that the subjects are usually very understudied. The research topics in gender studies are often something that can generally be seen as insignificant. Gender studies sheds light on subjects such as queer family life and experiences. Or more specifically like when I was doing my research article about trans parents, I noticed how little there is any research on trans parents. It is vital to do research on subjects that are often seen as ‘’weird’’ or ‘’abnormal’’ - which comes back to the previously mentioned feminist social criticism and norm criticism. It is a pity, that even in Finland there are currently open positions for university lecturers or professorships that are not being filled. It is a result of decades that we even established the first professorships in the first place, and I think we should hold on to them and fight for them more.
You have stayed at Valóság artist and researcher residence for this month. How did you end up here and how has it been?
The idea of applying here first came from my partner Jussi, who is an artist and thus we ended up applying together. I had not heard about the residence before, but I got excited about the possibility to have a getaway from day-to-day life for a month. Here I’ve been fully able to focus on what’s ahead. It has been a great month. The residence is at great location and the neighbourhood feels like Kallio, Helsinki. We can highly recommend staying here. Everything went smoothly with the Valóság cooperative as well.
While being here, I have mostly sent out grant applications for my research and prepared for my lecture in Vienna, where I was invited to talk by the Global Politics and Practice research team at Central European University (CEU). There I got to talk about my dissertation which is about social class and the everyday life experiences of queer families.
We have spent our free time mostly searching for vegan restaurants – which there have been a surprisingly good number of. We have visited bookstores, book antiquarians and second-hand stores. There is a lot of bookstores here.
Has your time in Budapest brought you new perspectives on research or life in general?
I was a bit shocked about how bad the inflation in Hungary is and thus how expensive everything is. I have also learned how Orban’s reactionary politics is intertwined with not only conservative family values and racist policies but with discriminatory policies on economy as well.
Have you had time to get to know the queer scene here?
Unfortunately, not that much. Although we did visit a bookstore called Massolit, where they actively take stand against the lgbtqia+ policies in Hungary.
Can you share your favourite bookstores and vegan restaurants with the readers?
- Atlantis Publishing House and Bookstore
- Rira (close to the residence, good samosas and wraps)
- Kozmoz Vegan Restaurant (vegan goulash soup and other traditional hungarian dishes)
You are leaving in a couple of days. What’s next?
I just received a grant for a year, thanks to Olga and Vilho Linnamo’s foundation. Now I can fully focus on collecting material for my dissertation. When I’ll hopefully get the next grant, I can start writing the first article.
The Valóság residency wants to promote opportunities for artists and researchers in Hungary, as well as offer a unique observation positions and opportunities to promote democracy. The residence is located in the Erszébetváros (VII) district of Budapest, popular with artists and young adults, known for its museums and ruin bars. More than 140 artists and researchers from different fields have already visited the residency. More about Valóság here.
Cooperative Valóság and FinnAgora have cooperated for a long time. In autumn 2024, FinnAgora will invite a researcher to the Váloság residency.
Photo & text: Sanni Majamaa