Could you tell us who you are and what your background is?
My name is Sandra Hagman, I have a Ph.D. in history, and I wrote my disputation on the history of homosexuality in Finland during its criminalization period from the end of the 1800s to the year 1971.
I don’t see myself as a general expert on rainbow rights, as I have mostly focused as a researcher on love and lust between men and their opportunities to exist.
I also have two master's degrees in social sciences, so I always have a very strong societal perspective on these phenomenons.
During Finn Filmnapok the opening film was Tove, which is about Tove Jansson and her life in post-war Helsinki. The film depicts her love affair with theater director Vivica Bandler. In post-war Finland, homosexual conduct was a criminal act and punishable. Can you tell us briefly how the view on homosexuality has changed in Finland during the time it was a criminal offense?
Finland was from the beginning of the 20th century to the second world war a poor, agricultural country. At the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s sexuality wasn’t a category for your identity. Sexuality as a word didn’t even exist in the Finnish language. Men could be together without it affecting their position in society or their village communities. Even in the 1930s men could still occasionally be with men without it affecting their manliness.
The interest in homosexuality started to rise in the 1930s. One of the reasons for this was the population politics of that era. In all of Europe, there was a right-wing political belief that the population would decline. There was a worry about the development of the population and one part of that conversation was homosexuality.
Homosexuality was seen as a threat to population development. Simultaneously there was a belief that homosexuality might be contagious.
People thought that if men spent long enough time together, for example in the army or at sea, eventually they would have sexual encounters with each other. This was combined with the belief that men's desire for women would disappear if they would have these sexual encounters with men. This got a strong foothold during peace times. The 1950s was also a pedophile-fearing era when homosexuals were directly connected as potential abusers of boys.
Homosexuals had during that time no possibility to determine any public space for themselves or to tell the world who they were and what they stood for. All the definitions came from above, from law legislation, medicine, or population politics. Because of this, homosexuals had no power over their own identity which was determined from the outside and was defined as something ugly.
This is linked to the Tove film in the way that it showed the love between two women. The experience of love is equally true for all people and the feeling of love is not determined by when in time it is felt, unlike all these definitions.
In Finland, there was an “encouragement ban” up until the year 1999, which meant it was forbidden to show homosexuality in a positive light which would have meant a film like Tove would have been banned. However, this law was never practically enforced, what was the function of this law?
What happened was self-censorship, which restricted the subjects that were discussed for example by the state-run media YLE.
When discussing these bans, we are in a gray area, and you have to constantly ask yourself “will we get fined or punished by this?”.
The ban is about people not having the right to exist and that has a much deeper effect on people than just banning the screening of one film or banning one event. You are not allowed to be seen, which indicates that there is something inherently wrong and evil about you. Is there a worse punishment than to be socially discriminated against by society?
So, the effects of the ban in Finland were on an individual level you are not allowed to be yourself or see yourself being represented and on a societal level, social norms and thoughts were strengthened.
In Finland, in the 1950s the people who were being defined were not in the room where the definition was being made. The people affected were silenced and a propaganda machine spoke for them of what they were.
During the 2000s we lived in this time of freedom in the western world. We are in a situation where the people affected themselves get to tell who they are, and the expertise has been given to the people themselves and not defined from the outside.
What effect does it have in society and on the minority who gets space to be visible through a film like Tove?
The important thing is the recognition of diversity. Diversity has always existed, but people haven’t been able to recognize themselves in for example films. We need cultural representation, language, and visibility, that we can get empowered by and understand our inner feelings.
In the film Tove, the complexities of the human experience are shown. By seeing this people can get something to relate to in their own experiences.
What is something you as a historian would hope people would know about the history of gender and sexual minorities? What would you hope would change in people's minds when it comes to their understanding of this part of history?
Actually, two things, first of all, there is no clear development path from darkness to freedom. It is important to recognize that, for example in Finland, there was quite a liberal atmosphere in for example rural communities. Judgment and criminalization are only recent parts of our history and were caused by for example population politics but are not a bigger part of humanity.
Sexuality and gender are things that are controlled in society. People need to understand that it requires work to defend these rights. It is possible to slide back very quickly to the darker thoughts of the 1950s as we can see is happening in countries such as Poland, Russia, even Hungary, and some East-African countries.
Name: Sandra Hagman
Profession: Researcher, Senior lecturer at Diaconia University of Applied Sciences in Helsinki.
Education: Ph.D. in history from the European University Institute. Two master's degrees in social sciences from the University of Eastern Finland.