In Finland, homosexuality was illegal up till 1971, and was only declassified as an illness in 1981. The age of consent was equalized to 16 in 1999. Now Tom of Finland creator, Touko Laaksonen, who began drawing his homoerotic images in the 1950s, is celebrated across the land.
A new film about Laaksonen’s life, directed by Dome Karukoski and starring Pekka Strang in the title role, has also been hitting the multiplexes this year.
Walt Disney of Gay Culture
Laaksonen, whose style has inspired musicians and artists around the world with the leather look being sported by Freddie Mercury, among others, wasn’t always so popular in his native country. Now described as The Walt Disney of gay culture, his sexual and artist’s life was led in the shadows in Finland, something which the film, the first biopic of his life, portrays well. But all that has changed in the last few years.
Stamps and Bed Linen
Laaksonen and his erotic images were commemorated in a Finnish stamp collection in 2014 and with a collection of linen by Finlayson. (This is a Finnish company whose most famous products thus far had been linen portraying Moomin Trolls, the famous cartoon characters created by Tove Jansson.) The collection includes Tom of Finland towels, sheets, aprons and canvas bags adorned with Laaksonen’s head-turning sketches.
The following year, in 2015, the largest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, had an advert on its cover, with a message to the new Baccalaureate graduates. A boy in a graduate cap is tucked in between Tom of Finland bed sheets with the caption,
“Congratulations to the graduates of life. The future of a small country lies in the hands of their talented youth. Be brave, challenge and question. Believe in yourself, make big things happen and be happy.”
I’m proud of 100-year-old Finland
Something like this would have been unheard of in the Finland I left behind in the early 1980s. Even ten years after homosexuality had been legalized, being gay was something no-one talked about, let alone admitted to. I myself didn’t hear about Tom of Finland until years later after I’d moved to the UK, and saw his images on the internet. I guess I’ve lived a sheltered life, but I’m sure many of my generation were equally unaware of this fabulous subculture that existed in Finland and elsewhere.
While I’ve been exploring gay culture and the social attitudes towards sexuality in the early 1990s in the UK and in Finland for my latest novel, I’ve been taken aback how differently homosexuality was viewed and written about in the press only 27 years ago.
It’s wonderful to see how attitudes have changed – at least in my native country and in Britain. I am hugely proud of Finland and of Laaksonen. He is one of the many talented people that my small country of Finland has bred.
This is a good foundation for the future of a country that celebrates its 100th year of Independence in 2017!
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5***** ‘Wonderfully Intimate and honest,’ Pauliina Ståhlberg, Director of the Finnish Institute.