Skip to content

Homophobic Attacks Challenge Helsinki’s Gay Friendly Image

A campaign launched by the City of Helsinki last year to brand itself a gay-friendly town has been overshadowed somewhat by homophobic attacks. The Helsinki City Convention and Tourist Bureau has set up a network of businesses committed to making gay, lesbian, and transgender visitors welcome. However, a pepper spray and smoke bomb attack against the Helsinki Pride march last Saturday, and vandalism against the headquarters of HESETA, the Helsinki branch of the national gay rights organization SETA, suggest that there is room for improvement.

Image: Yle

Explaining the background of the current Gay Friendly Helsinki campaign, Hanna Muoniovaara, the Marketing Manager, of the campaign, says that Helsinki has already promoted itself among gay communities of different countries, hoping to attract a new class of tourists with ample spending power.

Having noticed that Helsinki’s biggest competitors in the tourist business, Stockholm and Copenhagen, have been more active in promoting themselves among the gay, lesbian, and transgender tourists, the Finnish capital decided to follow suit.

Gay-Friendly Business Network Established

To give credence to the campaign, the city’s tourist officials worked to set up a network of businesses committed to fair treatment of gays, both in their hiring policies, as well as customer service.

HESETA chairwoman Kerttu Tarjamo feels that Helsinki is worthy of the title, in spite of occasional outbreaks of homophobia.

"I think Helsinki is relatively friendly. There are many gay people in Helsinki who have moved from other places, because you can live relatively freely, and there is less prejudice. I think we're somewhere in the middle. We're going in a better direction, but definitely it is not the worst."

Gay Culture More Open than Before

When Gay Gambrini, Helsinki's first gay club opened up in the mid-1980s, the main entrance was discreetly located in the back of the building, allowing customers and staff to come and go without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Today, there are quite a few gay bars and clubs in Helsinki, with establishments feeling no need to conceal their character.

"Especially in the past few years, we have a very lively gay community in Helsinki - we have places to gather. Also I think that an active campaign about being gay friendly will positively affect attitudes of people who live here”, Kertto Tarjamo says.

Attacks “Aberrations”

The pepper spray and smoke bomb attack against the Helsinki Pride event a week ago Saturday, and the attack against HESETA headquarters Thursday night were seen as aberrations, but they also indicate that homophobia has not gone away.

"Of course we were shocked about it, because nothing like that has happened in the past ten years or so. In Finland most people respect the right to express opinions, so from that point of view it is a setback, but also it shows that we take more space. The more we are seen, the more there will be statements against us,” says Kerttu Tarjamo on the attack against the Helsinki Pride event.

The gas attack sparked sharp condemnation from President Tarja Halonen, and Kerttu Tarjamo is pleased that that Helsinki police are treating the attack as a serious hate crime.

"This particular event and the way that the police have handled it will have a positive effect on how police will react to hate crimes in the future."

Homophobia a Bigger Problem in Some Countries

While many of the gay visitors to Finland come from countries that are relatively tolerant, others are under more pressure at home to stay in the closet.

"We have countries nearby where Pride events cannot be organised, or they are vandalised much more than our event was, so I hope that they will find their way to Helsinki and see that this is a safe haven for them as well."

For Hanna Muoniovaara, the ultimate aim is to make a separate designation of "gay friendly" unnecessary:

"The main aim is that nobody has to have these labels such as gay friendly, but as it still is such a sensitive subject, that we need to talk about it. I hope that all companies will be gay friendly in Helsinki, and that it would spread out to the whole country."