Estonia: the start of a rainbow domino effect?
On 20 June, Estonia’s parliament legalised same-sex marriage, making the country the first post-Soviet state, and only the second among the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, to recognise marriage equality. A decades-long struggle by LGBTQI+ and human rights groups came to fruition as an LGBTQI+-friendly government formed as a result of April elections. While public opinion has begun to shift, Estonian LGBTQI+ groups still face the task of deepening respect for rights and shielding legal progress against likely-anti rights backlash. They will also keep contributing to change in the region, starting with their Baltic neighbours.
At the height of this year’s Pride season, Estonian civil society’s efforts paid off as parliament passed a law allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt children.
On 20 June, the 101-seat body approved, by a vote of 55 to 34, a bill amending the Family Law Act to redefine marriage in gender-neutral terms, as a union between two adults rather than between a man and a woman. The initiative came as part of the political agreement of a new governing coalition following Estonia’s April 2023 election.
This made Estonia the first former Soviet state to achieve marriage equality. Equal marriage is currently recognised in other 34 countries around the world, mostly in Western Europe and the Americas. Last year Slovenia became the first country in Eastern Europe to join them – but progress has been accompanied by regression in several other states in the region, including Hungary, Poland and Russia.
SAME–SEX MARRIAGE AROUND THE WORLD
The long road to equality
Progress has come as a result of sustained advocacy and campaigning efforts by Estonian LGBTQI+ rights groups and broader human rights groups making clear that LGBTQI+ rights are human rights.
Debate on the rights of same-sex couples in Estonia dates back as far as 2005, barely four years after the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. What sparked it was a proposed Family Bill that sought to define marriage explicitly as a union of a man and a woman, generating public debate about the recognition of same-sex couples. This resulted in a call by five civil society organisations (CSOs) for a ‘partnership law’ equalising the rights of same-sex couples.
Back then, the proposal was publicly supported by only one political party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with those on the centre and centre-right – the Centre Party and Reform Party – announcing they would ‘tolerate’ it if happened to pass. But that wouldn’t happen yet: public opinion largely didn’t back LGBTQI+ rights and few politicians were prepared to fight hard on the issue. A longer struggle for visibility and acceptance began in earnest.
Voices from the frontline
Kelly Grossthal is head of strategic litigation at the Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC), a human rights CSO working to create an open society where human rights are guaranteed by the state, and where everyone knows that their rights, as well as the rights of others, deserve equal protection.
For many years LGBTQI+ rights lacked support from public opinion, and therefore it was not advantageous for politicians to actively champion the cause. So we’ve conducted public campaigns advocating for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights, engaged in research, contributed to public discussions and pursued legal cases through our strategic litigation programme. Strategic litigation has had a societal impact through specific cases and narratives. When selecting cases related to the LGBTQI+ community, our primary criterion is their potential to maximise a positive outcome for LGBTQI+ people’s human rights.
We handled several cases that have improved access to social benefits and adoption rights for LGBTQI+ people and filed petitions for constitutional review of regressive laws. For instance, in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Aliens Act that prevented the granting of temporary residence permits to same-sex registered partners of Estonian citizens for leading a family life in Estonia was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.
Civil society has been instrumental in shifting public opinion about LGBTQI+ people, with numerous LGBTQI+ groups and networks organising events for both LGBTQI+ people and the public as a whole.
For over a decade the EHRC has commissioned public opinion surveys on LGBTQI+ issues from an independent research company, Turu-uuringute AS. According to the most recent one, conducted earlier this year, support for marriage equality has increased by six points in the past two years, with 53 per cent of Estonians currently in favour. Progress has been significant: a decade ago only 34 per cent were in favour and 60 per cent opposed it.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Kelly. Read the full interview here.
The Estonian LGBT Association was founded in 2008 to offer legal, psychological and counselling services to LGBTQI+ people and promote their rights. By then, roughly one and a half decades had passed since Estonia became independent, but the legacy of Soviet legislation criminalising same-sex relations was still palpable, with LGBTQI+ people living in a climate of discrimination and aggression. In 2013, the Estonian LGBT Association came together with nine other civil society groups to form the Equal Treatment Network, aimed at promoting equal rights for excluded groups, including children, migrants and refugees and LGBTQI+ people, among others.
As soon as it came into existence, the Estonian LGBT Association started working alongside its Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts – Mozaika and the Lithuanian Gay League – to organise an annual march, Baltic Pride. The event was modelled after Latvia’s Riga Pride, held since 2005. Baltic Pride’s first edition took place in Riga in 2009 and has rotated between the capitals of the three countries ever since, coming to Tallinn, Estonia, for the first time in 2011, and again in 2014 and 2017. Every October since 2017, Estonia has also hosted an LGBTQI+ film festival, Festheart, organised by CSO Sevenbow.
Baltic Pride has grown each year but has had to deal with an at times violent backlash. In June, when it returned to Tallin after a pandemic hiatus, three participants, including a Finnish pastor, were targeted in a knife attack during an event organised by the Association of Gay Christians.
Such violent acts appear to be a reaction to shifts in public opinion, with those strongly opposed to LGBTQI+ rights becoming more violent as their views become more fringe, unable to accept the changes undergone by Estonian society.
By 2009, the idea of some form of ‘registered partnership’ for unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, was gaining traction. But lawmakers resisted change, and in 2010 they passed a new family law that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman and declared same-sex unions invalid. The Supreme Court however ruled this unconstitutional and mandated the legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
The battle lines were drawn. Liberal forces on both the centre-right and centre-left – the Reform Party and the SDP – supported a gender-neutral registered partnerships bill granting unmarried couples some, but not all, rights and duties associated with marriage. Conservative right-wing parties rejected it, with the Centre Party supporting debate.
The draft bill was submitted to parliament in early 2014, where it survived various motions aimed at shelving it or subjecting it to a referendum before being passed in October that year. It took effect on 1 January 2016 and soon faced – and survived – successive repeal attempts.
The law didn’t guarantee adoption and parental recognition rights equal to those of married couples. It also remained largely ineffective due to parliament’s inability to agree and pass the required implementation acts. Same-sex couples remained in legal limbo and had to take to the courts to realise their rights under the law. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was in force and must be enforced even in the absence of implementing provisions. Subsequent judicial rulings and positive administrative decisions focused public attention, helped shift opinion and paved the way for further legal change.
The ongoing debate and increased visibility have played a crucial role in driving cultural change and garnering support for LGBTQI+ rights. And legal changes seem to have further deepened the positive cultural shift.
But things got worse before they got better. When the party that won the most seats in the 2019 elections, the Reform Party, was unable to form a government, the task fell to the Centre Party, which went on to form a right-leaning coalition with the far-right populist Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) and the mainstream conservative, Christian-democratic Fatherland (Isamaa). At EKRE’s insistence, the coalition agreement included a commitment to hold a binding referendum on whether the constitution should define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. This subsequently became a non-binding referendum supposedly aimed at gauging public opinion, to be held in 2021.
In response, the Estonian Greens party launched a petition on the government’s official website calling for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and the SDP announced its support. Estonia 200, a liberal party founded in 2018, also backed the call. The petition became by far the portal’s most signed petition ever. In the meantime, the SDP and Reform Party tried, and failed, to kill the bill calling for the referendum. But on the day its second reading was scheduled, the government collapsed as a result of a corruption scandal. When the bill was put up to a vote, it was rejected.
For a few months, the Reform Party led a grand coalition with the Centre Party and its leader, Kaja Kallas, became Estonia’s first female prime minister. When this coalition broke apart a political shift began, with a new Reform-led coalition including the SDP and Isamaa. The shift was complete following the March 2023 election, which increased the Reform Party’s share of seats and confirmed Kallas’s leadership, resulting in a new Reform-led coalition with the SDP and Estonia 200. The new government has taken a strong pro-Ukraine, pro-European Union position and committed to properly regulating civil unions and enshrining marriage equality. This idea faced some resistance from within the Reform Party but was championed by Estonia 200 and the SDP as part of coalition negotiations.
The reform bill was introduced in May, approved on 20 June and signed into law by the president a week later. It saw a clean split in parliament: no lawmaker from the ruling coalition voted against it and none from the opposition voted for. In the run-up to the vote, civil society worked to increase LGBTQI+ visibility, boosted by several respected public figures coming out. But the vote also offered an opportunity for anti-rights groups and conservative parties to spread hate speech and try to fuel prejudice. EKRE and Isaama vowed to reverse the law as soon as they regain power.
What – and where – next
Estonia offers a remarkable success story. Only a few decades ago it was one of 15 Soviet republics. Today it’s an independent state and a functioning democracy with open civic space, in which LGBTQI+ people have been able to exercise their rights to associate, speak up and mobilise to claim their rights.
With LGBTQI+ people and groups able to access their civic freedoms, great change has been won. Estonia also has legal protections against discrimination and allowed for legal gender change without requiring sex reassignment surgery, sterilisation or divorce as early as 2002.
It’s still the case that legal change is ahead of public attitudes. Estonia ranks 46 out of 197 countries on Equaldex’s Equality Index, which ranks countries according to their LGBTQI+-friendliness. It scores high for its legal recognition of LGBTQI+ rights, but far lower when it comes to public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people.
Public opinion is shifting. According to a recent poll commissioned by the Estonian Human Rights Centre, 53 per cent of Estonians now support marriage equality, up from only 34 per cent a decade ago. Up to 75 per cent of people aged under 30 support it, suggesting that backing will only increase. But a sizeable minority remains who continue to view homosexuality as unacceptable. Many LGBTQI+ people in Estonia still don’t feel comfortable being themselves out in the open.
A lot more work with public opinion will be required to move forward and prevent regression – but activists are optimistic in believing that legal change will create more visibility, further normalise the existence of LGBTQI+ people and bring more social acceptance of diversity.
Alongside Slovenia, Estonia is now a big exception among the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe – and an example for them to follow.
The other two Baltic countries could come next. Latvia and Lithuania both score much lower than Estonia on the Equality Index. They both have some version of a civil partnership bill stuck in parliament, although in Latvia same-sex couples are able to register through the courts. Marriage equality is perhaps still a long way away, but both are functioning democracies with open civic space and they’re making progress. In May, Latvia signalled change when its parliament chose a gay president, one of the first public figures to come out around a decade ago.
Latvian and Lithuanian LGBTQI+ organisations will continue campaigning and hoping that a window of opportunity opens as it did in Estonia, with an LGBTQI+-friendly political coalition coming to power and helping bring decades of activism to fruition. In the meantime, rights organisations in the three countries will continue to work together, as they have done around Baltic Pride, to make the Baltic – and the world – proud.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Estonian LGBTQI+ groups should continue to work to win over public opinion and advocate for stronger protections for LGBTQI+ rights.
Estonian LGBTQI+ groups and broader civil society should keep up their campaigns of public engagement and prepare to resist any anti-rights backlash.
Estonian civil society should support campaigns to recognise same-sex marriage in other countries in the region, including in the two neighbouring Baltic states.
Cover photo by Ilmars Znotins/AFP via Getty Images