Welcome to Estonia

Monday, November 16, 2020.

Estonians are currently more worried about LGBTQ people than about the pandemic. For good reasons. As a foreigner I don’t participate in parliament votes, but as a software developer and a catholic am fascinated by the discussion itself and I wanted to make up my mind and thought that it might be interesting to share my thoughts.

Back in 2014 a minority of people asked the Estonian parliament to regulate particular legal issues. I guess it was not LGBTQ people themselves who asked for the change. The idea that homosexuality is a sin is thousands of years old, and they are by nature far too shy to speak about their problems [1]. Their cause was rather taken up by therapists, lawyers and salesmen who work with these particular people. Also it is a general trend in modern progressive countries to tackle legal issues related to homosexuality that have not been openly discussed for such a long time. So parliament undertook the work of reviewing our laws. They put forward a new Cohabitation law, which defines the “cohabitation contract”, very similar to a “marriage” (defined by the Family law). A reasonable compromise that avoids rushing from zero to full recognition at once.

The implementation of the cohabitation law got stuck partly because of polls saying that 75% of Estonians are against same-sex marriage. Some of the politicians who had been advocating for the cohabitation law changed their mind when they realized that they were swimming against the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the new law finally passed in January 2016 with a narrow majority. In other words, almost half of the members of parliament were against it. They refused to accept the democratic decision and successfully hindered its implementation by pulling one of the emergency brakes of our democratic train: they introduced a ridiculous series of requests for changes in order to frustrate the implementation of the law. After the 2019 parliament elections the situation got worse because the Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) gained a lot of voices. And in 2020 EKRE came up with a new idea and demanded a referendum with the question “Should marriage remain a bond between a man and a woman?”.

As a reaction to EKRE’s idea, in October 2020, another group of people suggested the most progressive solution: change the wording of existing family law so that the concept of marriage itself becomes open to same-sex couples. Full recognition in one step. They drew up a petition that got the record number of more than 35.000 signatures. 35.000 citizens saying No to EKRE. So far this has not encouraged EKRE to repent.

The formulation of the referendum question itself is subject to hefty debates. Note that a referendum is not mandatory, it merely provides additional information to parliament. As a software analyst I can say that the currently planned question is incomplete. The original issue was “What to do with de facto same-sex couples who de facto live together or buy a house or a car or who de facto raise children?” If majority answers “Yes” (marriage should remain reserved for a man and a woman), this won’t give the parliament any useful information about how to fix their original issue with the new cohabitation law. The problem would be solved only if the majority says “No” (marriage doesn’t need to remain reserved), which would indicate that they can do as the 35.000 petition signers ask: family law can be modified to extend marriage for same-sex couples and the cohabitation law can be withdrawn because it will have become useless.

But even if they would find an adequate formulation of their question, the referendum as such is absurd because it turns the real issue of a minority into an ideological dilemma for everybody. It takes us into the wetlands of theology. Here be dragons! Members of parliament would be well-advised to stay out of there. Not to speak about the population in general.

When I shared above thoughts on Facebook, one reaction was “I don’t understand this original problem “What to do with de facto …”. What to do? Why do we have to do anything? As you said – it’s a de facto situation. No one denies it. Nobody forbids it. What would get better by changing the nature of marriage?” Haha, welcome to Estonia! The country where you don’t care about other people, where egoism is a strength and solidarity a weakness! Why do we have to constantly adapt our laws to an evolving world? Why do we have to care for other people, including those who are different? My answer is short: Because God calls us to do so. That’s what I believe as a Christian.

Many Estonians find it surprising that I, as a Christian, support LGBTQ people. Actually I am profoundly worried that this sounds surprising. It took me some time to accept that so many Christians in Estonia have an understanding of the Gospel that differs so fundamentally from mine.

The loudest group to protest against same-sex cohabitation are conservative Christians, mostly evangelical and fundamental biblicists. They see the Bible as their authoritative law book which tells them clearly that homosexuality is a sin, and that it must be nipped in the bud because “when you lend your finger to the Devil”, the latter won’t “refrain from taking your hand and even your whole body, and when we will have taken care for the homomaniacs, the cleptomaniacs will raise their head and demand their rights” (words from a Facebook thread). They see it as their holy duty to protect humankind against perversion. Mercy with those who choose to live in sin must not distract our vigilance. We must do our best to prevent legalization of same-sex cohabitation. I don’t agree with their interpretation, but I can understand the logic. When you see a danger threatening humanity as a whole, it is your duty to warn your fellows about the danger and to prevent them from going to hell.

The Roman Catholic church is more subtle. Catholics differentiate between homosexual orientation (which is not a sin) and homosexual acts (which are). Homosexual people are fully honourable humans who are called to live a celibate, platonic life. That’s why they don’t marry. Marriage makes no sense if you don’t plan to have children. The recently published statements by Pope Francis, sometimes presented by mass media as revolutionary, did actually not say anything new, they were in accordance with the catholic teachings.

If a homosexual friend would ask my advice, I would recommend them not to make any definitive commitments, to remain sexually open-minded and to hope that one day they might fall in love with a real partner. There are enough examples of homosexual people who somehow managed to reorientate, married and had children and lived happily ever after. Yes, the church classifies homosexuality as a disorder, a word that causes some trouble because you need to study several years of theology before you are able to understand its full meaning. I then use to say that not understanding everything is not a problem for catholics. And anyway, our faith doesn’t give us the right to hinder non-catholic LGBTQ people from regulating their real life issues in accordance with civil law.

The best non-religious argument I’ve heard so far against same-sex marriage is “Today most people are completely friendly to same-sex couples. This is going to change when marriage, which is important to us, will be broken.””

Indeed. Making same-sex cohabitation legal by pressure from “outside” or “above”, against the tenor of a population’s beliefs, is known to cause more trouble than peace.

The man who formulated this argument added that legalizing same-sex marriage is “driven by a desire to destroy the institution of marriage”. I cannot agree with that because I don’t know any LGBTQ defender who wants to “destroy the institution of marriage”. Defenders of polygamy might want to destroy it, but most of those are heterosexual men. Maybe Mammon, the “financial elite”, wants to destroy marriage. That’s worth more research, but this seems to lead us quite far into those wetlands with the dragons.

The same man was also worried that letting same-sex couples access the institution of marriage means to change its “principal basis”.

What is the principal basis of the marriage concept? As far as I have learnt over twenty years of marriage, the core power of marriage is the fact that two humans make a binding decision of holding together “in good and in bad times, until death separates them”. They become a new entity. This process is irreversible. Of course marriage seen like this is an ideal, and reality sometimes differs from our ideals. But holding up this ideal makes sense because it creates trust and stability. It encourages us to develop our loyalty, humbleness and communication skills. I don’t see any other important advantage of marriage. That’s why the biggest threat to the concept of marriage is the popular belief that we can divorce and then try again. That’s why I find it almost amusing when people in Estonia, where every second marriage ends in divorce [source], fear that same-sex couples might be a threat to marriage. What do people find important about marriage other than the life-long binding? Sex? Estonians never had problems with sex outside of marriage. A divine law? Estonians are proud to be one of the least religious people in the world.

Stiiv wrote: “Tammsaare saw these cultural clashes years ahead of his time. He wrote about the clash between city, where women and men relate to each other as equals and the country, where, since the end of serfdom, marriage protected the transmission of the farm from father to son. Marriage was always a challenge to serfdom and the tradition of the landlord’s rights to the bride on the first night of her marriage asserted that the true ‘owner’ of the bride was the landlord. In the country, the tradition that property passed to the male heir, while his sister sought a husband in another village has retained its subtle influence even after the state acquisition of private property in the soviet period. Even then the courtesy of asking permission from the pre-soviet owner of the property was maintained by some. We imagine that our high expectations of romantic love were always the prime concern of marriage. In reality, marriage protected property and the more property you owned, the more significant was the marriage contract. Romance happened of course, but not always inside marriage. Literature and poetry has always witnessed to relationships outside of marriage, especially amongst the ruling class. They were tolerated so long as marriage protected the transfer of property from one generation to the next. Perhaps the fact that marriage is no longer so much about property is one of the reasons why marriage is no longer the indispensable context for family life that it once was, at least among those who owned property. How interesting that Tammsaare’s Kõrboja Peremees ends with two women setting up home together in order the better to care for their son - a very estonian solution to a practical problem ‘Who will inherit the farm?’”

When I assume that divorces are the main threat for the concept marriage, I don’t believe that refusing same-sex cohabitation would somehow protect the marriage concept. I believe the opposite: embracing LGBTQ people into our society as honourable humans will strengthen marriage. The growing number of divorces is caused by a growing inability to find realistic answers to our controversial questions. Every couple encounters obstacles caused by conflicting beliefs. Most couples divorce because they failed to handle these conflicts. If we want to protect marriage as an institution, we need to learn how to handle conflicting beliefs. Allowing same-sex marriage would be a great example of a law that cultivates a society where loving the ideals of your fellows is as important as loving your own ideals.

Most debates about political –or familiar– issues are actually forecasts. We worry about how the system will evolve when we change a given element. Simulations and scientific studies can help us to make better forecasts, but remember how unreliable a weather forecast can be for the next week. In a couple we are often forecasting for years, and in politics often for generations!

That’s why my inner alarm bell rings when somebody claims to have scientific or biblical “evidence” for their opinion. Both in politics and in marriage it is important to realize that conflicting convictions are just the result of our differing characters and personal histories. Having a different opinion is no reason to fight, it is a reason to praise reality, which is bigger than any human reason, and to enjoy our diversity. Only then are we able to learn and to make wiser decisions.

Most of us have neither time nor motivation to dive into every political issue. That’s why we delegate professionals to do this for us. That’s why we have parliaments where our delegates dive into the issue, discuss and then decide.

One of the most important things for me, when I vote for a politician, is not their stated political direction, but how they behave when discussing with their colleagues, whether they value other people’s convictions and remain open for dialogue.

Estonian parliament has become unresponsive because too many of its members lack basic democratic skills. EKRE chairman Mart Helme did not even beg our pardon for the disaster he caused. Neither did his party. This behaviour is a no-go. Estonia’s international reputation is in high danger. It is time to hold new parliamentary elections in the hope that enough citizens have made up their mind since 2019.

Writing this article took me many days. I finished on Sunday, November 22, 2020. See also first feedback in Wednesday, November 18, 2020. Thanks to Joseph, Lea, Jaan, Stiiv, Samuel and Priit who gave valuable contributions.