Finland: First female president discusses the future of LGBT advocacy

Tarja Halonen served as the first female president of Finland between 2000 and 2012.  She previously was the chair of Seta, a prominent Finnish LGBT rights organization.

Harvard Political Review: Throughout your career, you have continually emphasized the role of human rights and social justice, particularly in the field of LGBT rights reform. Where do you think the next step is for LGBT rights in the United States?

Tarja Halonen: I started [my involvement with LGBT rights reform] when I was a student in politics in the 1960s. At the time, the world was not as free as you might think—not all hippies and flowers: society was quite conservative. We noticed that one of the big issues in the mental health realm was sexual identity rights and reproductive rights. And that’s why we—I was working with a student organization at the time—asked to get special funding for student organizations to provide related health services. Our actions occurred at the same time as a wider public discussion about these issues. In the early 1970s, Finland reformed the penal code so that being gay was no longer forbidden.

When I was the Minister of Social Welfare and Health, we noticed that there still existed a [problematic] diagnosis: though sexual minorities were no longer considered ‘criminal,’ they were considered to be ‘sick.’ We tried to avoid that kind of terminology. In 2000, a new liberation movement started, and as president of the country, I supported these NGOs in the same way I did forty years ago, but we didn’t have a perfect result. 

I think that America’s [current LGBT developments] have been encouraging others in many countries. And I think that Nordic countries, the Netherlands and the United States have been some of the best examples [of LGBT rights]. Our governments understand that being gay is of course not a risk for the [LGBT] persons themselves, or for the community or the state. It’s a very important human rights issue—perhaps one of the most intimate issues of your personality. That’s why I think we have to work hard in order to help people in Uganda, the Middle East and Russia, because they have a new type of phobia concerning sexual minorities.

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