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Finland Becomes an Unlikely Battleground for Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Finland’s parliament narrowly approved a bill legalizing gay marriage on Friday after months of heated debate and controversy. Yes, you read that correctly. Finland, often regarded as one of the most inclusive and progressive countries in the world, has only now approved same-sex marriage for its citizens. In the U.S., by contrast, 35 states have ...

MIKKO STIG/AFP/Getty Images
MIKKO STIG/AFP/Getty Images

Finland’s parliament narrowly approved a bill legalizing gay marriage on Friday after months of heated debate and controversy. Yes, you read that correctly. Finland, often regarded as one of the most inclusive and progressive countries in the world, has only now approved same-sex marriage for its citizens. In the U.S., by contrast, 35 states have already legalized gay marriage, with same-sex marriage bans recently falling in Arkansas and Mississippi.

The vote passed with 105 votes in favor and 92 opposed, making Finland the 12th European country to allow same-sex marriage and putting it on the same legal footing as its regional peers: Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. The announcement that the bill had passed was met with cheers of jubilation in Helsinki’s Citizens Square as a crowd of at least 5,000 people shouted "thank you!" towards the parliament building. "It’s a demonstration of civic activism and it’s also a sign that Finnish legislation is approaching the same level as that of other Nordic and Western countries on this very delicate and difficult issue," Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told the crowd after the vote.

Homosexuality in Finland has been legalized since 1971, though it was only formally declassified as an "illness" in 1981, and gay couples have been able to enter into registered partnerships in the Nordic nation since 2002. Registered partnerships gave same-sex couples most marriage rights, but banned couples from adopting and taking the last name of their spouse. The announcement to legalize same-sex marriage is being lauded as a victory for activists and marks the end to an uncharacteristically tense debate about homosexuality in Finnish society, where polls and analysts were still undecided whether the law would pass right until Friday’s vote.

Attempts to pass a bill in the past were met with stiff opposition, both in the government and in segments of civil society. Officially recognizing same-sex marriages was brought to parliament by Tahdon 2013, a pro-gay rights advocacy group, after a failed attempt to submit a citizens’ petition in Feb. 2013. Following their rejection, Tahdon 2013 gathered more than 166,000 signatures in favor of same-sex marriage and resubmitted the petition in Dec. 2013, where it was accepted and slated for debate in parliament this week.

Both sides of the debate stepped up their activities in the run-up to the vote. Speaking in late October, Päivi Räsänen, the leader of the conservative Christian Democrat party, made headlines by saying that her party of six seats would leave the government, potentially breaking the ruling coalition, if gay marriage was legalized. On the other side of the debate, approximately 700 Finnish companies, including telecommunications giant TeliaSonera, signed a petition to parliament to show their support and took to social media to raise awareness, with one travel agency offering a free honeymoon trip to the first couple to be married. Similarly, Kari Mäkinen, the Archbishop of Finland’s Lutheran Church became a major advocate for the same-sex cause, giving countless interviews and pushing for reform on the issue within the church. "For me, it is not a matter of opinion. It’s a question of human dignity arising from the basis of the Christian faith," Mäkinen stated to Yle, Finland’s national broadcaster, prior to Friday’s vote.

But the debate over the law could be reopened in April 2015, when parliamentary elections are expected to be called. The nationalist Finns Party, which sits as the main opposition faction in parliament, could look to overturn the law before it comes into effect. Their leader, Timo Soini, described parliament’s decision to legalize gay marriage as "damaging", adding that "this will be the first time we make it normal for children to be removed from their biological roots."

Still, with crowds celebrating in the heart of Helsinki, large numbers of Finnish voters have made their voice heard and any attempts to strike down the law would no doubt be met with stiff opposition from civil society. "Let’s see what happens in the election first," added Soini before exiting parliament after Friday’s vote.

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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