“FINDING YOUR OWN NICHE:” An Interview with Finnish LGBT Activist, Roh Petas

Roh Petas has gone from grass-roots activism in hir native Finland to working with LGBTQ issues on an international level as the Chair of International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trangender, Queer Youth and Student Organization (IGLYO) in 2012-2013 and in the Council of Europe Advisory Council on Youth since 2014. Ze is also working as a trainer for teachers in gender equality issues and norm criticism.

IGBP: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Roh Petas: I’m 27 years old. I was born and grew up in a town called Porvoo that’s around sixty kilometers east of Helsinki. I’m from an average working class family: mom, dad and brother. I moved to Helsinki a while ago, went to secondary school here, and then started my university studies.

I started getting active in different organizations when I was 16. I started my activism in environmental organizations, which probably came from my close family and extended family who are all very nonpolitical (don’t really want to stick out, don’t really want to make a fuss about stuff) but have a great appreciation for nature. They taught me to appreciate nature and to take care of my environment. I think that sort of was one of the reasons why I started with environmental activism.

In my late teens I started moving over to more LGBT activism and became a trainer at Seta, the national LGBTI organization in Finland. That’s sort of where it all got started. I’m a member of the Swedish-speaking language minority in Finland, which I think also had quite a big impact on the way my activism turned out. When I was younger I didn’t speak very good Finnish, which I think limited me a lot socially, and also influenced what kind of organizations I was active in and what kind of activism I did. I think that is one of the reasons why I actually started to turn to international activism where everything is in English. I became active in the regional Swedish-speaking LGBT organisation Regnbågsankan, working basically with minority issues (LGBT) in a minority (Swedish-speaking), which of course is very interesting in and of itself (the minority in a minority issue). It also means that it’s a very, very small community; very few people are actually involved. Eventually I wanted to sort of do something else and try something different.

(Roh Petas by Dušan Milojevic)

IGBP: Are you someone who identifies as LGBT?

Roh: Yes. I don’t really identify as anything specific; it’s more that I have a fluid gender identity and gender expression that can vary a lot and change a lot from year to year. So I basically see myself as not heterosexual and not cisgendered. So like fluid identities, queer, or whatever! [Laughter]

IGBP: What was it like growing up for you as someone who is part of the LGBT community?

Roh: I was very confused as a young child because of my gender identity, because I knew that I didn’t identify as a boy but I didn’t really know that there was anything except being a boy or being a girl. I thought that if I’m not a boy then I should be a girl, but I wasn’t. It was very confusing for me when I was young. I had a certain amount of support from my family and close environment but not necessarily understanding, simply because their general understanding was also limited.

The situation for LGBTQ people in Finland is good from a global perspective (especially since it’s gotten even better over time) but in the nineties visibility of LGBTQ people was almost nonexistent. Still there are very few celebrities that are openly gay or lesbian or bi or transgender or whatever, but it’s still a lot better now than it was when I was growing up. I had a lack of role models as a kid and I also suffered bullying and stuff at school, which I think also influenced the fact that I later did become active in different civil society organizations. When I eventually did come to terms with my own identity, I saw that there’s nothing wrong with who I am and that it’s unfair that I was treated badly by my peers. That really affected my sense of right and wrong, justice, and wanting to work so that other people don’t have to go through the same kinds of things I did. That’s why I got active in Seta and was a trainer for many years. I often visited schools to discuss norms about gender, sexuality, and inclusion.

As for my family, coming out was quite un-dramatic to be honest, which of course is good. It was anticlimactic. I expected it to be a bigger deal, but it was good to be surprised in that way. It did take a while before I actually did come out  (I was actually already an LGBT activist before I discussed it with my parents). But it was fine, and my circle of friends has always been very supportive. Obviously with time I started making more friends that were LGBTQ themselves in one way or another. 

I’ve been very privileged in many ways. Of course it’s terrible to have been bullied (I was bullied for nine years in school), but the bullying never reached a physical level, which I also think has a lot to do with the specific school I was in and the fact that I came from a smaller town. I think it also had to do with the fact that the Swedish-speaking community is so small, which means that there’s both more social support but also more sort of a ‘big brother’ watching all the time. Many people are related in different ways, or at least they know each other, and that just gets more enforced in a small town.

There are definitely people in Finland that haven’t been as privileged as I have, such as in smaller areas, rural areas, or sort of the ‘Bible Belt’ in Finland (yes, we have one of those, too). I have friends who have very difficult experiences coming out or growing up coming to terms with their sexuality or gender identity, so it really depends on who the people in your life happen to be, their values, and how open they are to changing their way of thinking. I think that if my parents hadn’t had me as a kid – someone who questions gender and sexuality norms, is very outspoken and active in media and organizations, or trying to make a change – I don’t think that they would have ever really needed to reflect on their own views on LGBTQ people.

(Roh Petas at No Hate Speech Movement Forum in Gabala, Azerbaijan in 2014 by Cristina Fairfax)

IGBP: Why do you think it’s easier to be ‘out’ within the Swedish-speaking community versus the general Finnish communities?

Roh: The common perception, as I have understood it, is that it’s a bit easier to be LGBTQ within the Swedish-speaking community because, as Swedish speakers, we can take part in and enjoy Swedish media. In Sweden, even though legal rights are more or less the same as in Finland, there are a lot more celebrities that are out as LGBTQ people (and have been ever since the eighties) so there’s a longer tradition of speaking about gender and sexuality in media in general in Sweden. If you don’t speak or understand Swedish, then you wouldn’t necessarily know that. In that way, the Swedish-speaking community in Finland absorbs positive influences from Sweden. 

IGBP: What do you think the current situation in 2014 is like for LGBT young people in Finland, especially teenagers that might be coming out?

Roh: I’d say it’s a lot better than when I was a teenager myself simply because there is a discussion taking place on a completely different level – there are more discussions in politics, in media, and among celebrities and role models. One example is the whole issue of gender-neutral marriage that finally got passed in parliament after being rejected several times. It was reintroduced in parliament thanks to a citizens’ initiative, which is a system that was introduced a few years ago where anyone who is a citizen of Finland can introduce an issue to the parliament as long as they get a minimum of 50,000 signatures (that might not sound like a lot from the U.S. perspective but from a Finnish perspective, it is quite a lot). So, the initiative goes to parliament and they have to discuss it in some way; they don’t have to adopt the proposed legislation but they have to discuss it. Well, the citizens’ initiative for gender-neutral marriage got 161,000 signatures in just the first 24 hours, which is more than three times the required amount.

Finally it got to the point where they voted about it in a plenary session just a few weeks ago [in November]. There was a huge demonstration outside the parliament building with lots of people present. There was a very good atmosphere, just sort of like a feeling of joy and happiness because it was assumed that it would pass even though it had required a big campaign to get to that point. It was very, very close in the end but it passed with maybe ten votes. The fact that I was there and was able to see that there were so many teens and kids there as well was incredible. These teens and kids got to participate in a positive movement that was highly publicized and has such a huge support among the general public. It was nothing like what you discuss in schools in social studies.

Now, more and more LGBTQ youth support groups are being founded, and not just by civil society organizations: the municipalities are taking more responsibility and are giving more resources to actually work with these issues, which is great because it’s really needed. As I unfortunately assume, young LGBTQ people everywhere have a higher rate of depression, self-harm, and low self-esteem than cisgender hetero kids, so there are a lot of things that still need to be worked on, but at least more things are being done now than ten years ago.

(Roh Petas at rainbow mass organized by Regnbågsankan by Fedrika Bistrom)

IGBP: In the United States, there are many who have experienced frustration that so much time, effort, and money has been put towards advancing gay marriage when there are other (perhaps more serious) issues facing LGBT people, such as homelessness, incarceration rates, and trans abuse. Are those issues also being discussed in Finland and how do you see them being balanced alongside the issue of gay marriage?

Roh: I have to agree that, for me personally, the question of gender-neutral marriage isn’t a top priority in my activism. I choose to focus on different issues that I feel that are more important. It’s important that we have equal rights and opportunities before the law, but when it comes to things like trans issues, there is a lot that needs improvement in Finland. For example, to be allowed to go through a gender reassignment process you still have to have a diagnosis from a psychologist or a psychiatrist stating that you have a gender dysphoria and have gone through sterilization or are infertile in some other way. With the gendered marriage law still in force, you might also have to get divorced if you're married or in a civil partnership when you transition. There are lots of issues connected to the fact that you are not allowed to decide your own identity, or how you are received, or what you are ‘officially.’ We are working to change this in Finland but we are facing some setbacks from a political party in the government that threatens to leave the government if new trans legislation is passed, meaning that we would have a minority government that would probably fall quite quickly. As a result, there is a bit of political blackmailing going on. 

In my opinion, trans legislation is a question of human rights and self-definition. It’s about not being forced to undergo unnecessary operations, surgery, or other breaches to human rights. While marriage is important symbolically, it’s not as serious as having one’s body and psyche being policed.

As for homelessness, it’s not discussed much at all, not when it comes to LGBTQ young people at least.  Hopefully this is because it’s not such a big issue or problem, but since there is no current research done on the topic, there is no way to say for sure. I assume that LGBTQ people, especially trans people, are probably over represented among young people who are homeless or kicked out of their homes, but there is no way to actually be sure. Violence against trans people is also something that there isn’t much information on; hate crime legislation is a bit vague, as far as I know. There’s a real lack of information and a lack of advocacy. In Finland, those organizations working with LGBT issues are so focused on social services and providing direct support for LGBTQ people that many are not focused on actual lobbying or advocacy work. With that being the case, there’s a lot of work to do. 

IGBP: What is your current role as an LGBT activist in Finland?

Roh: For the last few years, I’ve been focusing more on lobbying and advocacy work on an international level, which takes a lot of time and effort. I put in a minimum of ten hours per week at IGLYO while I was the Board Chair while still having to have some sort of income from work, studies, whatever.

Currently I represent IGLYO in the Council of Europe Advisory Council on Youth. The Council of Europe is a complicated organization with a complicated structure (lots of bureaucracy). The Advisory Council on Youth consists of representatives from 30 youth organizations who, together with the 50 governmental representatives in the Steering Committee on Youth, decide on the priorities and the direction of the youth department of the Council of Europe. This means that young people are able to affect change on issues that are important to them on a relatively high political level. As the IGLYO representative, I see it as my job to make sure that LGBTQ issues are kept on the agenda, either explicitly or from a broader perspective. We have thirty representatives while the government has fifty, meaning that if there would be a difference of opinion, they could vote us out since they have majority in the Joint Council on Youth. We usually try to have a consensus, but with fifty countries represented from all parts of Europe, we all share very different views and standpoints when it comes to LGBTQ issues. Consider for a moment that Russia is on the Council. Russia has implemented anti homosexual propaganda laws, which effectively make it illegal to speak positively about LGBTQ people or issues affecting them. Contrast that perspective to those of organizations and countries that have very progressive legislation and support for LGBT organizations in their country. It’s about finding a good balance and keeping important issues on the agenda in a way that can be accepted by other people.

It’s been… not exactly a cultural clash, but an interesting learning experience. I started from a completely grassroots level, then went to an international level with IGLYO working on policy issues and trying to affect change for other youth organizations, and am now working on a government level with states and the Council of Europe. I feel that my contribution has been to keep questions of equality and social inclusion on the agenda. In November we set the priorities for the youth department for the 2016-2017 period. One of the priorities is to increase youth departments’ capacities to work with multiple discrimination and intersectional issues. This was a great victory because more skills and knowledge are needed, not just within the Council of Europe but also among the youth organizations that receive funding and support from the Council of Europe. By getting this on the agenda we hopefully will be able to increase the level of work that all youth organizations are doing when it comes to equality, inclusion, and having some sort of a norm-critical approach in what they do. As I said, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

(Roh Petas from photo exhibit "Hetero - the Sexual Majority" (2011) by Fredrika Bistrom)

IGBP: What kind of role do you see the It Gets Better Project playing in helping to achieve the strategies of the Advisory Council on Youth or other international organizations working on behalf of LGBTQ youth in Europe?  

Roh: Unfortunately, the It Gets Better Project doesn’t have a lot of visibility at the moment, either in Europe or within the networks that I am more active in. But I do believe that the It Gets Better Project has a very positive message that we all really need to hear every now and then.

Sometimes it can be very frustrating and things can seem quite bleak for young people, especially considering the progress some European countries are making while others seem to be going twenty, thirty years back in time. In the last few years, there has been a rise in extreme right organizations, youth unemployment and poverty. These issues sort of build into each other, support each other, and often create a closed atmosphere where people think more about what I need and what’s important for me than they do for others. If you are so privileged to be a white, heterosexual, cisgender person who is a citizen of the European Union, then you might not understand or care about the rights and needs of immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, transgender people, LGBTQ young people, and so on.

We all need a little boost to keep hope up because there are some countries where it is hard to stay positive. Through my activism in IGLYO, I have met people from all over Europe that don’t care or understand the situations going on in other countries. We have to learn to support each other, check our privileges, and see what we can do to make things better for other people.

IGBP: How do you think LGBT youth can participate in making this change happen?

Roh: I think the first and maybe most important step is just to realize that you can actually do something. You can achieve something and your goals don’t have to be sky high. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve or what the needs are in your community, you can organize a support group or discussion group that can be a life saver for someone who feels that they’re completely alone. Starting small like that can be more than enough. If you want to do more than that, it’s always possible. You can start your own campaign, you can join together with other groups or people, or you can join an organization. It’s really more a question of what you actually want to do and how you want to do it, I think.

Something that is a problem in Finland for instance, or in the Nordic countries in general, might be that there’s always this sort of thought that, “Oh, but we have no funding to do anything.” You don’t necessarily need money, especially not nowadays when it’s so easy to make an online campaign. As long as you have a good idea that’s easy to implement, then you can get lots of people to join. It can be having a photo campaign where people take selfies with a message to create visibility around a certain issue. Things like that can already make a huge impact and get visibility in mainstream media, force politicians to discuss the issue, and raise awareness for the general public. If that happens, that’s already a huge victory!

If you want to influence even more, it’s still a question of figuring out what you want to do and whom you have to do it with. Realize, though, that sometimes the higher up you go, the less fun it might be! [Laughing] Or at least it’s fun in a different way! I’ve realized that I have had to develop a bit of a masochistic side the higher up I’ve gotten in these organizations and bureaucracy, but I enjoy it a lot. I don’t know if that’s good or bad! [Laughing] I think it’s also important to be honest with yourself about one’s own limits and interests. If you really feel that all you want to do is organize discussions or meetings, be a support person, cook tea or coffee or whatever, then that’s super important. That is so needed! If you realize that you don’t actually want to sit there with kids talking about their problems, or you feel uncomfortable with that, then that’s also completely fine.  That’s not something that you need to do. There’s always something somewhere that needs doing, it’s just sort of finding your own niche, your own opportunities, and realizing that you can do something.

(Roh Petas at March for Equality during Baltic Pride 2013 in Vilnius, Lithuania by Virginia Prasmickaite)

IGBP: Could you share with us a story of hope that you’ve encountered recently?

Roh: The day of the campaign around gender-neutral marriage in Finland and the huge demonstration that was held outside of parliament, I noticed a lot of my friends and acquaintances that are teachers mention on Facebook how there were so many absences that day. One posted, “We were discussing in the teacher’s lounge all the absences today and then we saw some kids on the news from the demonstration. We decided that it’s an acceptable reason to be away!” [Laughing] That’s so uplifting! Teachers can sometimes be perceived as sort of stuck up and neutral in different ways towards the kids, but these ones were being so supportive. Even if they don’t necessarily feel completely comfortable with openly supporting something in the classroom, they can do their part behind the scenes. That’s so good, or at least a start. There are lots of good people around and they do support us in different ways; it’s not just a question of the LGBT movement and LGBTQ people working to make the situation better.  We also have allies! 

IGBP: What word of advice would you like to leave for LGBTQ youth who are reading this interview?

Roh: I’d like to encourage them to not give up and to get involved instead. As I already said, you can get involved in a thousand different ways; it’s just a question of finding what suits you best. There is a lot that still needs improving and I do feel that we all have a responsibility to create the world we want to live in. Doing all this work has given me so much. I’ve made friends all over Europe and I’ve grown immensely as a person. Having my world broadened a thousand times over has been so rewarding. If you’re a young LGBTQ person that is feeling alone or lost, you can help yourself by helping others.