Leading the way for the Baltic States? Estonia legalises same-sex marriage5 min read
This June, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) voted to legalise same-sex marriage, becoming the first Baltic and former-Soviet state to do so. Whether it was intentional that the vote happened during Pride month is unclear, but nonetheless, it was a fitting coincidence, reflecting changed attitudes in the population and the liberal positioning of the ruling coalition
In the last Estonian elections, which took place in March 2023, the Reform Party with Kaja Kallas at its helm was re-elected to lead the country. Her government ended up consisting of her own Reform Party, the liberal Eesti 200, and the centre-left Social Democrats. After the election, Kallas said that introducing same-sex marriage was one of the most pressing matters for the new government, a proposal which was handed to the Riigikogu in May to be discussed and voted on in June. The new legislation will come into effect at the start of 2024.
Historically, homosexuality was criminalised during the Soviet occupation; it only became legal again in 1992. In 2014, the Estonian government at the time legalised same-sex civil unions, providing same-sex couples with similar rights to married couples. However, the legislation did not come into power until 2016, and many rights were still lacking, including the right to share a last name and to adopt children together. While a person could adopt their same-sex partner’s child, same-sex adoption otherwise was not possible in Estonia.
In the newly amended Family Act, which was passed with 55 votes in favour and 34 against, marriage between two adults regardless of sex will be allowed. The transition from a civil partnership to marriage will also be simplified, enabling same-sex people previously unable to enter into marriage to do so. The amendments also enable same-sex couples to adopt, as in Estonia, this is an act only married couples can do.
While the step towards more LGBTQ+ rights reflect the liberal stance of the ruling coalition, the Estonian stance regarding LGBTQ+ rights may also be a reflection of relations with Russia and other countries. As Russia has taken more and more steps to reduce the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, the Estonian government’s choice to do the opposite can be seen as another way to stand up to Russia. This was the case in 2014, but even more so after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, following which Estonia has repeatedly taken a stance against their eastern neighbour.
Since independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia has in many ways strived towards adopting a more Nordic identity, attempting to tie itself closer to its Nordic neighbours rather than other former Soviet states. Marriage equality legislation is one such attempt, as confirmed by Prime Minister Kallas who stated: “With this decision, we are finally stepping among other Nordic countries as well as all the rest of the democratic countries in the world where marriage equality has been granted.” However, while the new legislation is a step forward, the question of LGBTQ+ rights is something that Estonia has lagged behind in terms of living up to Nordic standards. In the neighbouring countries of Finland and Sweden, same-sex marriage has been legal since 2017 and 2009 respectively.
While the Kallas government has acted in favour of same sex-marriages, the same cannot be said for previous Estonian governments. Only three years ago, in 2020, the then government coalition party EKRE proposed a referendum concerning the question of whether marriage should be defined in the constitution as between a man and a woman. However, the suggestion to hold a referendum was voted down in the Riigikogu, with only 29 votes in favour.
While ultimately unsuccessful, EKRE’s referendum proposal can to some extent be seen as reflecting the opinions of part of the population. A 2019 survey from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 64% of Estonians in same-sex relationships avoid holding hands with their partners in public. A further 42% of respondents said that they had been harassed in the year before the survey. However, it should be noted that attitudes towards LGBTQ+ and marriage equality have slowly but steadily been changing in the past few years. According to a survey by the Estonian Human Rights Centre, today, 53% of Estonians support same sex marriage, an increase of almost 20% since 2012, when only a 34% of people were in favour. It should also be noted that there is a generational divide on this topic, with 75% of young people supporting marriage equality. Apart from age, the survey also took into consideration native language, and saw some differences between the Estonian-speaking population and the Russian-speaking population. However, the noted positive change in recent years is, to a large extent, credited to the changing attitudes of the Russian-speaking population, where more and more have said that they are accepting of same-sex relationships.
While Estonia has been at the forefront of the Baltic States regarding LGBTQ+ rights, Lithuania has also recently taken steps towards introducing civil unions. The legislative draft, which was passed at the first reading in the Seima, includes legalising civil unions both for opposite and same sex couples. Meanwhile, though their own law on civil unions has been stalled in the Saiema, Latvia is the first EU country, and only second in the world, to have an openly gay head of state. While much still needs to be done in all of the Baltic States to ensure the equality and rights of LGBTQ+ citizens hopefully Estonia can show the way with these recent legislative amendments.