Estonia is set to become the first former Soviet state to legalise same-sex marriage, as a vote is due early next week.
The bill, which would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and win the same rights as heterosexual couples, has been backed by the country’s liberal coalition government, which came to power in April.
The government has moved swiftly on the draft bill, among other measures, to distance itself from neighbouring Russia, which has invaded Ukraine and cracked down on LGBTQ+ rights.
Some see the bill as a symbol of Estonia’s alignment with European values and culture, in contrast to Russia’s authoritarianism and repression.
“Accepting marriage equality is the last milestone on Estonia’s pathway to a truly open and equal society and European values, shaking off the last shackles of its tragic past of Soviet regime and repressions,” said Vootele Pai, an independent political analyst and former adviser to the interior minister.
“Besides the physical war with tanks and missiles, this war is also a war between cultures, values and liberties,” he added.
Estonia has about 1.3 million inhabitants and is a member of NATO and the European Union. It is one of 29 countries around the world that have legalised same-sex marriage, mostly in Europe and the Americas.
The bill follows earlier moves to grant greater rights to LGBTQ+ Estonians, all of which fell short of equality.
In 2014, Estonia introduced same-sex civil unions, but they did not provide the same adoption rights and parental recognition as marriage.
“It’s a second-rate law that makes you feel like a second-class citizen,” said Silja Oja, a 46-year-old communications specialist who hopes to marry her partner.
“This is very emotional for me, because it’s my country, my state, telling me: ‘we respect you’,” she said.
Oja and her partner settled for a civil union in 2022, after losing hope they could ever marry in Estonia.
Now they dare to dream of wedding bells, as do many other LGBTQ+ couples in their country.
“We call on the government to drop a clause in the draft law on the family, which does not allow the registration of same-sex marriages or partnerships,” said a press release by five Estonian NGOs supporting LGBT rights in 2006.
Their call may finally be answered next week, if the parliament votes in favour of the bill.
However, not everyone is happy with the proposed change. Some conservative politicians and groups think the government is moving too far and too fast on gay rights in a region known for social conservatism, a hangover from Soviet rule that ended in 1991.
They argue that marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman, and that legalising same-sex marriage would undermine traditional family values and morality. They also claim that there is no public demand or support for such a law.
The bill is expected to face fierce opposition and debate in the parliament, where it needs a simple majority of 51 votes out of 101 to pass. The outcome is uncertain, as some MPs may abstain or change their position at the last minute.
The vote will be closely watched by LGBTQ+ activists and supporters across Europe and beyond, as well as by those who oppose same-sex marriage on religious or cultural grounds.
It will also be seen as a test of Estonia’s commitment to democracy and human rights, as well as its stance towards Russia and its influence in the region.
– Estonia set to become first ex-Soviet state to back gay marriage, Reuters, June 14, 2023
– Recognition of same-sex unions in Estonia, Wikipedia, June 15, 2023
– Estonia first ex-Soviet state to legalise gay marriage, BBC News, October 9, 2014