Estonia is the most overtly gay welcoming of the three Baltic countries, having even passed (though not yet fully implemented) a civil partnership law.
I’m sitting alone in a darkened room, the only light coming from the films screening on either side of me. As I face forward, I watch a middle-aged man pick up a much younger guy in a restroom, then kneel down by a urinal so he can be peed on by him. I turn to watch the other screen behind me, and see an extreme close-up of male genitals being methodically measured. It’s all rather strange, but mesmerizing, and undeniably hot.
Suddenly I hear live movement, and I remember that I’m in a museum. An older man and woman have passed timidly through the black velvet curtain into the installation room where I’m sitting at the center. As their eyes adjust to the darkness, they can’t see me, but they can see what’s on the screens on each wall, and they scurry away quickly. But what fascinates me is that they don’t express outrage, cause a scene, or even make any disapproving sounds as they leave. It’s surprising because this is fairly risqué content to be showing in a mainstream history museum, not to mention one in Tallinn, Estonia.
I’m at Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations, which focuses on the difficult half century between 1940 and 1991 when Estonia was occupied by Soviets, then Nazis, then Soviets again. The main floor’s permanent artifacts about this important period were enlightening, but I’d really come to see this milestone temporary show downstairs, young Estonian artist Jaanus Samma’s “NSFW. A Chairman’s Tale.” Samma had been chosen to represent Estonia at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 with this very openly queer show, his interpretation of the real-life story of a Soviet-era gay Estonian official whose career was destroyed by charges of homosexuality.
It’s a remarkable exhibition for the Baltic states, where widespread LGBT acceptance would’ve been unthinkable not so long ago.
For years I really didn’t know what to think of the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, perched way up high in the northeast of Europe, hugging the Baltic Sea), but that finally changed over the past couple of summers, when I spent a fantastic few weeks in the Baltics. As I got to know them better, not only did I fall in love with them, but also I became fascinated by how very different they are, even with all of their obvious geographic similarities.
Estonia, the northernmost, has ancient cultural ties to Finland. Lithuania, the farthest south of the three Baltics, is tied to its western neighbor Poland, with whom it co-ruled over one of Europe’s biggest empires from the 16th to 18th centuries. Latvia, between the other two Baltics, marches more to its own drum.
By nature, Baltic folks are generally considered to be on the quiet side, with things getting more introspective as you head from south (Lithuania) to north (Estonia). LGBT visibility also gets stronger the higher you go, with northernmost Estonia now heading steadily forward toward equality, while Latvia and Lithuania still struggle with some of Europe’s least stellar LGBT rights scores. Also uniting two Baltics but not the third: As a remnant from the Soviet era, Estonia and Latvia still have large Russian populations (around 25% each, and more than 35% in their capital cities), while in Lithuania, Russians make up a much smaller contingent (less than 5% in the country as a whole, about 12% in Vilnius).
I started my Baltics discovery in its most gay-friendly city, Estonia’s capital of Tallinn. Founded by invading Danes in the 13th century, Tallinn has gone through waves of invasions and occupations of Germans, Scandinavians, and Russians ever since (as has the entire Baltic region). Somehow it managed in the process to preserve one of Europe’s most charming and easily walkable Old Towns, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that now draws visitors from all over the world. I stayed at the Savoy Boutique Hotel, a lovely art deco-inspired conversion of an 1890 building, perfectly situated right on the edge of the Old Town.
Estonia is the most overtly gay welcoming of the three Baltic countries, having even passed (though not yet fully implemented) a civil partnership law. While Tallinn doesn’t have what could be considered a big gay scene by any means, it does have a gay bar (X-Baar), a sauna (Club 69), a cruising bar/porn theater (Male Secrets), and a brand-new LGBT disco, Club PATT that just opened in December. Unlike the other venues, which are all clustered together in the Tatari neighborhood just south of the Old Town, PATT is located in an up-and-coming area near Tallinn’s waterfront.
“Being close to very rapidly developing port area, we hope to attract many tourists, especially during summer,” says Illar Toomaru, one of PATT’s owners. “It was rather bold move to swim against the tide and open a gay club in 2016, but obviously there was a need for one place in town that’s not in a cellar or a closed courtyard.”
Tallinn’s compact size makes it perfect for sightseeing on foot. I started at the top, where the city itself began, on the ancient hill fortress of Toompea. This compact little area has some nice attractions, like the gorgeous Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the centuries-old Kiek in de Kök tower (part of the city’s original fortification wall), and the Museum of Estonian Drinking Culture (tucked inside the historic Luscher & Matiesen Distillery). But the real crowd-pleaser is the fantastic panoramic view of the red-roofed main part of the Old Town below from the Kohtuotsa viewing platform.
Down in the lower and main part of the Old Town, the windy, café- and boutique-lined cobblestone streets give it a charm few European capitals can match. At the heart of it all is the ancient Town Hall Square, still bustling after all these centuries, and a common meeting point for today’s Tallinners. Town Hall Pharmacy, on the edge of the square, has operated continuously here for nearly six centuries, making it the oldest apothecary in Europe.
Just north of the Old Town along the waterfront is the hip Kalamaja district, an old fishermen’s neighborhood filled with wooden houses that’s now considered Tallinn’s creative hub. Another must-hit-area just east of the Old Town is Kadriorg, home to the stunning Kadriorg Palace (built by Peter the Great for Catherine the Great), and the fantastic and massive Kumu museum, the world’s premiere collection of Estonian art.
Beyond Tallinn, one of Estonia’s greatest assets is its collection of Baltic Sea islands, a whopping 2,222 in all, though just a portion of those can actually be visited. I absolutely loved the two I went to, Kihnu and Muhu. The sparsely populated Kihnu, located in the Gulf of Riga, is known as the “women’s island” since its semi-remoteness has helped it preserve a proud and distinct centuries-old matriarchal culture; as the men go off on extended fishing expeditions, the women rule the roost on the island. Muhu, a more common destination that’s also a bit closer to Tallinn, offers easy access, colorful folklore, beautiful nature, and great beaches. Here, I stayed at the sublime Pädaste Manor, a small luxury resort and spa set in a tranquil 14th-century mansion. The absolutely charming partners Imre Sooäär and Martin Breuer, the former is an Estonian Parliament member, own it. I had the great honor and pleasure of dining with them at the manor’s Alexander restaurant, considered one of the best in all of Estonia. The next morning, Sooäär loaded me and my friend into his Tesla and took us for an unforgettable experience at a nearby abandoned Soviet missile com- pound. It was spooky but enthralling, as we stumbled onto dusty artifacts like Russian-made bottles of emergency radiation medication.
Pädaste is just one of scores of converted manors in Estonia and Latvia (plus a few in Lithuania), remnants of earlier centuries when life in the Baltics was overseen by a network of Germanic nobility. On the way back to Tallinn I stopped for a tour of another, the eclectic Kau Manor. Dating from the 13th century, Kau has now been excellently (and quirkily) renovated by its co-owners, American artist Mary Jordan and her Estonian MP partner Eerik-Niiles Kross—so yeah, I got to dine with Estonian Members of Parliament two nights in a row.