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Discovering The Wonders Of LGBTQ Helsinki

by Jim Gladstone
Helsinki Gay Pride Parade

An excellent two hour, English-language Tom of Finland Experience walking tour featuring Tom’s old haunts, former cruising grounds, and contemporary influence is offered by Happy Guide Helsinki.

This a city where you can let your guard down, show affection in public, and expect a general nonchalance about sexual orientation.

Until this past summer’s Trump-Putin tryst, most gay Americans had probably given little thought to the Finnish capital. And the sad sight of those two kissing each others’ keisters may have made it even less likely that you’d think about paying a visit. Well, think again.

From mid-May to mid-September, Helsinki can be hella fun. Moods are high after the gray winter months, and urban Finns take full advantage of up to 19 hours of daylight in mid-summer. They pour into tidy streets, parks, and bars at all hours, ready to have a good time as long as the sun shines. Carpe noctem!

The sculpture Bad Bad Boy, a giant peeing man by artist Tommi Toija in the port of Helsinki, Finland

The sculpture Bad Bad Boy, a giant peeing man by artist Tommi Toija in the port of Helsinki, Finland

The extended hours of light are also a boon to first-time visitors, who can pack a lot into even a single day in this pedestrian-friendly town.

Working with state-owned Finnair, the national government encourages short-order exploration.

Taking a page from Iceland, which has seen an explosive growth in tourism thanks to its popular stopover programs, the Finnair Stopover Program allows international travelers flying through Helsinki to debark for up to five days at the same fare as a roundtrip between two cities the airline directly services in the U.S. and Europe or Asia. (American gateways include Chicago, Miami, New York and San Francisco).

Helsinki is also a common stop on so-called Scandinavian cruises (Technically, Scandinavia includes only Sweden, Norway, and Denmark; whereas those nations along with Finland, Iceland, and Greenland are all considered Nordic countries).

Gay travelers looking to add a stamp to their passports and sample a warm and welcoming culture (virtually everyone speaks English) will have a fine time in Finland.

A Very Graphic Welcome Mat

What Keith Haring is to New York, Touko Laaksonen is to Helsinki. Better known as Tom of Finland, the artist was initially embraced within the city’s gay subculture, but he who went on to become a cherished international pop icon.

There’s a major difference, however, between the two artists Along with the overtly gay content of Haring’s cartoon penis parties and “Silence = Death” protest posters, his output included plenty of joyful, far less sexualized imagery: radiant babies, goofy grinning faces, and dancing dogs, all executed in cheerful saturated colors.

Helsinki Kaisa Opening by Jim Gladstone

Helsinki Kaisa Opening by Jim Gladstone

Laaksonen’s work, on the other hand, largely stays in a single lane: graphic, musclebound homoeroticism. His sailors, farmboys, and leather daddies boast gargantuan chests and redwood genitalia, rendered in pulpy black and white.

While it’s commonplace to see Haring images popping up on everything from kitchen clocks to children’s toys, Tom of Finland’s designs tend to be relegated to niche products in most of the world: streetwear, underwear, colognes, and sex toys marketed to gay men. Not in Helsinki though!

Laaksonen’s leathermen, with their python bulges and gumball glutes, are all over town: on oven mitts and china cups at the Stockmann department store; on bolts of cloth sold alongside Disney prints and quilting patterns at the Finnish equivalent of Joann Fabrics; on the packaging of a popular coffee brand; and on the totebags and backpacks of trendy young people (men and women, gay and straight) strolling along the sunny main shopping esplanade.

In recent years, several major Helsinki museums have mounted Tom of Finland exhibitions. An award-winning 2017 film biography was also used for some of the most dramatically pro-gay cultural diplomacy in history: Tom of Finland was Finland’s national submission to the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film category and was shown on Finnair flights.

In 2014, the Finnish national postal service issued three first-class mail stamps featuring Tom art, one of which depicts a mustachioed man staring at the viewer through the bare buttocks of another man whose bare ass is on prominent display. The stamps, a unique and inexpensive souvenir, can still be purchased at post offices nationwide. They’re self-adhesive, so you don’t get to lick them.

An excellent two hour, English-language Tom of Finland Experience walking tour featuring Tom’s old haunts, former cruising grounds, and contemporary influence is offered by Happy Guide Helsinki.

Whether or not you’re an aficionado of Laaksonen’s testosteronepumped male ideal, his inclusion in Finland’s officially promoted national heritage and visual omnipresence in its capital city functions as a powerful welcome mat for gay visitors.

This a city where you can let your guard down, show affection in public, and expect a general nonchalance about sexual orientation.

Tripping the Night Finntastic

Seeing all that Tom may understandably put you in the mood for some tomcatting. There’s a broad social acceptance of queer people in Helsinki, so mixed clubs and parties are commonplace, but there are still a fair share of gaycentric venues, where visitors can get a sense of the local LGBTQ community.

Acade and Main Entrance to Central Railway Station By Mikhail Varentsov

Acade and Main Entrance to Central Railway Station By Mikhail Varentsov

The largest and most popular is the 500-capacity Club Hercules, with a crowd that ranges from 18 to 60. Its busy first-level dance floor is complemented by a basement bar. Operating seven days a week until 4 A.M., it’s guaranteed to be open, even if you stop over in Helsinki for even a single Monday night.

DTM (Don’t Tell Mama) is another busy dance venue, with patrons who skew younger. Expect to hear plenty of sleek, multilingual Eurovision pop tunes in addition to more familiar English-language dance music.

In the Brooklyn-vibed neighborhood of Harju, Fairytale is a small, old-school gay watering hole where locals stop in for drinks and friendly conversations at happy hour and into the night. If you’re planning on spending more than a day in Helsinki, this is a great choice for getting some inside info on where to find pop-up parties and other gay social events that may be going on while you’re in town.

Similarly, a great resource by day is the Bear Park Café, where bulletin boards and flyers provide a wonderful overview of what’s going on around town. The gregarious bearded staff members here are generally happy to chat and provide tips to gay tourists. As its name suggests, the café is across the street from Bear Park, a pleasant green space to picnic with a to-go sandwich and take an obligatory photo with its hallmark ursine statue. During Helsinki Pride each year, the park hosts a boisterous hairy-dudes-in-drag fiesta (Pride 2019 runs from June 24-30).

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