- Discovered Queer Desires: Rereading Same-Sex Sexuality from Finnish and Estonian Life Stories of the 1990s
In 1992 a Finnish woman born in 1919 expressed her loss in an autobiography she wrote for a collection of sexual life stories gathered for sociological research. She wrote: “Maria has already passed on to eternity. That was announced in a death notice in the newspaper. Only the dark roses I have sent to the funeral convey the message of our friendship. Do I dare to break the fabric of forgetting?”1 Although this author had married twice and, as she describes it, experienced her best moments with her spouse, her account begins with Maria, with whom she had worked in an institution that she does not name but describes as a “closed community” after World War II. The affair, which involved kissing and caressing that “made the blood rush in the veins,” needed to be kept secret, and the writer recalls being worried about doing something harmful to herself by engaging in such an affair.
This glimpse of the queer desire between two women illustrates the nature of my findings about this collection of autobiographies. The story of Maria was written by a woman who had lived a predominantly heterosexual life, but the text nonetheless offers insight into the nature of same-sex desire during the post–World War II period. While this woman recounted her own secret affair with another woman, many of the writers in the collection remember gays and lesbians they have known. I will argue that the way in which these writers recall their own same-sex desires and those of others reveals the importance of queer desires in constructing their sexual life stories in the 1990s. [End Page 205]
The life story collection was gathered for sociological research on sexuality in the life course by researcher Osmo Kontula, who had begun his research career studying youth sexuality in the late 1980s, and professor of sociology Elina Haavio-Mannila, who had by then had a long career of research often focused on various aspects of gender equality.2 This collection consisted of life stories in which the writers described the sex education they had received and their sexual experiences, as well as their feelings and opinions on topics concerning sexuality. Out of the 175 life stories gathered in 1992, 149 are currently available for research, as their authors had given permission for archiving and future research. In addition to this Finnish collection, in 1996 sexual autobiographies were gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Estonia for a comparative study by a group of Finnish sociologists set up by J. P. Roos and Tommi Hoikkala.3 A total of sixty-one Estonians responded to the call for contributions, and a selection of these life stories was translated into English to be analyzed by the Finnish researchers.4 The Estonian life stories likewise contain glimpses of same-sex desire, although they are fewer than in the Finnish collection. I analyze these Finnish and Estonian autobiographies together, providing the first study based on the original, untranslated versions of both collections, though with the limitation that some of the Finnish writings remain unavailable to researchers. Produced for a comparative study, these collections display similarities that are rarely so open in studies on life stories or written reminiscences gathered in [End Page 206] different countries.5 The unusual comparability of these two sets of sources allows me to discuss the Finnish and Estonian collections together in this article.
The calls for life stories that produced these collections were published in newspapers and magazines and written in a manner that did not specify the gender of those involved in the sexual experiences or desires being discussed. This left room for addressing both heterosexual and same-sex experiences and feelings. Indeed, sixty-four of the Finnish writers and ten of the Estonians discussed—mostly briefly, but sometimes in great detail— either their own experiences of same-sex desire or the experiences of others they had known. This article analyzes the reflections of those writers who mention homosexuality or same-sex desire. My study demonstrates how the two aspects of queer historical...