Interview by Robyn Ochs
Robyn Ochs: Janika, please tell us about yourself.
Janika Saul: I am 25 years old and happy. I live in Estonia, a small Eastern European country. We Estonians would like to think our country is as developed as Western Europe, though in reality in some important ways it is not.
I was born in a small town of about 25,000 inhabitants. After finishing high school I moved to our student city Tartu, Estonia’s second biggest city, with about 100,000 people. Most important is that because of the students this city is always young and kind of hippy-like.
I studied to become a math and physics teacher but after teaching for a bit I realised I wasn’t ready yet. Therefore I decided to not go for my masters and instead started working in a totally different field. I have been a travel agent for 3.5 years. In my free time I love reading, watching movies and doing sports but also going out to party and having spontaneous adventures with my friends or partner.
At the moment I’m not active in any LGBT organizations. I took some time off for personal reasons. This doesn’t mean I am giving up on activism! [She smiles.]
RO: What is the actual word in Estonian that you use to describe your sexual orientation? Does it have the same meaning as the English-language word “bi”?
JS: I describe myself as ‘bisexual.’ It has the same meanings as in English and for me it’s mostly an ability to love a person without stressing sex/gender.
RO: How did you come to identify as bi? How old were you? Who did you tell? What happened?
JS: My bisexual identity is quite strong. When I was 15 and thinking about sexuality for the first time, I happened to have a walk and talk with one of my best friends. We discussed sexuality and how we see our possible future partners. As it turned out, she was bisexual too, so we gave each other the idea that everybody thinks like us: that the person not the gender is important, and that female-male partnership is not the norm.
It was a lucky coincidence that I had this conversation with this friend and not my other best friend who in this matter believed in a black-and-white world. It would have been so different!
But instead, until I went to university and had my first girlfriend, I thought everyone felt like me. I really didn’t know I was different or needed to come out of the closet. And I am happy to say that during the years my confidence has not worn itself out!
RO: What is your religious background, if any, and what impact did this have on your coming out?
JS: I am not part of any religious groups. In Estonia it’s more common to be atheist than to be a “believer” and we take pride in being the least religious country in Europe. Religion did not play any role in my coming out, and conflicts between the church and sexuality are not so publicly visible.
RO: How did you come to be involved in the LGBT movement?
JS: I like to be active and take chances in life. In 2007 I saw an open call in an Internet forum to meet Ilke, an exchange student from Belgium and then it all started with a big bang. Ilke had been an activist for years and wanted to start an organization for LGBT youth. At that time there had been no active organisations for years, so Ilke, a few other students, my then-girlfriend and I formed Estonian Gay Youth (EGN), an NGO [non-governmental organization] and we started organizing local events. As Ilke had experience and contacts, we soon found ourselves in the Baltic Pride organizing group. This experience has changed me more than any other in my life.
Baltic Pride is organized by LGBT organizations from three different countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It is a week-long event with film festivals, parties, a pride walk, concert, etc., and it rotates between these three countries.
This year’s Pride was in Riga, Latvia, May 30-June 2. You can find more about this at http://www.balticpride.eu/en.
I am truly happy that I have been there from the start of the EGN and also Baltic Pride. From there we started going to different conferences and youth camps, collected a lot of new information, friends and motivation. The NGO quickly grew bigger and bigger. Now it’s not a small, local group of activists, but a national organization with a real office, publications, trainings, etc.
RO: What rights are accorded to LGBT people in Estonia?
JS: There is the law against discrimination in the workplace. Hate crimes based on sexuality and gender are not prohibited, but I would like to stress that in Estonia the statistics say that we have few—if any—hate crimes. This is because incidents that could be classified as hate crimes are usually listed only as assault, murder, robbery etc., and not as hate crimes. Thus, the statistics look good but they are wrong.
Marriage or legal partnership is not possible between same-sex partners. Our politicians stress that these couples can fill in all those different documents (wills, etc.) to get the same rights, but in reality this is really expensive, takes years and at the moment there are no couples in Estonia who have done this.
RO: Are bi folks well-integrated into Estonia’s sexual minority community? What resources are available for LGBT people, or specifically for bisexuals in Estonia?
JS: LGBT community in Estonia is quite small and no real distinction is made between groups. Sometimes it happens that being bi is stressed in conversations to show inclusion and acceptance, creating uncomfortable situations, but we are not excluded.
Bisexuality is included in most of the booklets and info materials. EGN’s office, a few other LGBT organizations, a few gay clubs and one lesbian club are located in our capital city Tallinn. In other cities we have no clubs, no meeting points and no office, but EGN organizes events in Tartu and people can always get info from websites.
RO: Do you have contact with bi activists in other countries? Do you see a value in transnational activism?
JS: I have met only a few truly bisexual activists—I mean almost everybody is fighting for the whole community, not focusing on bisexuality. I met you, Robyn, a few years ago in Copenhagen. After the bi workshop my point of view shifted; I started seeing bi people’s experience as unique, rather than simply as a subset of the larger community. Transnational activism keeps us going, gives us motivation and ideas, information and connections—in any field. May it never end!