The story behind Finland’s gay stamps
Stamps collecting isn’t exactly among the first topics that come to mind when you talk about unusual sexualities, yet everybody seems to have been discussing just that in the last few days. Posti, the Finnish postal service, has announced that among the subjects of the regular stamps to be released next Fall, one sheet will be dedicated to local artist Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991) – who you probably know by his alias, Tom of Finland.
Depending on who relayed the news, this is a historic event or an unacceptable outrage. In fact, as you may have suspected by glancing at the picture on the left, Tom of Finland was a gay erotic artist. To be more precise, he was probably the greatest one – and surely the most influential from a historical perspective.
A shy man who grew up in a time and a country where homosexuality was a crime, for years he drew simply to visualize his forbidden fantasies – destroying each work as soon as he was done with it. The transition to commercial erotic art was difficult, both for lack of self-confidence and due to a series of unsuccessful partnerships with publishers who scammed him. It was only thanks to the insistence of a handful of collectors and to the friendship with the esteemed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that he broke through on the international market, but when it finally happened he had a smashing success.
The appeal of his works was in the sheer technique learned from his past as an advertising specialist, supported by a revolutionary portrayal of the gay male figure. His characters were not the effeminate, scared little men typical of the homosexual iconography of his times, but hypermasculine hunks that wore their preferences with pride and a healthy dose of irony. Most illustrations included fetish uniforms: what was just a personal fixation happened to capture the spirit of early leather culture so well that the two things became one. Suddenly, gay men worldwide began working out and dress just like Tom’s characters, adopting a look so stereotypical to be called ‘leatherclone’. It is no exaggeration to say that Laaksonen’s art shaped the contemporary male fetish scene worldwide for decades, making him one of the most influential Finnish visual artists ever.
In this view Posti’s choice is perfectly logic and commendable, no matter what homophobes say. This idea does pose a problem, however: a huge one that nobody seems to have noticed. Tom of Finland’s stamps can land you in jail.
There is no doubt that the illustrations chosen for the stamps are not explicitly pornographic, yet their erotic tone is also evident. And guess what? Most nations expressly forbid to send erotic and generally “adult” material by mail. This is common practice worldwide and even more in repressive countries such as Muslim nations, Russia, Uganda and others, where “promoting” gay culture is a serious criminal offence. Placing a (self-adhesive) Tom stamp on a letter means to self-indict both you and your penpal – whose names are clearly written on the envelope – twice, if it is international mail.
“Forbidden” stamps have been routinely banned, defaced and destroyed or returned to sender with their mail. The most famous case was probably a Spanish stamp depicting Goya’s masterpiece La maja desnuda, which in 1930 created a global scandal and the disruption of the US postal service for months. Technically speaking, sending the Finnish stamps as part of the content is even worse: many mail services (case in point: Canada) randomly check the material they process for criminal evidence… and most legislations forbid to send stamps by mail.
Yes, the whole setup is so absurd that various artists throughout the years have even protested it by creating explicit fake stamps to draw attention to the issue. Aren’t you glad that email has made digital surveillance so much straightforward for everyone?