On April 13, 2014, Itella Posti Oy, the Finnish postal service, announced the release in September of what are possibly the most openly erotic postage stamps to appear anywhere in mainstream circulation. The series of three stamps commemorate the work of Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991), better known as Tom of Finland (link NSFW). The Finnish stamps are remarkable for their unambiguous and deliberate depiction of homoerotic images, nudity, and dom/sub sexuality that Itella lauds as “confident and proud homoeroticism.” They are also remarkable for their memorialization of a queer man through explicit depictions of the erotic art for which he became an icon to other queer men around the world from the 1950s onward. But looking at the Tom of Finland stamps, and recognizing postage stamps as an incredibly accessible and widely distributed site for history and commemoration, it is worth considering how other queer men and women have recently been featured. How do postage stamps contribute to a public history of queer lives and sexualities?
Deliberate queer content is relatively new to the philatelic world even if gay men and lesbians have long appeared on stamps in a their professional capacities as, among others, artists, authors, politicians and scientists. In 2011 the UK Royal Mail even issued a stamp recognizing iconic Harry Potter wizard Dumbledore, whom author J.K. Rowling outed in 2007. Austria, however, was reportedly the first nation to issue a consciously gay themed postage stamp in 2010, textually commemorating the 15 year anniversary of Vienna’s Regenbogen (Rainbow) Parade.
In October 2013, the US Postal Service announced a new stamp featuring gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, who became California’s first openly gay elected official in 1978, the same year he was assassinated. In March 2014, Linns Stamp News released the stamp design – an inoffensive black and white portrait accompanied by a stack of squares in the pride flag colours – announcing that it would appear on May 22, Harvey Milk Day.
The US Postal Service’s choice to depict Harvey Milk is a safe one. Milk is a conveniently martyred hero of the movement who can do little to embarrass officials. Further, he has already entered the mainstream, having been legitimized by a 2008 Oscar-winning eponymous film. Milk’s classic black and white photo on the stamp also adheres to conventional iconography of past notables. It is a pleasant if unremarkable image of a man, kindly faced and reassuringly smiling, jacket-and-tie clad, non-sexual and unthreatening. Of course, that’s also part of the point.
There is a politics at play here, a careful politics of sameness that has long been utilized by equality movements. This isn’t to dismiss the importance of the Milk stamp, nor to deny the powerful message it sends, but to contextualize it. In a nation perpetually divided by culture wars that cohere in particular around depictions of sexuality and divisive discussions of its non-heterosexual citizens, the decision by an agency of the US federal government to depict any positive or progressive gay imagery is a fraught one. It is therefore also a useful contrast to the Finnish example.
In Finland, homosexual acts have only been decriminalized since 1971, and civil partnerships available to same-sex couples since 2002. Unlike some US states, full marriage equality has not yet been achieved in Finland, but it is currently a major issue. In March 2013, an equal marriage bill was narrowly defeated in committee and therefore did not go forward to the Finnish Parliament. And in September, following a national campaign that collected 162,000 signatures, YLE, the Finnish national broadcaster, reported that the initiative would now go to Parliament. Debate began in February 2014, and gender-neutral marriage has since been declared “imminent” by YLE. Around the same time that this was happening, in September 2013, global film media announced that leading, young Finnish director Dome Karukoski would make his English-language debut with the first authorized biopic about Tom of Finland.
At a time when global postage sales are in decline in the face of increased e-communications, the decision to issue Tom of Finland postage stamps seems at least in part motivated by this increased attention to gay and lesbian issues in Finland and also increased interest in the life of Laaksonen himself. To its credit but also highlighting its own iconoclasm, Itella in no way obscures Tom of Finland’s historic queer significance:
His emphatically masculine homoerotic drawings have attained iconic status in their genre and had an influence on, for instance, pop culture and fashion. In his works, Tom of Finland utilized the self-irony and humor typical of subcultures.
But the Finnish postal service’s Tom of Finland stamps are most remarkable for their own visual content. The stamps rely on Laaksonen’s explicitly homoerotic art that here clearly depicts dom/sub relations. Two stamps are taken from a single image of one man sitting naked at the booted feet of another fully-dressed man. The naked man is held in place by the legs of his leather-clad dom cop who is replete with cigar, cap, martial uniform, and steely gaze. The third stamp in the series suggests an active sexual scenario no less than the others. It shows a man’s face framed by the nude upper legs and buttocks of his erotic partner, the position of his head suggesting proximity to the other man’s out-of-view but potentially erect cock. Designers have playfully centred the 1st Class indicator on his right buttock. No need to lick, the self-adhesive stamps are ready for use. Their public depiction of homoerotic imagery will literally enter through the front door of any home.
Besides appearing strategically at a moment of particular interest in homosexuality in Finland, the stamps’ launch is also precisely timed to coincide with the opening of a new Postal Museum in Finland’s historically industrial city Tampere. The stamps will come into circulation just two days after the opening of the exhibition Sealed with a Secret – Correspondence of Tom of Finland on 6 September, which traces 70 years of the artist’s letters, art and photos.
Besides contrasting the iconoclasm of the Tom of Finland stamps to the conservatism of the Harvey Milk stamp, it is also useful to contrast the erotically charged Tom of Finland stamps with those commemorating the life another queer Finn this year. On the 100 year anniversary of her birth, Finnish lesbian icon and Moomin author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was memorialized in January 2014 by her own pair of stamps. Itella described Jansson simply as a “multitalented author and illustrator”, “a versatile artist” who dearly loved the Finnish Archipelago. The only oblique signal to her queerness is the statement that “Throughout her life, open-mindedness and the pursuit of freedom were among Tove Jansson’s strengths.”
Both sets of stamps emphasize their subject’s professional lives. Laaksonen’s erotic art is the feature of his stamps, indeed the man himself is entirely absent from them except in the form of his pseudonym and distinctive style. Jansson’s stamps highlight her professional role as a noted author and association with Finland’s natural environment, entirely neglecting her place as a lesbian icon. They feature her only in relation to her cherished island idyll and the Moomins she created there. Notably, however, Jansson’s life partner and professional collaborator Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom she shared both the isolated cottage pictured in one stamp and the fictional Moominvalley characters like Sniff, who appears in the other stamp, is nowhere mentioned in Itella‘s promotional materials.
Comparing these two sets of stamps, which in the same year both commemorate the lives and works of prominent queer Finns, it is impossible not to see a range of gender issues at play. Taken together, they suggest interesting contrasts between public representations of queer male and female sexualities. Read beside each other, they appear to reinforce a sexualized understanding of queer men, but remove any trace sexuality from the life of Jansson.
Of course this binary characterization isn’t quite so simple. Laaksonen’s success, after all, was based on explicit depictions of homoerotic even pornographic situations. And Jansson is known predominantly for her children’s books, even if those same books incorporated elements of her personal life, including fictionalized accounts of her relationship with Pietilä. And finally, the choice of Harvey Milk as the first queer-themed subject of a US postage stamp illuminates contexts in which displaying a sexualized queer male body is simply not politic. Each of these stamps, publicly available and widely advertised, contributes to a public history of queer lives and sexualities. And across all three images, gender, politics and commerce cannot be divorced from public commemorations of historical queer icons.
Justin Bengry is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in History at McGill University, Canada. Justin’s research focuses on the intersection of homosexuality and consumer capitalism in twentieth-century Britain, and he is currently revising a book manuscript titled The Pink Pound: Queer Profits in Twentieth-Century Britain. He tweets from @justinbengry
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