Estonian, Hanno Ahonen, and American, Josh Prosser, got married in the U.S.A. in October 2017. In May this year, they made headlines as they were the first to receive a residence permit based on the same-sex marriage in Estonia. Josh was the first LGBTQ person outside the European Union area who was granted a residence permit based on marriage. We at the Estonian Human Rights Centre were naturally really happy that the Estonian Police and Border Guard finally issued the residence permit to a same-sex partner. During our court litigation on Kristiina and Sarah Raud, the court and police had recently adopted an approach that Estonia was ready to accept gay marriages if the Estonian citizen was a resident of the country where the marriage was concluded. This was the case with Hanno but not with Kristiina. Still, we hope that Kristiina and Sarah’s bold litigation paved a way for Hanno and Josh. During the interview, they both admitted that the Raud family had indeed inspired them.
I had met Hanno and Josh during a seminar on LGBT rights last December in which they were active participants, and I was curious to learn more about this bold gay couple – not so much about legal specifications but about people. We met at a cozy café in the city center of Tallinn, and the first thing I noticed was that they both were wearing only light summer clothes. It was 10 degrees outside and I joked that they must be really warm, summer people. It is only later that I found out, this really is the case. It is not because they hug you like an old friend and make you feel comfortable, it is because they have a truly positive and inclusive mindset, really want to make difference, and are eager to contribute to the positive change personally.
How it all began?
Hanno and Josh met during the pride celebrations in Chicago two and a half years ago. “Josh and I are quite tall, so Josh stood out from the crowd; and, that is why I started talking to him,” Hanno amusingly shares his first impression of Josh. The two started dating but Josh adds that there was something written in the stars for them as he was about to move to Colorado. “I had all planned out for me in Colorado but things changed suddenly and I stayed in Chicago. So, Hanno and I had the possibility to get to know each other,” Josh explains a lucky coincidence. They both share their passion for Chicago, a city everybody is proud to be part of. “It gives something to everybody; it takes you as you are,” Josh and Hanno almost univocally admit.
So, you met in Chicago but what is your story before the two of you met?
Josh: “I come from a small American town which is rather conservative and religious. I dated women but it was nothing too serious, not about real feelings. Once I left my hometown, I did not feel connected to it at all.”
Hanno: “I went to America more than ten years ago and I appreciate what this country has given me. America told me it is totally okay to live as you are, you do not have to be ashamed to be gay or any other minority. Had I stayed in Estonia, I would have still dated men but it would not have been so easygoing to be me. America liberated me.”
Josh: “Actually, it was quite the same with me when moving to the bigger city. There was less restrictions and so much more me being me.”
Josh and Hanno clearly both appreciate their life back at Chicago, so I cannot but wonder, was it really so smooth? How about homophobia? Have you experienced it in U.S. or Estonia? Any personal stories to share?
“I do not see homophobia, or maybe I do not see it anymore. There is a saying: fake it until you make it,” Hanno says almost as if he wants to apologize before all the people who have experienced it across the globe. “I know it happens. It is a reality all around the world, but I personally try to be positive; I try to keep myself positive. In Estonia, I am always holding Josh’s hand and no one has ever said anything; they watch, of course, but it does not bother me,” says Hanno, introducing me to his experience and point of view. At the same time, they share an incident in a bar in Telliskivi region where one guy did not like Josh and Hanno dancing together but the security asked the bully to leave. Impressive, I think to myself.
Josh: “Maybe it is difficult to attack us as we have each other and we make each other stronger. So, many do not have that and bullies always pick on people who are vulnerable.”
Hanno is concerned about how we tackle the topic: “We approach homophobia the same way we have done it for decades—I think we should change the way we react to brutality. It is not about reacting to homophobia; it is all about building community and supporting people; creating a positive space. People often feel that they are alone, especially LGBTQ people. But you are not alone; ideally, you should feel you are a part of the community, you are not alone. Many people do not know how to connect. Contact us! If you think that there is something we have done that might help you, we are more than happy to connect. Genuinely, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart!”
I look at Hanno and simply cannot but admire his ambition of contributing to a positive change in Estonia. He also stresses that it is not only about LGBTQ, but also about all the differences—it is about embracing our human diversity. So, as I am ready to move to my next pre-prepared question, he casually adds,
“We want to start a monthly event; for example, a chill-mood cook off. Let’s make ühepajatoit (traditional Estonian food made of vegetables and meat)! We need to bring people together and even if a few come in the beginning, it does not matter. You have to do at least something, you cannot move mountains without moving rocks.”
Indeed. But, why did you choose Estonia to live in? When we look at the map, it is indeed rather a small rock than a real mountain. I mean, America has been such a dreamland for many for centuries.
Hanno: “There are many opportunities in the states but there are many opportunities here as well. When I left Estonia, I had the same perception that America is the land of opportunities, pudrumäed (Estonian word for perfect life) as we say in Estonian. But, at some level, it was simply a life on a larger scale. If it doesn’t happen to you here, it will not happen to you in Bali, U.S., Australia or elsewhere. We make compromises everywhere. What kind of a compromise? It is up to you. I would say that in Estonia we even make fewer compromises. In the states, I had 12 days off per year—here, I have a month. Also, we followed Kristiina’s and Sarah’s story and their first victory in the court inspired us.”
Josh: “In the U.S.A., I would do the same things I am doing in Estonia but it is easier to do here. For example, we both like to be in the nature and Estonia is perfect for that. There is no cost to go hiking and nature is so close. Not speaking the language puts a strain in your life but now I have adjusted. We go out; dancing, hiking, hanging out with friends. Like, we go out multiple times per week, mostly cooking together with friends. Such a bliss!”
Hanno: “There is one thing I miss about America. In Chicago, there was always a new person to meet but, here, people stick to their friend group. If you never challenge yourself, you will never flourish. If you are not willing to go outside your friend group, you will not be able to see diversity of people and attitudes.” Josh agrees with Hanno and I can see that despite enjoying their life in Estonia, this is something that they both miss about U.S.A.
Talking about going beyond your comfort zone, we see a lot of polarization when it comes to values in Estonia, Europe and U.S.A. Do you see it as a problem? And, also, do we need to convince people who oppose homosexuality?
Josh: “People think that all these topics are very black and white; like that in America, there are Democrats thinking one way and Republicans thinking the other way. Actually, that is not always the case. There is common ground between the parties as well. At the same time, I think that people who discriminate against some groups should not be in power. That is not a way to move forward at all.”
Hanno: “I think we should not aim to convince anybody. We need to introduce our point of view and explain. This polarization you mentioned will always be there and on different topics. What we really need is the people who are linking different people, communities, and attitudes. The reason I decided to give interviews to the Estonian media was because I wanted to show who we are – that we are just a loving couple. Estonia is so small, everything is so reachable; so, I think that is our advantage.”
U.S. has marriage equality now; do you think it was an important step for moving forward and has it changed something? Should Estonia forget about the Partnership Act and pursue marriage equality as well?
Josh: “I think that Partnership Act was a step in the right direction. Coming from the U.S., I like marriage equality and I would suggest it to Estonia. But, you have found your way to progress and I can understand and admire that step.”
Hanno: “There is actually a large group of people who support marriage equality and the LGBTQ cause as such, next to private individuals also numerous companies. But, the problem is that no one unites them. It is not so much about ‘which law is the best’, but how can we unite and inspire all those who have not yet come together for the common cause. I mean, there is more that unites us than what divides us. No matter the ideology or the party we vote for, we are all human beings. We have the same feelings, such as yearning for happiness; and, most of us want to create something meaningful, have a decent income, and live a happy family life.”
Hanno, you have mentioned in some of your interviews that you want to empower Estonian LGBTQ community, partly because it was not so easy for you during your teenage years in Estonia. Do you have any advice for the LGBTQ people, NGOs, and non-formal groups that fight for LGBTQ cause or support it some other way?
Hanno: “You are always going to win if you are the purest to yourself. It will get better. Reach out to the LGBTQ people and allies you know; they have put themselves out to be reachable. Get out of your comfort zone. Give the realistic face to what it is to be a minority—there is sameness in all of us.”
Josh: “There is a difference between propaganda and giving options. Oftentimes, the options are demonized to be propaganda, as it was a case with a quite a regular advertisement in Rakvere high-school about LGBTQ singing choir. It was removed. You do not have to join the choir, but at least give the possibility? Also, make room for meetings and meet. Everything starts with a human interaction. Say good things to other.”
What are your plans for the rest of the summer? Today it is quite cold and windy, but we still have two summer months ahead of us.
Hanno and Josh explain that they both have their birthdays in July and they are so lucky to celebrate it together. I learned that Hanno’s family lives in Saaremaa and that they are always welcomed there. It is a place where they can switch off and simply enjoy nature and each other’s company. As they both have only started with their jobs in Estonia, they cannot afford a long vacation yet but are clearly lightened up when speaking about family, Saaremaa, friends, and Estonian summer.
Two hours had passed quickly. There was so much more that we could have discussed, but there was one more thing Hanno and Josh stressed right before we said our final goodbyes: “Whatever you write down about our meeting, the most important thing is that we want to give back. Anyone with a question or concern can contact us at email@example.com”
It is almost 9 pm on an ordinary Monday evening in Tallinn; it is chilly, raining, and I have no umbrella. No, I am not humming about raining men, I am simply so happy that this couple has chosen Estonia to be their home; their warmth and positive attitudes also empower all of us who want to see Estonia as a tolerant and happy place for everybody.
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