Public Dark Rooms in Urban Space: Fragments from the Tallinn History of Sexuality

A city is a metonym for public space – it is modelled by the moral code of its populace and, conversely, each city frames the type of life it allows and inspires in its people. Some municipalities have begun to queer their city space as an expression of solidarity and global positioning. For example, the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco hosts the AIDS Memorial Grove; each June, the Californian trade network is covered with huge rainbows – and other flags representing the various subcultures of LGBTQI+ groups. In Vilnius, Paris and Brussels, some pedestrian crossings have become rainbow coloured. In Vienna and London, traffic lights illuminating two heart-printed skirts standing side-by-side or jointly dashing, or combined symbols of circles and crosses and arrows that make for either a trans-sign or a same- or opposite sex couple – have been permanently installed. 

The number of cities accommodating signs of different subcultures increases each year and it is impossible to find a city without sex-themed graffiti that could be interpreted from both straight and non-heterosexual points of view. It is considered edgy to present an enterprise or a city as tolerant towards LGBTQI+ groups – it is seen as a sign of belonging to the uppermost, culturally most progressive social class. At this social level, tolerance of minorities is normative – those who are “in” have enough information and autonomy to not get emotionally wound up about the subject. However, the largest solidarity campaigns of 2019 revealed that several big corporations who submit an LGBTQI+ friendly display during rainbow campaigns that involve the urban platform, are in fact financially considerably more invested in supporting conservative republicans.1 Who, then, is actually served by this type of visibility?

The rainbow stepped down from Christian iconography, carrying the peace message, and entered the streets at the beginning of the 1970s, following the rebellions in 1966 San Francisco and 1969 New York. Trans-women and gay men rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall Inn in defiance of raids organised by the police into minority bars, where they had involved journalists to take photographs of the captured, thus forcing many out of the closet against their will.2 The release of two documentaries ensued: “Before Stonewall” in 1984 (directed by Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg), and “After Stonewall” in 1999 (directed by John Scagliotti).

The films recount the stories of members of the LGBT+ community before and after the activist movement for equality, which is continued and celebrated today at Pride, the sexual and gender minority festival tradition that started at the Stonewall riot. Tallinn has been hosting Pride marches and small urban festivals since 2004.3 An article by Maris Sander published in the weekly Eesti Ekspress4 provides a good overview of activism, bars, clubs, meeting places, as well as community, cultural and legal events between the 1970 and the present day. But, what do we know about the time prior to that? 

I have studied representations of sexual and gender minorities in the printed media of the 1920s and 1930s Estonia. Before the Second World War, the term “minority” was not used. Instead, they were called homosexualistsfemale menand male women, and collectively they were referred to as “such people”. In fact, the term homosexuality formed in the last quarter of the 19th century, and its meaning evolved parallel to eugenics, i.e., scientific racism. During the inter-war period, all non-heterosexual identities were thus equally obscure to everyone – some extended their comprehension towards queer identity while others considered a cross-dresser as much a perpetrator as a rapist. I will write in more detail about the evolution of the terminology covering the spectrum of sexuality between the wars in my upcoming article “Looking For Queer Biographies. What to do with the representations of sexual and gender minorities?” (upcoming in 2019), but for now I shall focus on messages originating from the crossroads of sex and public space.

Fearful, peeking shadows moving surreptitiously [on Kaarli Boulevard and near St. John’s Church], often young men, anxiously paced, but also older men, to the point of doddering gray-haired geezers. /…/ These are people who are looking for love from creatures of their own kind, that is, men who hate women and seek other men, and conversely – women who are not interested in men, in other words “such people”, or as the scientific community would put it – homosexuals. Nature, this mystical primal power, has created for them propensities that are deemed unnatural in (good) company. /…/ Misguided is he who thinks we are dealing with the lowlifes of society. No! Dressed fashionably, equipped with an intelligent gaze, they approach their “one” /…/.5

This excerpt is from the 1932 humour magazine “The New Matchmaker” that published various stories on subjects dealing with sexuality, such as human trafficking and prostitution, as well as naturism (e.g. nudism) and homosexuality. The subject matter was humourised through a sensational tone that converts all of the narratives into somewhat quasi-fictional sources, no matter how precise the reported descriptions may seem in detail or fact. Just as well-known sex purchasers were called by their political nicknames in the journal, homosexual people were, likewise, introduced only indirectly, thus alluding to their presence in the parliament, the bar association, the clergy, the military, and the business world. All this yielded the conclusion that homosexuality is a “social phenomenon, typical of educated nations”.

Advertisement for a film Boy-Virgins in the newspaper Postimees, 1925.

Snippet from the newspaper Uudisleht, 1929.

Spending a bit more time in the darkness of the boulevard, we can track the formation of a “date”. For example, a young man with a specific type of stride approaches, stops every now and then and stares sharply into the darkness. Having noticed this, he is met by the “hawk” who stares at the comer inquisitively and then passes him with a seemingly cold, indifferent look on his face. A direct approach and proposition would be apprehensive – you can easily fall in. Therefore, it is necessary to remove all obstacles, make sure you are dealing with your own kind, and catch the consenting signal from the stranger. The comer stands still, looking impartial, as if oblivious to everything that is happening around him. The “hawk” turns around, passes by the person again, repeating the steps several times, waiting anxiously for a signal. At last, a barely noticeable smile appears on the face of the person standing, as if ready to say something. The “hawk” finds this encouraging. The first move has been made. /…/ He stops, makes an outworn remark about the weather, the late time of day or some other meaningless item. They are thus making conversation. Before too long, they get to the “point”, half-whisperingly saying words recognisable only amongst “them”, the person standing looks hesitant for a second, agrees finally and now the two leave Freedom Square as if they are friends from times long gone, disappearing into the maze of streets under blurry night lights. 

What can we deduce from these two observations of dating rituals described in “The New Matchmaker”? The first thing to note is that Tallinn Old Town was a busy locus for sex trafficking: Kaarli Boulevard, the esplanade on Freedom Square in front of St John’s Church, the passthrough behind Town Hall, Viru Street, Uus (New) Street, Fat Margaret and Beach Gate Hill (Rannavärava mägi), Wall-Midst (Valli vahe) and Kissing Hill (Musumägi) were active post-midnight meat markets – an orgy for crossing societal moral boundaries. It is all the more interesting to note that “those types of women”, or women dressed as men also gathered at the cruising sites, which is rather rare since hookup culture is normally considered risk behaviour intrinsic to males. The excerpt from a 1932 Tallinn Post article below, however, reveals that women may have got caught up at the cruising sites partly because it was their or their loved one’s job to sell their bodies.

There are quite a few of these man-women in Tallinn. In most cases they are a great menace to the police, seeing that in addition to other unnatural cravings they also exhibit a propensity towards criminal behaviour. One of the more prominent of such individuals is Sinaida B, who is persistent in wearing men’s clothing and has begun finishing her attire with Wellington’s boots as of late. Sinaida prefers not only looking like a man but also enjoys doing a man’s work. She has worked as a painter and engineman, allthewhile also engaging in “nickwork” which has caused her to spend time behind closed locks and bars on several occasions. Like a proper man would, Sinaida keeps a lover, a registered public woman who goes by the name Olga S. Often one may see this couple during midnight hours on Viru passage – strolling and … making love.

Photo: Karolina Pansević

The rhetoric of the journalism of those days that dealt with non-normative expressions of sexuality sounds rather politicised. On the one hand, eugenicists had created a belief that non-heterosexual people are mentally disturbed and incline towards crime, a view seemingly supported by the quotes herewith. On the other, they brought forth that “it’s as if class distinctions are swept away by a broom on the human market in the nocturnal streets. An officer offers his butt for the “lowlife” to light his cigarette”. The subtext in the articles is thus critical of metropolitanism and socialism. Namely, many of the laws passed in the 1920s were indeed following in the scientific and socialist footsteps of Soviet Russia and the Republic of Weimar, decriminalising homosexuality and abortion among other things. The nationalists saw the shadow of the former colonising Russia in every event that decreased the reproductive potential of the body – until Stalin’s rise to power, Soviet Russia sustained liberal legislation pertaining to sexual preferences. Concerning the connections between illegality, health and non-normative identity, it would seem logical to the modern reader that a person who does not conform to strict regulations would choose a life-style that is stressful and defiant of the prevailing ruleset. In these cases, it is possible to live a life according to one’s own rules, simultaneously admitting responsibility for everything outside the conventional, a price paid on account of economic prosperity, or an unapproving browlift from a fellow citizen – thus, even laws may seem inadequate.

“Tom of Finland”, the 2017 film by Dome Karukoski, depicts the cruising culture of 1930s Helsinki. The film reveals the actual external conditions of “cruising”: cold, bleak weather, running a constant risk of being caught by the police, or get caught up with some suspicious dude who is either malicious, a colleague, your sister’s boyfriend or a relative. Those who did get caught, had to pass a grotesque medicinal scan ordered by the court and ran the risk of being detained and sent to a work camp for up to a few years, even. Once a person passed through this route, he would become an ex-convict, exponentially marginalised in society by diminishing work opportunities, for example. One of the leading arguments for decriminalising homosexuality was the fact that this paragraph brought about too much extortion, and so, sexual acts between men were decriminalised in Estonia in 1926. Unfortunately, the law did not come into effect until 1935 – cases of punishment of homosexuality based on the paragraph have been addressed by Andreas Kalkun.6 Kalkun’s dissertations involved various extortions, crimes of passion and hate, while providing extensive information about meeting loci and the urban everyday.

View towards Tallinn Freedom Square, 1928. Photo: Haidak O. (Source Rahvusarhiiv)

It was a warm night and I was strolling home from the cinema. I lived on Paldiski road then. On Kaarli boulevard, I noticed someone following me. It was a fat, decent looking man. At first, I thought I was mistaken. But I wasn’t; intentionally, I began slightly circling the streets, the overweight mister kept tracking me. At last he accelerated his pace, as if having reached some decision, stepped up next to me, offered me a cigarette and struck up a conversation. At first it was about whatever, then /…/ he steered the conversation onto me. He asked where I lived. I pointed and said, “There, behind Seewald!” He said he lived thereabout, too. We both kept on walking bravely. I understood well that he did not live “there”, either. He tried to unveil who I am and what my financial status is. Hearing I was rather broke, an apprentice working for a low wage, having to carve my own way through life, he became empathetic. He promised to help me and support me in any way he could.

“I am a total stranger to you, how will you be able to help me?” I asked. He responded, saying he has a weakness to help any youth who finds themselves in trouble. /…/ He made me promise him I would turn to him no matter what, should I ever find myself in harm’s way. This made me feel more comfortable and trusting of him. He even slid his bulky hand underneath my armpit. On the other side of the Paldiski road viaduct there was a police post. Upon seeing that, the sir abruptly pulled his hand away from under my armpit and pounced back a few steps. His abashment was so funny I burst out laughing. After passing the police, he took me by the arm again. We passed Seewald. He asked if I would join him for a walk in the woods. Into the woods we went. Upon return he gave me four hundred marks. He apologised for not having more money on him. We began walking back. I admitted to not living where I had said to be living. He professed, timidly, to living elsewhere, also.

This story originates from an unknown author’s autofictional article series published in the National Newspaper (Rahvaleht) in 1933. An immediate representation of the mentioned streets, differences and similarities compared to the modern urban situation, pops up. In comparison to texts from other publications that have been written through the lens of a bystander, here we get insight into the very experience of a homosexual person. His voice conveys a certain distance and shame – the story is written in retrospect. The protagonist regrets his abnormality that he has overcome by the time of writing the text, but is still able to portray rather accurately the gay subculture of the time. In addition to this buyer-seller, old-young, intimidator-intimidated dialectic, the article series gives even more information about the meeting places of homosexual men at homes, but also an orthodox priest who wed gay men.

The series also discusses how the Baltic-Germans established a fine cafeteria in Kadriorg, and a culture club named Black Rose on Kompassi street where men dressed as women would go dancing, is mentioned repeatedly. Robert Nerman depicts the Compass community as a true port of liberals, accommodating Zionists, the Pühtitsa ancillary cloister, criminal shootouts with the police, the marines as well as sports societies.7 The public outhouse on Dunker street behind Town Hall, and several homes, are also mentioned. It is actually not possible to design urban space befitting of cruising or flirting, at least it is not possible to provide a failsafe solution. It is merely possible to exclude certain risks and increase safety measures.

A recent conversation disclosed that there is an exceedingly small amount of cruising loci in modern day Tallinn. Development in the Seaplane Harbour and Noblessner districts gave the final blow. There, family dwellings have eliminated the quality of privacy from the seashore area.

There is the occasional cruising park for either men or women, cemeteries and beaches, or sex clubs and internet applications. Urban planning and architecture are thus key factors in designing the platforms for intimate practices of people. These, in turn, become the visible, or invisible, part of the social norm. Such an intimate perspective on city planning, touching upon the boundary of exposure, or threat, could be seen as inspiration for conceiving safe (urban) space for all genders as we know them today. 

REBEKA PÕLDSAM is a feminist critic and curator based in Estonia. Currently she is a doctoral student in Ethnology department at University of Tartu, where her research is focused on studying the representations and life stories of sexual and gender minorities in Estonia of the past hundred years. Since 2012, Põldsam has taught modern art history and queer theory as a visiting lecturer in Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn University and University of Tartu.

HEADER: 2004 Pride march at Sauna Street in Tallinn. Photo by Arvi Ravalepik
PUBLISHED: Maja 98 (autumn 2019) with main topic Author

1 Reid Champlin, Companies’ political spending contradicts Pride support. –, 13.6.2019.

2 Susan Stryker, Transgender History. Seal Press, 2008, lk 84–87, 106–111.

3 Aet Kuusik, We should have never left the streets. – Postimees, 8.7.2017.

4 M. Sander, Introduction to gay history in Estonia. – Eesti Ekspress, 20.10.2011.

5 All stories in italics are edited fragments from the 1920-1930s Estonian journalism

6 Andreas Kalkun, A history that never was? Traces of homosexual desire in three court actions. – Mäetagused 71, 2018.

7 Robert Nerman, The earlier inhabitants of the current city were strikingly liberal. – Postimees. 21.12.2007.