You may not recognize the name Touko Laaksonen, but you almost certainly are aware of his attention-getting drawings of gay men, as well as his pseudonym, Tom of Finland. Tom of Finland’s drawings, during the second half of the twentieth century, were some of the most defiant and liberated depictions of gay men, so much so that they unquestionably achieved iconic status—and most likely, dictated some fashion trends on its own.
Yesterday the Finnish Postal Service, known as Itella, unveiled 33 new stamp designs. The most surprising inclusion, and as time passes most likely the most controversial, are the three depicting “male drawings by Tom of Finland.”
According to Itella, Tom of Finland had reached the status of a Finnish cultural hero worth celebrating in stamp form: “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.”
Same-sex marriage in Finland is currently illegal, if you are under the mistaken impression that all Scandinavians are reflexively tolerant and thus won’t even blink at a little male sex play on their envelopes. In February the Finnish parliament began to debate a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, but the measure has not become law yet. The stamp issue may put a spotlight on the debate.
Tom of Finland’s images of leather-clad bikers mark the early boundary of what can be considered contemporary queer art designed for mainstream consumption. They shred the boundaries between porn and art. What makes them so intriguing, in a way, is that the male figures have a sensitivity accorded them that makes them something beyond mere “beefcake.” They’re images of pure fantasy, without being oppressive; they are obscurely real. In contrast to the once dominant gay stereotype of the “fairy,” “ponce,” etc., Tom of Finland’s bikers were unquestionably empowering. We salute the progressive minds at Itella who worked to make these stamps a reality.