Interview by Robyn Ochs
Jenny and I had the pleasure of meeting in person many years ago at bisexual conferences in Britain and in the Netherlands, and she has a piece in Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the World, an anthology I co-edited with Sarah E. Rowley.
Jenny, please tell us about yourself.
My childhood was split between Uusikaupunki, a small coastal town in southwestern Finland and Ivalon-Matti, a tiny village in Lapland, 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. Moving there was a result of my father’s mid-life crisis. Currently I am 40, the same age my father was when he decided to take his wife and five children and move into the wilderness. Fortunately, I do not have a similar urge to uproot myself.
My family has an academic background although my parents have some angst related to that – both of them have rejected university education despite the fact that all of my four grandparents either have a university education or have worked at the university. I ended up studying Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oulu, a city of 200,000 inhabitants in central Finland. I still live in Oulu, currently in a commune with three other adults with whom I do not have erotic or romantic relationships; my longtime romantic-erotic friend lives elsewhere. Living with a group of reasonable people and cats is a joy.
I spend my time trying to write, both academic texts and journalism, but also stories and novels: about 15 of my short stories have been published over the years, and my debut novel Sudenveri (Wolf’s Blood) was published in 2012. I mix folk tales, historical facts and other stuff to create speculative fiction. One of my stories was recently translated into English and can be read from an open access magazine Finnish Weird: http://www.finnishweird.net/.
In addition to writing I am active in a local live action role play (LARP) scene, and a year ago I rekindled my old love with aikido.
How did you come to identify as bi? How old were you? Who did you tell? What happened?
I remember having crushes on boys and girls as early as when I was six, but did not really think about that much until I was 19. I had just started university studies and was having a drunken night with friends. A friend of mine, a girl, cried to me about how she thought she was bisexual, and how she was confused. I comforted her but started to think that her experiences were not that different from mine – the only difference was that I did not feel confused or agonized. I started to identify myself as bisexual then, and have been open about it to all friends and colleagues ever since.
I did not tell my parents, however, but that was mainly because I did not (and do not) have a very good relationship with them. At 25 I started to write my master’s thesis on bisexuality, and when I told my father about the subject, he said: “There are so many sick and dirty things in the world; do you really need to dig them up?” So much for coming out of the closet then; that phone call ended up in a quarrel. Around the same time I told my grandmother – my father’s mother – about the thesis and my bisexuality. She said that she had actually guessed my bisexuality already, and told a funny story about her experiences at a girls’ school, where girls had such strong crushes on each other and the female teachers that they would faint in classes and have fights because of jealousy. My grandmother was supportive and understanding. I suppose that she ranted at my father about his attitude toward my bisexuality, because he did not pester me with the subject, which he would certainly have done without my grandmother’s intervention. I never spoke with my father about bisexuality again. Years later I asked my mother if she knew I was bisexual. She said that she did, but did not want to think about it: “Just like I know that your sisters have sexual lives because they have children, but I don’t want to think about that either.” Her attitude was quite mild; to her my bisexuality was my business and not hers.
Anyway, talking with one’s parents is overrated, and talking with siblings is more important. With my sisters and brother I have had serious discussions about sexuality and identities, and I have also been an object of stupid jokes and teasing. To their children I am that crazy aunt that has had two boyfriends at the same time and who always says that you can date as many people as you want from any gender you want. I aim to confuse my nieces and nephews, and am proud of this quest!
What is your religious background (if any)?
My family belongs to the Evangelic Lutheran church (80% of Finns belong to it), but our family was not religious at all. My father is possibly some kind of pagan with a hint of Henry Thoreau-like idealism and my mother might be an atheist. My father believes that homosexuality is “unnatural degeneration,” but this belief is based on his false understanding of nature, evolution and the human species, not religion.
What words are used to describe lesbian, gay, bi or nonheterosexual people in Finnish?
The currently used words are lesbo, homo, and biseksuaali, and they are pretty much equivalent to the English words. In the 1980s some gay people tried to use word “hintti” (from the German word “hinten,” “from behind”) as a translation of the word “gay,” but the word had too many pejorative connotations to become widely used.
Are you in contact with bi activists in other countries? Do you see a value in transnational activism?
Since I have been doing research on bisexuality I have always had a certain conflict with being a bi activist. Somehow I have felt a need to keep some kind of distance from activism just to have an illusion of objectivity. The distance has not been far, anyway. Earlier I was an active member of a bi group in my hometown, and I have attended international bisexual conferences, meetings etc., in Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands. I think that transnational activism is valuable, but it is important to remember that each country and culture has a different history, legislation and attitudes and that activism and politics have to be localized.
You wrote your dissertation on Finnish bisexual people. How did this become an area of interest for you?
When I realized I was bisexual in the mid-90s there were almost no texts written on Finnish bisexuality whatsoever. I was frustrated about the lack of information, but when I had to choose the subject for my master’s thesis I suddenly realized that I could do research on bisexuality by myself. The research process that led to my doctoral thesis started then, fifteen years ago.
What was the title of your dissertation?
Suomalainen biseksuaalisuus. Käsitteen ja kokemuksen kulttuuriset ehdot (Finnish Bisexuality. Cultural Terms of the Concept and experiences).
It is available for Finnish speakers as an open access publication at http://herkules.oulu.fi/isbn9789526205526/ isbn9789526205526.pdf .
Some of the results of the study are presented in: “‘There Has Been No Phase in My Life When I Wasn’t Somehow Bisexual’: Comparing the Experiences of Finnish Bisexuals in 1999 and 2010.” The Journal of Bisexuality, Taylor & Francis Publishing. Vol. 11, no 2-3. pp. 271-289.
Had anyone in Finland written on this subject before?
My research is the most comprehensive study done on bisexuality in Finland. Some articles and book chapters had been published before, but the material on bisexuality in Finnish was very scarce before my research.
What did you learn?
The research traces the processes that made bisexuality a viable identity term in Finland after the removal of same-sex fornication from the criminal law in 1971. I interviewed 40 Finnish bisexuals, 12 of them twice, and analyzed texts published in Finnish porn magazines, mainstream magazines and the publications of sexual minority rights organizations from the 1970s to the 2010s. The research material was so absurdly vast that one of the two pre-examiners of the thesis proposed that I should divide the dissertation into two separate publications. I declined because I found it important to combine both the experiences of bisexuals and the analysis of media texts to create a picture of bisexuality in Finnish culture.
The main finding was that the meanings related to bisexuality are very persistent: for the last 45 years bisexuality has been presented as an ephemeral fad, something that is essentially incomprehensible or a concept that explains the fundamental nature of human sexuality.
However, an interesting find was that bisexuality as a concept was used in early sexual minority politics in the 1970s as a tool to justify the acceptance of homosexuality. Bisexuality was presented as a trait that is very common, even universal, and if it is universal, everybody has a grain of homosexuality in themselves. The concept was used to make homosexuality (and sexual minority rights) more understandable to the general public. Bisexuality was not a separate identity but bisexuals were presented as being unconscious of their sexuality, victims of straight mainstream culture that would not give them a possibility to realize their true essence. In sexual minority politics it was claimed that improving the rights of homosexuals would also make bisexuals free to understand and express their sexuality, and therefore make Jenny, continued from previous page society better for everyone, for everyone is potentially bisexual. Around the early 1990s bisexual politics started to emerge within sexual minority rights organizations, and also the use of the concept changed. Bisexuality became a separate identity, and ceased to be a tool to explain to the general public why sexual minority rights matter.
It was also interesting to realize that porn magazines were an important arena for talking about sexual politics in the 1970s and early 1980s. During that era porn magazines were very widely read and circulated. In porn magazines the attitude towards homosexuality and bisexuality was supportive, while mainstream media was silent or hostile towards sexual minority issues. Some magazines even provided special sections for non-heterosexuals, and were somewhat parallel to magazines published by sexual minority organizations.
The research explains how bisexuality evolved from an instrument of sexual minority politics in the 1970s and 1980s to a concept employed by identity politics starting from the 1990s, and finally to a term which can be used to entice and entertain different audiences in the 2010s.
Any last words?
I spent 15 years studying bisexuality, and my bisexual identity and researcher identity have been tightly entwined. I hardly know how to talk about “my bisexuality” any more without talking about Finnish bisexuality overall!