When Touko Valio Laaksonen — known by his artist's name, Tom of Finland — began drawing erotic images of men in 1940s Europe, such an act was an illegal. Yet for decades, Laaksonen labored for his art, surviving shady dealers on the black market as well as threats from law enforcement, which considered not only his art but his very being as a gay man a threat to society.
A sweeping new biopic, Tom of Finland, shows Laaksonen's journey as well as the evolving acceptance of gay people throughout the latter half of the 20th century. From World War II to the AIDS crisis, Laaksonen subverts each era's agents of oppression through his art's embrace of sexuality without shame.
At the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Tom of Finland, The Advocate spoke with the film's director, Dome Karukoski, and star, Pekka Strang, about the significance of telling Laaksonen's story and illustrating his acts of resistance today.
"I think the biggest surprise for me, how cinematic the life was. I mean, how much courage he must have had to do the thing he did," Karukoski said. "Because at this time, when he did his art, it was illegal. It was considered a sickness in Finland. So basically, I think that was the biggest revelation for me to understand how much courage you need to do this."
Unfortunately, this lesson of courage in the face of oppression is still needed in the world in present day. Horrors like the concentration camps in Chechnya, ISIS throwing suspected gay and bi men off of rooftops, and the high rate of murders of transgender women here in the United States illustrate that for all the gains that have been made in LGBT rights, there is still a terrible backlash that seeks to undermine them.
"When we started making this movie, we started in 2011, and I think we didn’t anticipate that the world [would be in] this situation, that [the] right wing has risen again and the conservative thoughts have risen again," Karukoski said. "And I think that goes in cycles in the world. Once the gay community, the LGBT community, has some freedom, then there’s a counterstrike from the conservative side."
In this reality, it is more vital than ever to have art that declares, "There’s no shame or there’s no hiding," which is what Laaksonen did in his work and what the filmmakers hope to translate for the present day. Karukoski believes that this story, due to its resonance, also has the potential to reach a mainstream audience eager to resist the powers of regression.
"The world is taking steps backwards," Strang said. "So that’s why we need to remind [audiences] that history is quite dark and brutal. So we shouldn’t go there anymore. I think [Tom's story is] even more important now than when we [filmed] the movie a year ago. We’ll see where the world goes."
It is also essential to recognize that, not too long ago, it would have been illegal to screen a film like Tom of Finland in many now-accepting places, including Finland. There, a law similar to Russia’s “gay propaganda” restrictions was on the books until 1999. The production even initially had trouble finding financing due to the very same gay stigma that hindered Laaksonen throughout his career.
Thus, it becomes essential that art raises its voice when political administrations like U.S. President Donald Trump's fail to speak out against injustices like the gay humanitarian crisis in Chechnya.
"The silence is a brutal act. We should speak up about things we don’t agree with. And silence ... it’s really close to violence," Strang said, adding, "The role of 'don’t ask, don’t tell'? We should just change it to ask and tell, and be open about it."
Tom of Finland was a master of opening this closet. His drawings of cops, bikers, soldiers, and more figures of uber-masculinity inspired a movement of gay liberation and pushed back against the stereotypes of the day. Later, his work, by incorporating condoms, also helped raise awareness of sexual health during a time of crisis.
"He started to change the world without really knowing it, and he was an amazing man," Strang said. "Just his art is really important — not just because of the content, but because of its beauty."
Christopher Harrity, The Advocate's art director, attested to the great significance of seeing Tom of Finland's work in a time when queer people were repressed in the United States.
"They were without self-loathing," he remarked. "While their sex may have been engaged in surreptitiously, there seemed to be no question as to their entitlement of having it, taking it, plundering it. That was quite far from the truth of 1961: Entrapment, blackmail, financial ruin, prison, electroshock treatments, medical castration, and suicide were the norms of the time. In their way, Tom's hunks were living in the future. They created the gay sexual revolution on vellum."
In 2017, Tom of Finland's work reminds viewers of not only the political importance of embracing one's sexuality and queer identity, but also of this act's emotional and spiritual necessity.
"It’s about joy. It’s about that these characters don’t have any shame. And the fantasies — all the fantasies, all the sexual fantasies you can have," said Karukoski, adding, "It’s also about pride — pride about yourself and about liberty and freedom of who you want to be."
"Life — we all have our time here," Strang concluded. "We should enjoy it. And we should not let people put us down. I think that’s one of Tom’s — not lessons — but his legacy, is to enjoy life."
Tom of Finland premieres in the U.S. this fall. Watch the trailer below.