Silja Oja and her partner settled for a civil union after losing hope they could ever marry in Estonia. Now the couple dares to dream of wedding bells as their tiny Baltic nation looks set to become the first ex-Soviet state to legalise same-sex marriage.

“This is very emotional for me, because it’s my country, my state, telling me: ‘we respect you’,” said the 46-year-old communications specialist as she looked back on their 2022 civil union.

“We would have liked to get married, but there were no other options, back then there were no promises for marriage equality,” Oja told Openly in the rustic house the couple share in the capital’s medieval old town.

A vote is due early next week, and LGBTQ+ activists hope Estonia’s parliament will back a government bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry and win the same rights as heterosexual couples.

“Accepting marriage equality is the last milestone on Estonia’s pathway to a truly open and equal society and European values, shaking off the last shackles of its tragic past of Soviet regime and repressions,” said Vootele Päi, an independent political analyst and former adviser to the interior minister.

The marriage bill follows earlier moves to grant greater rights to LGBTQ+ Estonians, all of which fell short of equality.

In 2014, Estonia introduced same-sex civil unions, which did not deliver the same adoption rights and parental recognition that automatically come with marriage.

“It’s a second-rate law that makes you feel like a second-class citizen,” Oja said.

Now Oja hopes all that will change – and that the bill teaches Moscow a lesson on where its former states are headed.

Estonia’s liberal coalition government is only two months old and has moved swiftly on the draft marriage bill, among other measures, to distance itself from neighbouring Russia, analysts say.

Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, many fear Estonia – a member of NATO and the European Union, and a staunch supporter of Ukraine – could be next in the firing line.

Some also see a broader symbolism in Estonia’s bid to legalise same-sex marriage and show its path lies westward.

“Besides the physical war with tanks and missiles, this war is also a war between cultures, values and liberties,” said Päi.

However, opponents think the government is moving too far and too fast on gay rights in a region known for social conservatism, a hangover from Soviet rule that ended in 1991.

Moscow has increasingly cracked down on LGBTQ+ Russians since passing a “gay propaganda” law in 2013 banning the “promotion” of homosexuality to minors.

Reports of hate crimes and abuse have also risen.

LGBTQ+ loopholes

If the bill is passed, Estonia, with some 1.3 million inhabitants, will lead the way among the states once ruled by Moscow by legalising same-sex marriage.

It should also end the current state of legal uncertainty faced by some same-sex couples whose status has been questioned at hospitals, embassies, government offices and other instances.

“It takes a lot of time (to prove a civil union), and it can also take a lot of money,” said music teacher and LGBTQ+ activist Keio Soomelt, who entered a civil union in 2015.

The government is keen to move quickly on its legislative agenda, with defence and gay rights top of the list in what many consider to be a pointed message to Moscow.

“We have to use the momentum to finally pass the law, adapt the rights for same-sex couples as it is normal in democratic and western societies without a big fuss,” interior minister Lauri Läänemets told Openly.

The conservative opposition is opposed but analysts say it lacks the votes to derail the bill.

“There hasn’t been a social discussion around the topic, which deeply divides the nation,” said Riina Solman, an MP for Isamaa, a Christian-conservative party.

“We view this as undemocratic and believe the question of same-sex marriage should be put (to a) public vote.”

According to a survey released last month by the polling firm Turu-uuringute AS for the Estonian Human Rights Centre, 53% of Estonians support marriage equality, up from 47% in 2021.

When sex was a crime

Same-sex relations between men were criminalised under Soviet occupation, and did not become legal again until 1992, one year after independence.

Most former communist countries in Europe and Central Asia lag behind Western nations on LGBTQ+ rights, be it Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Slovenia, once part of Yugoslavia, was the first post-communist country to legalise same-sex marriage last year.

“You have to look at where we’re coming from: 30 years ago we had the Soviet Union,” said Mart Haber at the office he and his husband have built for their interior design firm in a former submarine factory in Tallinn’s harbour.

“It hasn’t taken us that long to come this far.”

Haber and Taivo Pilleri have known each other for 31 years, but only married five years ago in the U.S. when they decided to have children there through surrogacy, becoming one of Estonia’s first openly LGBTQ+ families on their return.

“Now, more than half of the population is pro-gay marriage, so we are happy about that, everything is going in the right direction,” Pilleri said.

Estonia, a tech and innovation hub keen to attract international talent, has also been a regional LGBTQ+ rights pioneer.

In 2002, Estonia began letting trans people change their legal gender without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, sterilisation or divorce.

According to ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based campaign group, Estonia ranks 25th out of 49 countries in Europe and Central Asia for LGBTQ+ rights.

Leading the way on rights?

While Estonia has gone further and faster on LGBTQ+ rights than its fellow Baltic states, advocates say the fight for equality is far from won.

“There are still lots of things to be done,” said the country’s gender equality commissioner, Christian Veske, who is waiting for the legal go-ahead to marry his partner of 11 years.

“It’s very important to continue working with the legislation and with society overall.”

In neighbouring Latvia and Lithuania, where bills recognising same-sex couples have failed to pass, campaigners hope Estonia paves the way for progress.

“When and if marriage equality enters into force in Estonia, in practice nothing will really change here,” said Kaspars Zalitis, one of Latvia’s most prominent LGBTQ+ activists.

“But we will be able to show our politicians that the sun is still shining, that the blue sea is still there.”

Reporting by Enrique Anarte.

GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQ+ news to a global audience.