Only Sissies Like Yellow

On January 11, 2018, in Uncategorized, by Zamná Ávila

Tom of Finland Explores the Influence of the Man Behind the Leather

By Zamná Ávila, Assistant Editor

Among many gay men, Tom of Finland is a well-known name. When I learned there was a movie about his life, I wasn’t interested in seeing it. I prejudged the film because of my opinions against fostering unattainable fantasies that produce negative self-image issues in men.

However, the film gave me a different perspective of the man and his drawings.

Despite the pressure to fit gay men into boxes that defines their masculinity or femininity, they have more individual latitude in their self-expression than ever before. That hasn’t always been the case.

Tom of Finland, a biopic film about artist Touko Laaksonen who shaped fantasies of muscle-bound men through his drawings, takes viewers on a journey through time, when gay men were considered mentally ill, weak and effeminate, and partaking in homosexual activities was a crime in most countries.

The constant struggle to live out their realities  is exemplified best in an impactful scene from the film. After escaping a police raid on a party they attended, Touko, played by Pekka Strang, and his partner, Nipa, played by Lauri Tilkanen, engage in a conversation about an ideal future.

“I’d like us to have an apartment together,” Nipa tells Touko. “Big windows with light-yellow curtains.”

“Only sissies like yellow,” Touko responds.

“I’d like the curtains to be open when we dance with friends,” Nipa continued. “I want you to hold my hand in broad daylight. I want the curtains to be open.”

“Nice idea, but totally unrealistic,” Touko countered.

Nipa encourages Touko to make those dreams real by selling his work internationally, where he took on the nom de plume, Tom of Finland.

In the course of four decades, Touko produced about 3,500 illustrations, mostly of beefcake men wearing tight leather or denim clothes. A gay subgroup arose that impacted self-expression and pop culture. Music bands such as Queen and the Village People took cues from that influence, where men in uniform expressed themselves with homo-eroticism.

In seamless flashbacks and flashforwards, Touko’s life is recounted from when he was in Finland’s army. Finland was an ally of Nazi Germany.

Yet the film also reminds viewers that gay men were just as a likely to be forced into gas chambers as Jews. Following Touko’s arrest in Berlin, a German soldier told him, “You know, we used to put scum like you into concentration camps and gassed them to death.”

Touko, in his public comments, had always repudiated Nazism, especially when critics slammed him for his works that seemed to glorify men in Nazi uniforms.

However, Touko didn’t set out to be an artist whose work opened doors. He didn’t draw these images to galvanize anyone, at least not initially. Filmmaker Dome Karukoski portrays Touko as selfish, and maybe even predatory. This was probably best illustrated when it appeared that Touko’s sister, Kaija (played by Jessica Grabowksy) was interested in Nipa. Nipa at first seemed to welcome her attention, but Touko pursued him and won Nipa over.  They both chose to live their truth at a time when many gay men camouflaged their sexuality through heterosexual marriage.

Touko’s former commanding officer, for example, was married and played with men on the side. When he was caught during the raid on his house party, he ended up in a mental institution, where he hoped he would be “cured.”

When AIDS seemed to ravage the world, Touko questioned his contribution to the epidemic. However, he quickly learned that he was in fact a lifeline to young gay men, who had to choose between a life in a closet, death or freedom.

“You make these different boys feel special — beautiful,” said Jack, a friend of his who died of AIDS.

Touko’s work also helped break the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate, which is not to deny the contributions of less masculine men in the gay rights movement. They, and transgender women, were at the forefront of the movement. Touko’s work allowed for the diversity in  sexuality and the celebration of masculinity.

Tom of Finland is more than a history lesson about gay men who dressed up in leather and denim. It’s an invitation to continue fighting to express sexuality and love in whatever way one deems important.

“Make sure everyone knows we exist,” Nipa tells Touko before he dies. “Promise.”

Tom of Finland, co-produced by the Art Theatre, QFilms and The Center Long Beach, will show at 11 a.m. Jan. 13 and 14, at the Art Theatre, 2025 E. 4th St., in Long Beach. For tickets visit


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