INTERVIEW-Through homoerotic art, Tom of Finland paved way for today's gay pride

Thursday, 10 October 2019 21:03 GMT
Durk Dehner, who set up the Tom of Finland Foundation, said the artist's muscled images marked a radical shift from the then-prevailing idea of gay men

By Hugo Greenhalgh

KENDAL, England, Oct 10 (Openly) - Iconic gay artist Tom of Finland was an early fighter for LGBT+ rights, preparing a generation of gay men in the 1940s and '50s to become activists who would fight for equality a decade later, the founder of the illustrator's foundation said on Thursday.

Tom's images of burly, leather-clad moustachioed muscle men marked a "radical shift" from the then-prevailing idea of gay men as limp-wristed fops hiding in the shadows, said Durk Dehner, who set up the Tom of Finland Foundation with the artist in 1984.

"He was the forerunner of getting us prepared to be gay liberationists," Dehner told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday of the artist whose real name was Touko Laaksonen.

"No matter what the sexual orientation of the people who view his work, what they come away with is a sense of feeling good about life and feeling good about being humans being sexual in their nature," he added.

Born in southwestern Finland in 1920, Tom was widely embraced by LGBT+ culture in the 1970s and 80s, although some critics dismissed him as a mere cartoonist or illustrator.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, also known for the graphically homoerotic nature of his work, was an early supporter. Having met Tom in San Francisco, he helped stage an exhibition of his works in 1980.

While Dehner said Mapplethorpe was known for being difficult, he played a critical role in persuading fellow fine artists to accept Tom as one of their own.

"(Mapplethorpe) was one of the first to move Tom over to contemporary art facilities," Dehner said. "Prior to that we had been using gay or alternative galleries."

Speaking at an exhibit of Tom's work at Cross Lane Projects in the northern English town of Kendal, Dehner, dressed in leather - jeans, jacket and tie - was visibly moved as he looked back on his years as Tom's friend, lover and muse.

"He's been gone now for 30 years," he reflected. "But he's in my life everyday."

Dehner, who said he turned down an offer from screen idol Rock Hudson to be his boyfriend, spent his childhood in Alberta, Canada before following the hippie dream and moving to California in 1977.

With a wry laugh, he noted "And I'm stuck in LA - which was the super-capital of plastic!"

But he said life in Laurel Canyon brought benefits. "I got to listen to James Taylor and Carole King compose music every morning when they lived one street up from us."


The language of transcendental meditation still informs much of Dehner's speech, with talk moving from sex and the leather aesthetic to more spiritual matters and personal beliefs.

Dehner, who worked as a male model, was photographed by star photographer Bruce Weber and won access to "the sort of elite gays" in 1970s and '80s New York.

"The first exhibition I arranged for Tom was in the Village in New York in 1979. It was at a place called Stompers which was an alternative gallery, and both Robert (Mapplethorpe) and Andy (Warhol) came to that opening."

Tom of Finland's work, often depicting explicit gay sex, has not been without controversy over the years, notably over his use of Nazi imagery and aesthetics.

But Cross Lane Projects, which curated the exhibition with the foundation as part of the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, said they had received just one complaint since the late September opening.

Indeed, Tom's work is highly sought after, gracing the walls of New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

Now Dehner supports up-and-coming LGBT+ artists through the foundation, offering assistance and even accommodation at Tom's House in Los Angeles, where the artist lived and worked alongside Dehner.

As a new generation seeks out his work, Dehner said Tom's legacy as an artist is assured.

"He said it himself: 'My aim is not to create an ideal, but to draw beautiful men who love each other and are proud of it,'" Dehner said.

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.