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From pop-star to politician: How a gay single dad became the first black member of Finnish parliament

By Sagal Mohammed

At the intersection of historic and iconic, you find Jani Toivola. The first black MP to join Finnish parliament, he is also a pioneering artist who has endured isolation and discrimination, been a crucial advocate for marriage equality and grappled with his identity after meeting a brother he didn’t know he had. As Toivola returns to the stage, he tells the tale of his extraordinary life

Having dedicated his life to the arts, Jani Toivola never envisioned a career in law making. “Politics was never the plan,” he says. “But life and my experience as a black gay man in Scandinavia led me there.” So, in 2011, at 44 years old, the Finnish - Kenyan performer made history by becoming the first black MP to join Finland’s parliament. During his first term, Toivola’s rigorous campaigning led to the passing of the Equal Rights Bill, making Finland the final Nordic country to legalise gay marriage.

Born to a white Finnish mother and a Kenyan father and raised in Vaasa, a small town north of Helsinki, Toivola endured an isolating adolescence. His father was absent for the first three decades of his life. At the same time, Toivola was juggling both his sexuality – he knew he was “different” at a young age – and the othering that came with being the only black person in his entire world. “I grew up in a place where there were no reflections of my skin colour or my heritage.

Watch Vogue Scandinavia's video with Jani Toivola here:

I was constantly the only person in all rooms that looked like me, be it at daycare, at school or my first summer job,” he says. “When you’re surrounded by a weird silence like that, at some point you’re not even sure whether you really exist.”

Like many people of colour in predominantly white areas, he was no stranger to racist remarks about everything from his appearance to where “home” really was for him. “As a young boy I was so confused when people would be angry at me and tell me to leave Finland because it was all I knew,” he says. “It was the only country and culture I had ever known, so I’d think to myself, ‘Where am I supposed to go if I’m not allowed here?’”

At 19, the answer to that question became New York City. Having fallen in love with drama as a child, Toivola dreamt of a career on stage and headed stateside to pursue it. “There was this duality within me where I’d always felt like an outsider but at the same time, I had a strong sense of self and I knew that it was going to lead me if I had the courage to hold onto myself,” he explains. “I found dance and theatre very early on and I was very passionate about that. I always felt I had a strong purpose even among all the confusion and struggle, so I decided to focus on that.”

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