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Tom of Finland’s partner Durk Dehner reflects on the late artist’s legacy and love life

We celebrate 100 years since the birth of the iconic artist in Attitude's Sex & Sexuality issue.

By Will Stroude

Tom of Finland is a name now so synonymous with 20th century gay culture and aesthetics, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how groundbreaking that work of one Touko Valio Laaksonen was (and remains). 

As we mark 100 years since the artist’s birth in Attitude’s Sex & Sexuality issue – out now to download and to order globally – the artist’s partner, Durk Dehner, sheds more light on the life and legacy of this still largely enigmatic figure, who would go from humble beginnings in the small Finnish town of Kaarina to being one of the most influential queer artists of the 20th century.

Dehner was in his late twenties when he met Laaksonen in Los Angeles in the late ’70s. The pair would spend the next 13 years as a couple before Laaksonen’s passing in November 1991 at the age of 71.

Durk Dehner reflects on the legacy of Tom of Finland in Attitude’s Sex & Sexuality issue, out now

“So many young men were coming up to Tom and acknowledging him for the influence that he had had on their lives”, recalls Dehner, who is now president of the Tom of Finland Foundation which works to promote and preserve Tom of Finland’s work.

“I realised very quickly that this man was much more than just a good artist, that he had been an influencer, that he had really affected the way that we had developed.

“Out of that I really had this desire to do what I could to make his life better.”

During their time together, Tom and Durk would go out on the scene together, or Durk would drop Tom off at a bar and pick him up later that evening. Sometimes Tom would have met somebody that he wanted to bring back home.

Attitude’s Sex & Sexuality issue marking 100 years of Tom of Finland is out now

“I was able to give him the pleasures of that California lifestyle and having lots of friends. He developed a beautiful throng of guys that were not just fans, but became his friends. He got to do things that he didn’t get to do when he was younger. That was wonderful, and I felt really good that I could give him that” Durk recalls.

“For his age, Tom was really open-minded and willing to explore new horizons. I turned him to smoking marijuana, and he even experimented with Quaaludes and [other] different drugs.

“He and I had a relationship that was really multilevel. We had sex with each other, we were best friends, we were business partners. I was his manager.

Touko Valio Laaksonen aka Tom of Finland

“There was a lot of different hats that I wore with him. I didn’t feel like our age difference was really a problem.”

Art doesn’t need to be political to be powerful, but it’s impossible to separate the radical nature of the work of Tom of Finland with the fact that its sexual utopia is still a dream away for LGBTQ communities around the world.

“He didn’t want to publicly proclaim himself as an activist, but in fact he was,” says Durk.

Courtesy of the Tom of Finland Foundation

“He was an artist that was an activist, which I think is in itself unique because most activists are verbal, political writers.

“But as a visual artist, he was an activist.”

Read the full interview as we commemorate 100 years of Tom of Finland in Attitude’s Sex & Sexuality issue, out now.

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