In six years of LGBT activism in Riga, Latvia, I’ve never felt stronger about the importance of Baltic Pride than now, in the week of Pride 2012.
Since the first Baltic Pride in 2005, I’ve gone through periods of disbelief, shock, panic, fear, and spent years worrying over whether we are doing things the ‘right’ way. I have gone through the motions of organising Prides since 2006, constantly questioning myself and doubting whether we are moving forward at all. Today I have almost stopped doubting.
One way or the other, Baltic Pride has always met with resistance from city officials, politicians, society – questioning whether it is worth the trouble, asking if there are better ways, and reasoning against Baltic Pride with a) morality arguments (2005 Pride ban); b) security arguments (2006 Pride ban); c) confusing morality arguments mixed with unknown security threats (2009 Pride ban). But every time Baltic Pride has been banned by authorities, the ban has later been successfully overruled by the courts.
I get a strange pleasure from watching Pride’s opponents struggle for new arguments. The fact is: there aren’t any – proven by the hilarious letter from the City Council’s most vigilant resistance group asking Mozaika, the LGBT group I lead, to cancel Baltic Pride with threats of God’s punishment, warning us against the inevitable fate of Sodom which will destroy our beautiful city if we do not stand back and cancel all or any public action. There are no more reasonable arguments left that the court has not seen and overruled.
But Riga, London, Stockholm or Copenhagen – none of these are far from Kiev, which saw brutal opposition to Pride last weekend. Some of my friends were there when attempts to hold a Pride parade were stopped by paramilitary groups wearing face masks, throwing tear gas and beating people up on the streets. This is a country with an EU border, within driving distance. The world is getting smaller and the war against discrimination will not be over until the last gay kid in Iran has a ligature removed from his neck, and not post mortem.
I am not a big fan of formal borders, but I see the Baltic States as standing with one clay foot in Europe with the other still firmly set in a post-Soviet mind-set. In two countries that used to be our ‘sister’ Soviet Republics, homosexuality is still a criminal offence. In others it is illegal to form an NGO. One still hasn’t abolished the death penalty. Most of the local people who march at the Baltic Pride have grown up in these environments. And it matters that we are able to take a sensitive issue which the majority of those around us are still unsure about, and walk with it in a parade. We use every civil right we have managed to safeguard in the last 20 years because we should never take these rights for granted. Ever.
I do sympathise with the Riga City Council workforce. I admire the practical, down to earth approach of the current Mayor of Riga Nil Ushakov (Nils Ušakovs), who has accepted the fact that Baltic Pride will take place, sees no legal reason for it not to, and is obviously deaf to the screams of his eager Coalition partners, a group formerly called the ‘Priests’ Party’, who used a homophobic campaign to get their place on Riga’s City Council three years ago.
I also sympathise with the police. A couple of years ago, I recognised one of the men in uniform protecting Baltic Pride as my ex-classmate from school. I never heard the end of it – not because he opposes Pride, but because the policemen on duty were not paid extra for their weekend work. I do sympathise with the money that it will cost the city in these difficult economic times. Democracy lessons are pretty expensive, but they are worth it!
International support has always been a double-edged sword for us. The majority of LGBT people in the Baltic States are in the closet, for one reason or another. I am not in a position to judge or question this decision, or lack thereof. What concerns me is that a handful of local out LGBT people with the mind-sets of revolutionaries (alongside some brave straight allies) can’t go on the streets without being verbally and sometimes physically abused year in, year out.
After Baltic Pride some Latvian media outlets will always smirk that a handful of locals bravely marched, surrounded by 300 visible foreigners in Amnesty t-shirts. There are three reasons to proudly continue doing this.
Firstly, it makes my blood go cold to think how awful the experience would be for that handful of people, had they been there alone without the international support. The number of protestors doesn’t change according to the foreign presence or the number of Pride participants, and the amount of hatred towards us remains the same. The extent of abuse that one young or recently out LGBT person experiences at Baltic Pride does change how damaged that individual is when they walk away from the march at the end of the day.
Secondly, it offers individuals a chance to blend in. When around 70 of us marched at the first Riga Pride in 2005, nearly everyone made it into the media. In 2012, if people want to disappear in the bright cloud of Amnesty International t-shirts, they have a chance to do so, but to still be there and participate. This little trick means the world to a lot of people.
Finally, international support is inspiring. Year after year, seeing the parade grow, seeing it safe and peaceful (it does help keep Pride safe – somehow we are used to valuing the foreign product more than the local one!), witnessing even if only in the media how many people march: one day soon, I am sure that a guy or a girl in front of their TV will finally make the decision to join us. It can change their lives. We can change their lives.
Welcome to the Baltic Pride 2012 in Riga!
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