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24.06.2015

On Celebrating Pride

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Latvian version

In the summer of 2015, June 15-21, Europride, an international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) event, will take place in Riga. Throughout the week, Europride will turn local, as well as international, attention toward the LGBT situation in Latvia.

When Latvia's Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs publicly came out on Twitter in late 2014 [1], people reacted differently, but a common comment in social networks went as follows: “I have nothing against gay people but, I do not understand why the Minister would be proud of his sexual orientation” [2]. Perhaps this could be explained by the word ''pride'' having more negative connotations in Latvian than in English, especially when it comes to being proud of oneself. In English, the meaning of this word includes values of self-respect and self-worth. Of course, the problem is not only with the translation. Not understanding why the minister would be “proud” shows a lack of understanding of the concept of “pride” in the context of LGBT rights. When speaking about LGBT, “pride” should be understood in opposition to personal shame and society’s condemnation, as a firm stance against discrimination and violence. This is how the minister's announcement ought to be interpreted; its goal, for the most part, is not to inform that he is gay but to say that he is not ashamed, that he acknowledges homosexuality as part of his identity, and respects himself in the same way as everyone should respect themselves. “Pride”, in this context, is a determined view that exists in most LGBT movements. LGBT movements nowadays are not subject to homophobic hatred  nor do they seek to defend their rights by acting with hatred in response. In its place, they offer pride - as a positive attitude that promotes sexual minorities' self-identification, dignity, and equal rights, increases visibility of LGBT-related social groups, creates community, and appreciates the diversity of sexual and gender identities as a normal and desirable aspect of  contemporary society. The word “pride” has been used to designate LGBT movements, organizations, and their events since the 1970s, when LGBT rights activist Brenda Howard and her peers first used and popularized the term in the United States.

The Pride movement, as we now know it, emerged in the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, in America and other Western countries that are regarded now as relatively tolerant towards sexual minorities, the LGBT situation was difficult because of  existing laws and public attitudes. Same-sex relationships were criminalized in all U.S. states until 1962, when Illinois changed its respective law. Over the next couple of decades, same-sex relationships were decriminalized in other states, along with a gradual change in public perception [3].

Although the United States had not been the most progressive country in terms of LGBT rights at the time, the public mood there provided fertile ground for the rise of social movements and protests in the 1960s. The African-American Civil Rights Movement, anti-war protests, and youth counter-cultures occurred at the same time. The turning point in the struggle for LGBT rights in America (and, subsequently, the rest of the world) came with the spontaneous riots in the summer of 1969 were a reaction to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar New York City . In the 1960s, police raids on gay bars were not uncommon, but in this case, the police quickly lost control over the situation, as the raid attracted a crowd that aggressively fought back. Those events changed the way in which the LGBT community tried to educate society about their existence and their interests. Activists from that period recalled that in the 1950s and 1960s, acts of protest took the form of demonstrations by small groups of smartly dressed people who worked towards persuading the heterosexual community that sexual minorities were not any different from other people and, therefore, deserved the same share of respect and a right to exist [4]. In contrast to the 1969 summer protests, those actions did not attract attention of the press or broader society. Those riots were a spark that ignited the LGBT community, prompted the establishment of activist groups in the United States and globally and dramatically increased society's exposure to sexual minority issues. The LGBT community did not hide behind the mask of “being normal” anymore but rather asserted, with their very presence and loud calls for justice, that sexual minorities are part of society and that they were not going to hide and stay silent. In the summer of the following year, the first LGBT parades in commemoration of the anniversary of the riots were held in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. One year later, parades also took place in Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee, London, Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm.

In the 1980s and 1990s, annual LGBT parades became bigger and better organized, but at the same time they lost their original revolutionary and rebellious spirit. In their place, the parades took the form of carnivals.

Overall, in the second half of the twentieth century, Western society lived through substantial changes in laws limiting LGBT rights, as well as in public attitudes. People began to shed the prejudices that Western culture had accumulated over the centuries, indeed, over such a long period of time that it may seem that they existed forever and that God created them along with the world. Progress in this direction should be largely attributed to the concept of human rights that emerged after the Second World War, the idea that regards all people as equal no matter their race, sex, ethnicity, but also sexuality. However, the commitment of social movements and activists to turning public opinion around were equally important contributions to the progress that has been achieved since then.

Meanwhile, Latvians and citizens of other Soviet republics lived behind the “'Iron Curtain” and had no opportunity to see the application of the ideas of human rights in practice. Although in the first decade of the Soviet Union's existence (when Latvia was not yet part of the USSR), laws that were surprisingly favorable to the LGBT community for those times had been introduced. It was only in the 60 years that followed that consensual same-sex relationships were re-criminalized. It was a long enough period of time to harden  society's opinion that the punishment and condemnation of homosexuals is the natural order of things.

Changing society's views on what is acceptable is not easy and takes time. Western society walked its own, thorny path towards equality for sexual minorities for decades, and there still is no end in sight to that journey. Latvia and other Baltic states, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, fervently accepted the capitalism and Western culture from which they were excluded by the “Iron Curtain” for over half a century. For these countries, economic and social transformations have been rapid and have caught many people unprepared.

Both then and now, Latvians want to self-identify with European culture and consider themselves part of Northern, not Eastern, Europe (in accordance with the UN designation). Perhaps Latvians want to distance themselves from Russia but,  as we also tend to think, Latvia is indeed a European nation thanks to its culture, history, and identity. After regaining independence, the defining goal of Latvia's foreign policy was to join and integrate into the European Union, which holds respect for human rights as its primary value. As a result, despite societal prejudices that Latvia carried as a legacy from the USSR, the Latvian government showed a greater interest in protecting the rights of sexual minorities – in comparison to the Russian government.

The first LGBT rights organization in Latvia was already established in 1990. In 1992, a law that mandated jail time for consensual homosexual relations between men was rescinded. In addition to conferences and discussions, there was an unofficial wedding of two women at the Monument of Freedom - a public event that shocked society and the press at the time, in later years they reacted in a similar manner to the parades. LGBT rights organizations in Latvia worked on events that would unite the LGBT community, such as summer camps and a website, and cooperated with human rights organizations. In 1999, a bill for registering same-sex relationships was submitted to the Parliament, where it was of course rejected. Despite significant activity by LGBT organizations, there were almost no public events that would have increased the LGBT community's visibility in Latvia. As a result, it seemed that society got used to the idea that sexual minorities exist in Latvia and are free to organize their own conferences and events without being fined. However, subsequent events showed that society's tolerance had been imaginary and existed only on the condition that the LGBT community remained “underground” and did not demand equal rights, for example, the right to be considered a family and have registered partnerships.

The idea to organize Riga Pride gradually came to fruition in the early 2000s. By 2005, the initiative was taken up by the LGBT organization ILGA Latvia. Similarly to previous years, the Riga City Council did not want to approve the procession, claiming that it was not possible to guarantee security for the event. The council's 2005 decision was appealed, and permission to march was granted. The procession was met by protesters, but the latter were not particularly organized and came in separate groups. The situation was different the following year when opponents of the march started gathering support well before the event. Several political parties (Nacionālā spēka savienība and Latvijas Pirmā partija) opposed the event, and signatures were collected to prohibit the march. The Riga City Council, once again, refused to allow the organization of the march, justifying their decision by not being able to guarantee safety. After futile attempts to appeal the decision, the march was not allowed. The planned march did not take place but its participants gathered for an event in the premises of Reval Hotel Latvia and took part in a church service. Although the march was cancelled, protesters arrived and assaulted participants by the hotel building. After that unfortunate incident, the LGBT organization ILGA Latvija no longer took up pride, and in the following years Mozaika became Riga Pride’s primary organizer. ILGA Latvia announced that it no longer wished to organize such events, as they felt that they do not foster tolerance but rather foment aggression and hatred against sexual minorities [5]. According to ILGA Latvia, Riga Pride had failed.

In 2005 and 2006, people attempted to introduce a tradition in Latvia that had been growing in the West for over thirty years, transforming alongside society and its attitudes towards sexual minorities. The Riga Pride organizers tried introducing this tradition in its contemporary form, as a festive march and a carnival. Understandably, Latvia had barely any time for a long process of accepting and understanding, the kind that was possible in “free” Europe throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Latvia was and still is lagging behind in terms of tolerance – it is one of the most homophobic EU member states.

Without pride marches, it is hard to imagine a better way to promote LGBT visibility. When a social group is visible and is represented by publicly known and popular individuals, as well as one’s acquaintances and fellow citizens, it is harder to depersonalize it and develop the type of irrational hatred against that is typical of homophobia. At the same time, it is evident that without historical context, people may have difficulty understanding why these events are important and necessary. The festive-like nature of modern-day prides prevent many from seeing that, in their essence, they are protests waged in resistance to a homophobic society's demand to stay silent and be ashamed. In contrast to homophobic calls for violence, a more moderate and seemingly more commonplace opinion is that the existing LGBT situation in Latvia is already normal and welcome. After all, LGBT persons are not criminally punished, as they were in the Soviet period, and society has mostly managed to come to terms with the fact that there are sexual minorities among us, at least so long as they are not visible. People are not educated about LGBT rights and often confuse belonging to sexual minorities with supporting the equality of sexual minorities. The word “homosexualism” (homoseksuālisms) is symptomatic, as it makes homosexuality sound like an ideology that one could join and could be popularized. There is also a false distinction, according to which, society consists of sexual minorities who want to organize pride marches, and then there is the rest of society – who are against the event. It is not taken into consideration that the possibility to organize LGBT marches and demonstrations could interest not only sexual minorities but anyone who wants to live in a healthy and equal society.

After the failure of Riga Pride in 2006, subsequent marches in 2007, 2008, and 2009 proceeded in a calmer atmosphere, largely thanks to substantial police presence but also, one must admit, because there was no need to deal with so many zealous protesters. At the same time, the scope of and public support for such events cannot be compared with pride parades that are organized in other European countries. For example, three ministers and the Amsterdam mayor took part in the 2008 Amsterdam Pride. The 2008 Austrian Pride had 120,000 participants. In the same year, in Sweden, the minister for EU affairs opened Stockholm's Europride, in which 80,000 people, including Lutheran Church representatives, took part. Spain’s justice minister and hundreds of thousands of people marched in the 2008 Madrid Pride. In the 2008 Paris Pride, more than half a million people, including the Paris mayor, took part [6].

The last Riga Pride that took place in 2012 gave hope that Latvian society was on the road to equality for all its citizens after all. The event proceeded without incident; there was a small crowd of protesters (about 50 people), and for the first time, a representative of the Latvian government - the aforementioned Edgars Rinkēvičs - took part in the event. I also had the opportunity to participate in the march and can say that the event was indeed reminiscent of a festive holiday, despite the feeling of anxiety and expectation that an egg could be hurled at you at any moment (which never happened).

Very soon, Riga’s largest pride event to date will take place. Let's consider it a test that will demonstrate to what extent Latvian society is ready to be part of modern-day Europe. Instead of appealing, over and over, to the unclear and vague “traditional values,” “family values,” and “Christian values” [7], I would like to draw your attention to other values that are found in the Preamble of the Latvian Constitution: “Loyalty to Latvia, the Latvian language as the only official language, freedom, equality, solidarity, justice, honesty, work ethic and family.” However criticized the Preamble and its rationale are, one cannot but admit that this list of values strongly resembles the values that are mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty, which Latvia signed in 2007 together with other EU member states: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” We are still on the road to implementing and confirming our values.

[1] Rinkēvičs, Edgars. “I proudly announce I am gay... Good luck all of you…” November 6, 2014. Accessible on: https://twitter.com/edgarsrinkevics/status/530450808132108288.

[2] Delfi.lv. “Biologs par homoseksuālismu: 'Dažiem daba ir nodarījusi pāri'.” December 11, 2014. Accessible on: http://ejuz.lv/3bc. The author of this article, Jēkabs Raipulis, mockingly singles out “pride” in the Foreign Minister’s announcement and notes that what he is proud of has little to do with his direct job responsibilities.

[3] This process did not proceed everywhere equally as smooth. By 2003, when the United States Supreme Court finally repealed the remaining “anti-sodomy” laws throughout the country, same-sex relationships were still punishable in 14 states.

[4] Cain, Paul. Leading the Parade: Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007, pp. 91–92.

[5] Apollo.lv. “Seksuālo minoritāšu organizācija "ILGA Latvija" praidā nepiedalīsies”. May 30, 2007. Accessible on: http://apollo.tvnet.lv/zinas/seksualo-minoritasu-organizacija-ilga-latvija-praida-nepiedalisies/356872.

[6] Eiropas Savienības Pamattiesību aģentūra. Homofobija un diskriminācija ES dalībvalstīs dzimumorientācijas un dzimumidentitātes dēļ. II daļa. Sociālā situācija. 2009. Accessible on:

https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra-hdgso-report-part2_lv.pdf.

[7] "Christian values" should be those that are written in the Christian holy scriptures and what Christians believe in. The Bible, as a heterogeneous text, is open to various interpretations. Because of these interpretations, people with quite different worldviews can call themselves Christians. These opinions may vary from congregation to congregation, where the Bible's interpretation is carried out by a pastor, or individually. Depending on the existing tendencies in society, churches that hold tolerance towards sexual minorities as their core characteristic could become popular, but so could churches whose identity is based on intolerance, named as traditional and Christian. A homophobic person who wishes to learn the biblical text may find paragraphs that call for the killing of homosexuals, whereas a liberal believer would most likely place a greater weight on the calls to love thy neighbor and not to cast the first stone, and would come to the conclusion that paragraphs inciting violence are not that important.

Ingmārs Freimanis

Ingmārs Freimanis ir absolvējis LU VFF, bet tagad strādā darbā, kas saistīts ar migrācijas jomu. Interesējas par zinātni, politiku, internetu, kultūru, cilvēktiesībām. Audzina bērnus un brīvajā laikā ...

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