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June 30, 2015

Pride in the Baltics: Making History in Latvia

By Theo Salem-Mackall

“Be the change, make history, making history is hot!”  

So went the cheeky catchphrase for 2015’s EuroPride celebration, held in Latvia’s capital city of Riga this month. Beginning in London in 1992, EuroPride is a pan-European festival celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights and identity. Latvia is the first former Soviet state to host the annual event. Spanning seven days, EuroPride culminates in a Mardi Gras-style pride parade, live music, and an AIDS memorial vigil. Some 5,000 people attended this year’s festivities.

EuroPride’s message is particularly profound in Riga. Like in many former Soviet states, Latvian LGBT people face legal discrimination and active persecution. In the lead-up to Riga’s EuroPride, fears ran high in the international LGBT community regarding threats of violent counter-protest. Latvia's 2005 pride parade was marred by homophobic violence, and many feared a repeat. 

Progress has been gradual over the past ten years, and resistance to LGBT inclusion remains. Last December Latvian President Andris Berzins said, “Homosexuality should not be advertised and imposed,” and several months ago, a Latvian organization called the "Anti-Globalists" used a loophole in municipal regulations in a failed attempt to obstruct EuroPride’s organizers, MOZAIKA, from using certain public spaces. 

A group of counter-protesters did made an appearance at the end of the week-long event, carrying homophobic slogans and even burning a rainbow flag within sight of the parade. The group, however, never exceeded 30 attendees—and a heavy police presence protected marchers from any violence. Authorities arrested three members of the counter-protest under charges of “acts of disturbance against the public order” for throwing eggs at EuroPride participants.  

The EuroPride celebration in Riga was a roaring success. Revelers danced through the central streets, waved rainbow flags, and made loud calls for greater acceptance of LGBT people in the Baltic states. Openly gay country singer Steve Grand proved a big hit with festival goers. He marched in the parade with U.S. Embassy staff and performed twice throughout the day. Other prominent attendees included Sharon Hudson-Dean, Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Riga, and Stuart Milk, activist and nephew of famed LGBT politician Harvey Milk. 

Even though EuroPride was successful, the specter of homophobia endures, revealing the need for continued engagement and activism in Latvia. In November 2013, anti-LGBT groups collected signatures for a referendum proposing gay propaganda laws similar Russia's, an effort that ultimately failed. Legal bars against same-sex marriage and adoption remain, and Latvian LGBT people continue to face bias-motivated violence. 

Riga’s celebration of EuroPride also shows significant progress both in Latvia and throughout the Baltics. Members of the LGBT community can now serve in the Latvian military, foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics publicly came out as gay, and an employment non-discrimination amendment in the Latvian Labour Law added in 2006 includes sexual orientation as a protected category. 

Mr. Milk said to GayStar News, “[EuroPride] was very inspiring. This is not only EuroPride but it's also the Baltic Pride. I went to Baltic Pride two years ago [in Vilnius, Lithuania] which was the only other march, as last year in Tallinn, Estonia they didn't have one. It's almost night and day, the progress that's been made.”  

Human Rights First's Shawn Gaylord presented at EuroPride's accompanying Freedom Conference, speaking on the history of freedom of speech and the LGBT movement in the United States. To learn more about the lead-up to Riga’s EuroPride, check out our profile of Kaspars Zalitis, board member of MOZAIKA and Co-Chair of EuroPride in Riga.