A decade ago, two young Latvians, fresh from volunteering at Stockholm Pride, decided the time was right for Riga to host its own festival. They planned a small parade through the capital’s old town and applied to the city council for permission. Perhaps without quite realizing what it was getting itself into, the council accepted the proposal. Latvia was to get its very first public LGBT event, and no one knew what to expect.
That changed when a local Catholic church caught wind of the plans. Incandescent with anger at the idea of homosexuals flagrantly capering past their sacred space, the church united with some equally outraged politicians to ban the event. The council conformed in a decision that drew widespread media reportage. Riga Pride was now national news, and when a court overturned the council’s festival ban two days later, the coverage intensified.
Seventy LGBT activists took to the streets of Riga on July 22, 2005. They were met by thousands of protesters. If the message of the council hadn’t been clear before, the protesters were clarifying now: Homosexuality had no place in Latvia.
Tensions escalated and an overwhelmed and underprepared police force formed a protective ring around the participants and altered the parade’s route. As things turned violent, members of a nearby Anglican church offered the parade participants sanctuary. They waited there for hours while the police attempted to clear the crowd. When they eventually emerged through a back door, they were pelted with eggs and vegetables by defiant protesters.
Latvia’s first and only LGBT organization, Mozaika, was born out of the homophobia experienced that day. Since then, its members have persevered and transformed Riga Pride into an annual event, one which now attracts thousands of participants. Though it still faces vocal opposition and repeated attempts to ban it, protester enthusiasm has dwindled to the extent that only a few hundred bothered counter-demonstrating in 2014.
It’s a sign of progress, but the reality is that the annual festivities of Pride are a brief hiatus from the closet for the country’s LGBT community. Latvia remains a deeply conservative society, one influenced by its powerful Russian neighbors and religious tradition. With homophobia still rampant, LGBT visibility is negligible. Those who are out in public face marginalization, verbal abuse, and violence.
This June, 10 years after that first march, EuroPride will parade through the capital in all its feathered glory. It could be the catalyst to change that Latvia’s LGBT community so desperately needs.
The Russian Influence
In 2012, Pride organizing bodies from across the continent cast their vote to pick the 2015 host of EuroPride, the pan-European annual parade that has often drawn bigger crowds than WorldPride events. Originally held in London in 1992, the annual festival has traveled to some of Europe’s best-known cities and LGBT hot spots — from Oslo to Berlin, Stockholm to Madrid, where it attracted an estimated 2.5 million visitors in 2007.
As well as Riga, Vienna, and Manchester, candidate cities included Milan and Barcelona, both vying to make their debuts. The allure of finally bringing the festival to the gay-friendly streets of either provided tough competition for Mozaika, who headed up Riga’s bid. But for the electorate, organizers, and even Vienna Pride (which dropped out in support of Riga), not only was the decision an easy one, it just felt right.
“Overall the general consensus was that it was time to go to Riga,” says Hans De Meyer, president of the European Pride Organisers Association (EPOA). “Five years ago we had it in Warsaw, and that was actually the first time EuroPride went into the Eastern part of Europe and the areas we consider hostile. So I think the majority felt it was quite important.”
Local hostility didn’t factor against Riga. It was a reason to go there. And with this summer marking a decade on from the city’s first parade, as well as the recent 25-year anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the timing couldn’t have been better for the former Soviet nation that borders Russia.
During the election period, Russian politicians were aggressively stoking homophobic sentiment domestically. Many regional authorities had already enacted versions of the now infamous nationwide embargo on “homosexual propaganda.” With Moscow Pride permanently banned for the next century, the opportunity to plant a rainbow flag on Putin’s doorstep was not to be missed.
“We’re not allowed to go into [Russia] without getting arrested for being who we are, so of course [EuroPride is] the next best thing we can do,” says De Meyer. “It’s not only Latvia; if you look at what happened last year in Baltic Pride and the difficulties they had organizing it in Vilnius, Lithuania, the country next door, it’s exactly the same thing. There’s still this Russian influence that plays a part in the acceptance of LGBT rights.”
In the three years since Riga won the bid, the situation has worsened in Russia and other ex–Soviet states. Belarus and Lithuania have considered implementing their own bans on homosexual propaganda, while Ukraine has experienced a string of high-profile homophobic attacks from various neo-Nazi factions. The need to march in Eastern Europe has only intensified.
“It’s strengthened people’s ideas that we have to fight this, and because people don’t have that opportunity in their country, we have to do it from outside,” says De Meyer. “I just hope with this event that in Latvia, the rest of the Baltic states and other countries like Belarus and Russia, people will recognize that it’s time to stand up.”