Amnesty International Mobilized to Protect Baltic Pride

by JoHarrington

When brave LGBT people gathered in Riga on June 2nd for a pride march, it was against a background of violent persecution.

Gay Pride parades in places like New York City and London are flamboyant, bright and open occasions. It's enough to forget that these parades began as, and continue to be, civil rights marches.

In Latvia, there is no such luxury. As this year's venue for Baltic Pride, those taking their places on the Riga route do so knowing that they could get badly hurt.

It's a fast changing situation, which has gay rights watchers around the world nervously wondering what will happen on June 2nd 2012.

Amnesty in Baltic Pride

Their position is precarious enough to have human rights activists Amnesty International calling upon their members to help.

I know because I'm one of them and I received the e-mail.

Update: Baltic Pride 2012 did occur in Riga. The last segment of this article describes what happened.

Image: Baltic Pride participants
Image: Baltic Pride participants

Pride Against a Backdrop of Terror

Homophobic Neo-Nazis are determined to violently put down any hope of gay rights in the region.

On May 21st 2012, Amnesty International wrote to all of its members asking us to sign a petition to be sent to Riga Council.  The local authority for the Latvian capital city was on the verge of cancelling Baltic Pride.

The same day, Kiev Pride was cancelled just thirty minutes before it was due to begin. 500 far-right football hooligans were swarming towards the starting point ready to attack the LGBT marchers. It would have been the first Gay Pride ever in the Ukraine, but it was too dangerous to go ahead.

A few days before, Neo-Nazis had broken up the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) rally in St Petersburg, Russia. Police escorted participants to the safety of their buses. But the far-right group followed. Several blocks away, they surrounded the buses, smashed the windows and beat up those inside.

Moscow immediately announced that the Gay Pride march, scheduled for May 27th, would be banned in its city for the seventh year running.

These precise scenarios face those planning to be out and proud in Riga on June 2nd 2012.

Buy a Rainbow Flag for Gay Pride

And a Latvian flag to show your solidarity with the beleaguered people at Baltic Pride.

The Rocky Road to Baltic Pride

LGBT efforts to become visible have been consistently met with organized counter-protests, designed to keep them firmly in the closet.

By May 23rd 2012, Riga Council had bowed to international pressure and announced that Baltic Pride will go ahead this year.

This is not solely a Latvian event, but alternates each year with Lithuania and Estonia. None of these countries are particularly welcoming towards anyone who is not purely heterosexual.

Until 2010, all of the Baltic Pride events were in Riga. They have been notable for the violent opposition towards them from organized anti-gay protestors.

Before 1992, being gay in Latvia meant incarceration in an asylum. Homosexuality was viewed as a 'disease' throughout the former Soviet Union.

The fall of the iron curtain freed the country to make its own laws; and they began promisingly enough with decriminalization for gay people. The age of consent was standardized at sixteen. But legal matters did not change public perception. Homosexuals are largely lumped in with pedophiles.

On July 23rd 2005, Riga held its first Gay Pride event. It did not go well. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis publicly expressed his outrage that 'sexual minorities' should flaunt their life-style near to the Doma Church.

The march only went ahead after the Riga District Administrative Court forced the hand of the Executive Director of Riga City Council. He had previously withdrawn a permit which would have allowed the march to go ahead. The green light came just one day before Riga Pride was due to happen.

Homophobic counter-marchers vastly out-numbered the '100-150' LGBT participants. Insults and missiles were hurled at anyone defending gay rights.

A handful of anti-gay rights protesters linked arms and sat down in the street.  It was to block the Pride route, which was then forced to divert into back-streets. They were summarily arrested. Also detained by police were the leaders of two far-right extremist groups. Both men were wearing replica Nazi uniforms.

Eventually the police intervened to form a protective cordon around the Pride campaigners, shielding them until they could be safely removed from the city center.

It had been a victory for the bigots, who had forced the route closure through sheer strength of numbers.

Riga Pride 2005

The commentary is mostly in Russian, but the images and film do give a sense of the tension surrounding Latvia's first Gay Pride march.

A Latvian Friend Comments

Mindful that I, and many reading, won't understand what was being said in that video, I asked my friend check it over. These are his comments.

Well some of the signs and text in the video are in Russian and I can't read Russian at all. There was speech in Russian too, but I understand a little (and most curses). I didn't see/hear any bad language, but if you want to be 100% sure you should ask someone who speaks Russian.

Let me tell you that most of the people protesting in this video are pretty much the "lower class" that is very uneducated and can't even be bothered to learn the country's official language (like rednecks in America) so please don't think everyone around here is like that. Seeing this made me embarrassed for Latvia, though.

A year later, the homophobes became organized too. The anti-LGBT group No Pride was formed in 2006, in the run up to the second attempt at a Riga Pride march.

The city officials responded by refusing a permit for any gay rights parade that year. The issue once again went to the courts and, as with the year before, the ruling was that it had to go ahead. But this year, Riga City Council appealed and that took the process beyond the date of the event.

Nevertheless, Pride activists - now acting together under the auspices of the group Mozaīka - went ahead anyway. It was to lead to violence.

On July 22nd 2006, events began with a church service conducted by the openly gay pastor, Reverend Maris Sants. As he spoke from his pulpit in support of Riga Pride, the doors burst open and a dozen No Pride protestors rushed in. They began pelting the minister and his congregation with excrement and rotten fruit.

Later, Reverend Sants was beaten en route to his car, after police refused to provide an escort. The Dutch MEP Sophie In’t Veld ended up trapped inside the church, as vigilantes blocked the exits. Even she wasn't afforded protection.

Other observers, like Peter Tatchell from the British gay rights group Outrage!, were able to get away. But their car was followed by a van filled with Neo-Nazis, who pelted them with eggs.

By 11am, Mozaīka announced that they were no longer prepared to defy the ban with an actual parade. It was patently too dangerous to be on the streets of Riga, as the numbers of No Pride counter-protestors swelled.

Instead a conference room had been booked on the second floor of the Reval Hotel Latvia. Speakers and Pride organizers relocated there and the rally was held indoors.  Only 200 people attended; and it was soon to be the scene of a siege situation.

Crowds blocked all of the entrances, yelling homophobic abuse.  A small group of people, wearing Neo-Nazi insignia, managed to get inside and stormed the rally. Posters were ripped up and people were attacked. This included other guests at the hotel, who had no idea that Pride was even taking place!

Hotel managers contracted a private security firm to safeguard their property, as it sustained damage from outside. They evicted the No Pride group, while a safe room was found to protect those now trapped inside.

Eventually, as news crept out, Latvia's Deputy Prime Minister Ainārs Šlesers arrived with a police guard. He arranged for the Pride activists to be safely escorted from the premises and loaded into armored buses.

After hiding in the hotel for over seven hours, the participants of Riga Pride 2006 were able to go home.

No Pride Protesters Outside a Latvian Hotel, Riga 2006

By 2007, the Latvian government had come under severe international scrutiny for the official handling of the rally the previous year.

Over 4,500 Gay Pride marchers arrived for a rally which far eclipsed the two which had gone before. They included many supporters from other countries (notably Sweden), as well as a presence from Amnesty International.

Riga City Council hadn't attempted to with-hold a permit - under speculation that it had come under pressure from a Latvian government mindful of the nation's global reputation. Over 1,500 police officers were deployed to the capital and they were able to segregate No Pride members away from the route.

Nevertheless, some did get through.  Two fire-crackers were thrown into the gay rights crowd. It caused a small panic from those nearest, but no-one was hurt.

Buses were also laid on to evacuate protestors after the rally finished in Vermanes Park. These were parked some distance from the rally, necessitating police to form a cordon corridor through the anti-gay crowd. 

The thousands leaving Riga Pride and Friendship Day 2007 were subjected to verbal homophobic abuse until they reached the safety of the buses. But it was still better than the terror of the year before.

Riga Pride 2007

Against a backdrop of a huge police presence, this was largely a peaceful rally in Vermanes Park.

By 2008, Gay Pride in Latvia had become something of a cause célèbre for LGBT activists around the world. Over thirty countries were represented by delegates on the day.

Perhaps mindful of this, a lot of organization went into making this Riga Pride and Friendship Day feel very peaceful and welcoming.

It was relocated onto the historic 11 November Embankment, where Latvia had once achieved independence. Dominating the skyline was Riga Castle, where the country's rulers had been seated since the 14th century. President Valdis Zatlers was shown on the big screens, with a pre-recorded message of support.

The No Pride protesters were visible on a distant bridge, but they couldn't be heard.

For that matter, nor was anybody else.  The point of Pride was to be openly and visibly there, declaring that gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people do exist; and that is not a bad thing.  But the cordon around the event was so absolute that none of the general public could witness anything.

Riga Pride and Friendship Day 2008 wasn't so much about being out and proud. It was about being hidden away, in a gentile, enjoyable and utterly pleasant private festival.

Riga Pride 2008

This film shows both sides of the debate with an interview with a No Pride man in English.

After the usual rigmarole with the courts, the on-off march was eventually granted a permit to return to the streets of Riga on May 16th 2009.

Now renamed Baltic Pride, instead of Riga Pride and Friendship Day, the event was to raise visibility of homosexuality in all of the Baltic states.

Unfortunately, the fact that it was no longer being held in the relative safety of an enclosed park meant that attendance figures dropped accordingly. Fewer than 600 people braved the march through police cordons, and many of those weren't even Latvian. Twenty countries had someone there lending their physical support.

Though out on the streets, the marchers were still kept away from the general public. Their route contained barricades, which meant that onlookers could only watch from a distance.

They could be heard though. Homophobic abuse was hurled at the LGBT community throughout the whole parade, but nobody was injured.

Baltic Pride 2009

This film records interviews with various participants, from all sides, in English.

In 2010 and 2011, Baltic Pride marches were held in Lithuania and Estonia respectively. 

The former only went ahead at the very last moment. The Supreme Court ordered permission with hours to go.  300 people joined the parade through the streets of Vilnius. They were protected from anti-gay protestors by over 1,000 Lithuanian police officers.

The Gay Pride events, in Estonia's capital city of Tallinn, had been running since 2004. Their course had also not run smoothly, with a particularly low point in 2006. That time, skinheads had rushed into the parade wielding sticks and had hospitalized fifteen people.

But in 2011, all went largely without a hitch, though the numbers were very small.  Only around 100-150 people completed the march, but more did visit the side-events and the open air concert to finish.

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Film-Maker Kaspars Goba on Latvian Pride

It was a brave decision to film the fierce Baltic struggle, but one man could not simply walk away.

Present at the first Riga Pride march in 2005 was the film-maker Kaspars Goba.

He had been invited there by a Lutheran minister, who wanted someone to witness what was happening. The man had been excommunicated for openly declaring that he was a homosexual.

Goba recalled, "What I experienced in the Old Town [of Riga] that day rattled me like nothing had before."

The shock of seeing the anti-gay sentiment, expressed throughout the capital city, was enough to inspire him to devote the next five years of his life to chronicling it.

The result was the film HOMO@LV, which was released by Elm Media in 2010. Interviewing both Pride protestors and anti-Pride groups, as well as by-standers on each side, the documentary is an eye-opening insight into the wider debate.

Many nationalist opponents see the Pride marches as indicative of an attempt by Western capitalist cultures to passively invade. No tanks and guns this time, but pressure to conform to a foreign regime nonetheless.

This is why so many Latvians are aggressively fighting against Baltic Pride.

Watch a Trailer for HOMO@LV

There are English sub-titles. Mild language warning from some of the more heated scenes.

Books about the History of Gay Pride

Read these books to learn more about Gay Pride's fascinating origins as a civil rights march - still very much a reality for Baltic Pride.

Baltic Pride in Riga on June 2nd 2012

It is expected that around 650 people will march through the capital city of Latvia on June 2nd. As Baltic Pride grows in strength, more gay Balts feel empowered to openly join their ranks.

They will be joined, as ever, by a delegation of Amnesty International activists. Their role is not only to boost the numbers, but also to act as witnesses in case of violence or human rights abuses. 

Also planning to be there are LGBT activists from Scandinavia, particularly from Sweden, who will offer their support as the struggle for equality goes on in the Baltic states.

The parade begins in Ģertrūdes Street, Riga, at 1pm. The whole world will be watching to see what happens next.

Map of the Baltic Pride 2012 Start and Finish Places

Do You Support the Baltic Pride March?

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Buy Gay Pride Items on eBay

Update: What Happened at Baltic Pride 2012?

These early reports have come by watching Twitter.  By all accounts, the march went well.  There were no fences, but plenty of police. The only real nastiness was in the weather, as it rained constantly on the Gay Pride marchers.

Afterwards, all went to a park for a party.  There have been reports of people being verbally attacked after leaving there to go home, as well as three arrests.

Much of this information has come from the Tweets of Amnesty International observer, Michel Banz, who is in Riga. May I direct you there for live coverage.

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Updated: 03/18/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/24/2012

I'm totally with you on that one! :)

Ember on 05/24/2012

I certainly hope it goes through, and more importantly that people aren't injured. And, I am happy to support them from afar :)

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