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RIGA - Martijs Mihelmanis stood at the rostrum and looked down over rainbow-colored candles at a small congregation, which had gathered in St. Saviour’s Anglican Church in Riga for a gay pride service.
Now based in Berlin, where he works as a customer support officer for Lufthansa, Mihelmanis had decided to return to his home church to support EuroPride — a weeklong series of pro-gay rights events that took place in the Latvian capital in June.
He had agreed to deliver a testimony.
“Dear sisters and brothers,” he said, addressing the non-denominational congregation. “Ten years ago, when the first Riga Pride took place, there was very little love present.”
The parade that year was met with more than a thousand protesters. The participants, who numbered fewer than a hundred, withstood a torrent of abuse -- dodging eggs, tomatoes, and glass bottles thrown from the crowd.
“The feeling was terrible,” Mihelmanis told the congregation. “It felt like Heaven would close and never open again.”
The tide had turned in time for parade this year – the same year Latvia celebrates 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union. It marks the first time that EuroPride has taken place in a formerly communist country.
Organizers who had anticipated 2,000 attendees welcomed more than 5,000 of them, who marched through Riga’s streets armed with banners and rainbow flags.
“This has been definitely been the biggest public event of sexual minorities in Latvia,” said Mihelmanis, speaking at the church service the day after the EuroPride parade, “and a great success.”
Lars Henriksen, the chairperson of Copenhagen Pride, who travelled across the Baltic Sea to attend, wondered why the few protesters who did show up to voice their concerns with gay rights had bothered.
“Why didn’t they stay home and enjoy a glass of wine? Why didn’t they just enjoy the afternoon and the good weather? It’s ludicrous,” he said.
But outside the church where Mihelmanis delivered his testimony, a large contingent of policemen were on standby — a reminder that a backlash against gay rights activism remains a concern in Latvia.
“We were certainly in contact with the police at all times,” said Reverend Jana Jeruma-Grinberga, an Anglican minister. “We were grateful they were there. The history of these services has not always been an easy one.”
It is a tense time for gay rights throughout the region. The flare-ups of anti-gay violence that marred Ukraine’s Kiev Pride parade a few weeks ago — when police had failed to protect LGBT marchers from right-wing nationalists — shone a spotlight on EuroPride’s own security measures.
Latvian police had devised a “security net” for the parade: hundreds of policemen guarded the EuroPride throughout the route. Warnings discouraged people from wearing rainbow themed costumes outside the parade area.
In the end, the police made just three arrests. “We are pro-traditional families,” said Andris Ozols, one of the men arrested. “We protest because we are against all these projects to make propaganda.” Ozols believes that homosexuality is a mental illness, potentially curable by hypnosis or meditation.
“I have nothing against homosexuality,” added Raivis Lucis. “But I’m against making it a public event because I worry about my children seeing it, and thinking it’s the norm.”
Most Latvian politicians steered clear of the parade. “Homophobia still wins votes in this country, sadly enough,” explained Karlis Streips, an American-Latvian intellectual and TV presenter who is one of Latvia’s most prominent gay men.
Deputy Mayor Andris Ameriks lambasted the event, calling it “an ostentatious exhibition,” which was “not conducive to mutual understanding in society.” He cited a recent poll, in which 75% of Latvians were shown to disapprove of the parade.
Even Latvian President Andris Berzins gave EuroPride frosty notice; last December he said that “homosexuality should not be advertised and imposed.”
Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics — Latvia’s only high profile, openly gay elected politician, who tweeted his way out of the closet last year with the hashtag #proud2begay – was conspicuously absent for the parade. He was on a foreign visit, strengthening his country’s diplomatic ties with New Zealand.
Russia has stepped up its media activity in the three Baltic States, hoping to sow doubts about the EU and NATO. Homosexuality was illegal throughout the Soviet Union, and Russian media outlets have seized on the emergence of LGBT communities in the Baltics as part of a wider Western attack on traditional values.
“No one was asking anyone to export anyone to San Francisco or Soho,” says Stuart Milk, a nephew of the assassinated US Senator Harvey Milk and veteran LGBT rights campaigner. “They’ve implied that by saying they are western values. But they’re not western values; they’re human values.”
Milk, who was visiting courtesy of the US embassy, lauded Washington’s efforts to support worldwide LGBT communities. US special envoy Randy Berry, whose role as Special Envoy for LGBT issues was created by the State Department earlier this year, made a his first appearance at a EuroPride parade.
Institutional responses to LGBT issues have been mixed among the Baltic States. Estonia, Latvia’s northern neighbor, has pushed ahead with recognizing same-sex couples; it will be bringing a cohabitation agreement into force on 1 Jan 2016 — the first former Soviet country to do so.
Lithuania has been heading in the opposite direction, catering to its conservative Catholic majority voter base with increasingly traditionalist laws.
Lithuanian student Julija Stanceviciute, who attended the EuroPride parade, saw in it an auger of hope for Lithuania’s LGBT community. “An example was set for Lithuania,” she said.
Ukrainian activists at the event were heartened as well. “Riga showed this year that even in a post-Soviet country it is possible to hold EuroPride without violence and victims,” said Olena Shevshenko.
Russian activists were also out in force. A Russian flag was seen flying next an orange banner, which read “EuroPride: you’re welcome in Moscow next.”