Gays march amid huge police contingent

  • 2005-07-27
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - Latvia's first gay pride parade on July 23 in Riga's Old Town resulted in violent clashes between police and protestors, many of whom threw eggs and other items at the parade's participants.
Members of radical anti-gay groups, many waving extremist signs, attempted to physically obstruct the march, even though there were no more than 100 participating.

The number of anti-homosexual demonstrators, by contrast, was at least 1,000, while approximately 10,000 people showed up to watch the parade, a novelty in the Baltics.

Since disorder had been anticipated, a huge police contingent was deployed to protect the marchers. Many of the anti-gay groups were increasingly obstreperous 's some tried to block the parade by locking arms and sitting in a human chain 's and had to be detained.

Officers reportedly arrested eight protestors.

When the march finally made its way back to the Anglican Church for an ecumenical service, hundreds of protestors were gathered outside angrily denouncing the event. The scene became so chaotic that the participants eventually had to be whisked away on a bus to escape the angry crowds.

Bizarrely, it was an issue that brought both Latvian and Russian radicals out onto the streets to oppose the march, along with others just curious to see the procession.

Fortunately, police were able to keep the huge number of protestors and onlookers under control while the group pushed through the city's cobblestone streets. Police were, however, forced to redirect the route away from Dome Square, due to a mass of people gathered there.

Human rights advocacy groups blasted both the Riga and national governments.

"Amnesty International is deeply concerned over comments made by the prime minister and by the deputy speaker of Parliament and the effect they may have had. Amnesty International fears that such comments from authorities may encourage a climate of intolerance and hatred, and that they may incite verbal and physical attacks against gay and lesbian persons, such as those that took place on July 23, 2005 during the Gay Pride march," the organization said in a press release.

Maris Sants, a defrocked gay priest who was thrown out of the Lutheran church when he announced his sexual orientation, led the ecumenical service. During the march, Sants wore a shirt that read, "Homophobia is a big sin."

Many of the participants said they were surprised by the level of abuse directed at them.

A few days earlier, on July 20, Riga Executive Director Eriks Skapars revoked the gay organization's permit to march. Meanwhile, Klubs 415, a nationalist youth organization, were knocking on City Hall's door for a permit to arrange a pro-family demonstration during the previously scheduled gay pride parade. Although they were never granted a permit, the demonstration took place with the help of Arvids Ulme, an MP from the Greens and Farmers Union. Police have since asked for an explanation from Ulme, who claimed the anti-gay rally was actually just a meeting with voters.

Klubs 415 participated in the Latvian legion procession in March earlier this year that also led to a number of arrests.

On July 22, organizers of the gay parade went to court to successfully overturn the decision. Had they failed, they promised to defy the government and go ahead with the walk anyway.

The event marked a zenith in the nation's anti-gay hysteria, fueled by politicians and well-known personalities who voiced their opposition in the week leading up to the parade.

Skapars justified canceling the event because extremist groups suggested "disorder." In a television interview, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis called the parade a "mistake." He also said the country was built on Christian values.

Interior Minister Eriks Jekabsons also called the procession a "mistake."

There was some effort, however, to quell homophobic views. On July 22, the daily paper Diena published an open letter voicing concern over Latvian society's level of intolerance, citing recent racist attacks, homophobia and anti-Semitism as prime examples. The letter was signed by nearly 200 prominent public figures.

Immediately after the court victory, Transport Minister Ainars Slesers called for Skapars' resignation for authorizing the "parade of perversion" in the first place. Slesers' move raised tension in the Riga city council, where the fragile right-wing coalition has a one-vote majority.