RIGA - Riga pulled off its first ever successful gay pride parade and festival on June 3 despite attempts by angry hecklers to intervene. A massive police presence, personally orchestrated by Interior Minister Ivars Godmanis from the balcony of a nearby office building, prevented any major disruption of the parade, which was the culmination of the four-day Riga Friendship Days 2007. About 400 people took part in the march around the park, including several European lawmakers and two members of the European Parliament. Nearly a hundred journalists and photographers were also in attendance.
The success was a feather in Riga's cap given that the gatherings of gay rights advocates the previous two years were marred by physical confrontations. Last year a crowd of irate protesters even threw excrement on the activists.
"It was fabulous 's I'm very pleased. Everything worked out. We had a lot of visitors and there were no disturbances," said Linda Freimane, director of the sexual minority rights group Mozaika.
"I was surprised by the number of people, a lot of locals showed up too," she said.
Police set up a double-perimeter around Vermane Park, with hundreds of policemen in riot gear manning key spots. Parade participants had to come and go through a single entrance on Terbates Street across from the entrance to the Foreign Ministry.
"Of course, it's sad that you need that sort of massive presence, but I think they did a good job," Freimane said.
As the march began, approximately 50 protesters gathered at one corner of the park wearing NoPride shirts and yelling slogans such as "Nazism, communism, and homosexuality are one and the same" at the participants. One bore a sign reading "Vermane Park is not a zoo 's monkeying around is forbidden."
As the parade walked along the park path, the protesters followed on the other side of the fence, screaming insults at the marchers. They occasionally threw eggs or an ice cream cone, but no one was injured.
Several parade participants occasionally offered rejoinders, whistling back and chanting that "homophobia has got to go." A few lesbians kissed one another in full view of the protesters.
As the parade came to a close, two protesters launched fireworks into the park. None were hit by the projectiles, but some of the participants were badly scared by the explosions.
Both protesters were taken to a police station, and a criminal procedure for hooliganism has been launched against them. The apprehended are a father and son.
The parade itself featured a few hundred colorfully dressed marchers wielding amnesty international signs reading "Gays' and lesbians' rights are human rights" and "Equality = Human rights." Organizers passed out temporary tattoos and protest signs to the participants.
There were a number of speeches by activists, European lawmakers and pro-tolerance priests about the need for tolerance, diversity and respecting European values.
In the meantime, a large, anti-gay concert 's dubbed "The World Against Homosexuality" 's was held on the bank of the Daugava River. The number of participants was considerably larger than at Vermane Park, reaching several thousand. Organizers, however, had claimed 40,000 people would attend, though the final number was well short of that.
Participants wore white T-shirts and plastered stickers on themselves that announced, "The world is against homosexuality. So is the newspaper 'Ritdiena.' So am I." The event featured a huge stage, a large, crane-like camera capturing the event, and a row of white tents where people could sign a petition to be sent to the European parliament. Children strolled the grounds wearing shirts with a controversial image suggesting that sodomy should be banned.
Aleksei Ledyaev, head of the Christian charismatic New Generation church and a leading member of NoPride, defended both the shirts and letting children wear them. Despite his persistent attempts, Ledyaev was not allowed into Vermane Park.
Freimane hopes that the success of this year's event will be a stepping stone to bigger and better marches in the future. "This was sort of like a test run, and it went well," she said. "Hopefully in the future it will be more like a normal event, important for the marchers but not a major deal for the city and the country."