Making the invisible visible

  • 2012-05-30
  • By Emily Kernot

OUT THERE: The Baltic States gay community has a long road ahead to gaining equal rights.

RIGA - Straight people scare the crap out of me. Seriously. You can see a straight girl a mile away by the clothes she wears. And as for straight guys. Well, just look at the cars they drive. Not naming any names but it’s obvious which brands they go for. And you can easily tell who’s straight by their occupation. In a police line-up, straights stand out like a sore thumb. Why do they scare me? Straight people spread diseases, first of all.

Most straight people in their lifetime will contract and spread a deadly virus to an unsuspecting individual. They do it knowingly. Also, straight people are more likely to be alcoholics. I read it in some journal. It’s a sad fact; straight people’s children are more likely to grow up and become straight because of their family orientation. There have been scientific studies about it that haven’t really proved anything, but it’s still true. Straight people can choose not to be straight but they just don’t try hard enough.

Okay, some of these accusations might sound absurd, but if that’s what an individual was told their whole life - by society, by family, by misinterpreting/own understanding of historic writings or any other reason - then who do we blame? Or, rather than point the finger, perhaps it’s better to provide platforms for education and discussion to address where the fear stems from and then attempt to dispel it.

Baltic Pride, a five-day event held by the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, began on May 30 in Riga. In 2006 the group’s celebration parade turned into an openly hostile display against those marching, from Latvia’s homophobic populace. It drew worldwide discussion.

Mozaika is the organization which has taken the brunt of criticism surrounding Pride, being the ones who petition for, publicly appeal about, and go to court to make sure it happens. For the past two years it was held in Lithuania and Estonia, respectively. “This year it returns to Riga,” Mozaika chairperson Kristine Garina said. “The first circle is completed.”

It’s been a long road, though, with a lot of resistance from local government officials and the church. “Yes, city officials have banned us and government officials have openly expressed homophobic views. There were times when the Minister of Interior did not lift a finger when Pride was attacked by extremists [in 2006], and there were times when the prime minister opposed Pride saying it didn’t match our country’s values. However, these times are gone. We believe what happened in 2006 was a breaking point for Latvia. Politicians have learned that the majority of our society isn’t aggressively anti-pride. They are moderate; most of them don’t care either way. Hate speech turned a lot of people in our favor because it demonstrated a lot of aggression and hatred, and people did not like that. In 2006 plastic bags of human excrement were thrown at us, people were attacked at various events throughout the Pride week program. Even for people who had a somewhat negative view towards Pride had to admit that enough is enough. No one wants to associate themselves with violence.

“Religious groups will surely come to Pride to protest. They are welcome. As long as their slogans don’t cross the line of hate speech, as long as they don’t try to stop the parade, their rights to protest are out there, too. We don’t mind. The line which they can’t cross is obviously violence and hate speech, and restrictions to our right to assemble. If that happens, there are the police and the law to protect us.”

When asked why there is a need to hold Baltic Pride, and what the catalyst for the event is, Garina explained: “What is the motivation behind any demonstration? There are problems, lack of legislation, lack of rights, and general homophobia in the society. All these issues are invisible to the majority unless they are pointed out. Pride gives us a platform to speak about these issues. Another thing, of course, is visibility. LGBT people need to be visible. If you don’t speak up, you don’t exist. If you don’t exist, your rights can too easily be taken away.”

“There is a story I always tell that describes the attitude of society today. We Latvians love mushroom picking. In the fall, everyone spends their weekends in the forest picking all kinds of mushrooms, and Monday morning at work is usually spent discussing all shapes and sizes of mushrooms people have picked. One female colleague says that she was mushroom picking with her husband. Everyone discusses mushrooms. A male colleague says exactly the same, that he was mushroom picking with his husband. Suddenly no one thinks about mushrooms any more. Suddenly he is parading his sexual preferences in front of them. Yet the situation is identical! People would often think that he is showing off his sexuality when in reality all he is doing is living his or her life, the same way everyone is. People should think about how they would feel if they had to hide their spouse from their colleagues, or even from their families. If simply bringing a date somewhere would cause a riot. We don’t live isolated from our friends, colleagues, families, neighbors, supermarket cashiers or postmen; therefore it isn’t possible for anyone to keep their private life private. Yet there is still this distinction that for a heterosexual person, it is alright to have their private life visible, but for a homosexual person it is not alright, it should be kept strictly at home.”

Regarding animosity towards LGBT people of the Baltic States, she said Estonia is a bit better off because it is more Scandinavian than the other two nations. “Lithuania is a bit worse off due to Catholic influences. In Latvia we are somewhere in between. I don’t know why. One reason is Soviet history. Up until 1992 homosexuality was a criminal offense. There is a lot of negative stigma about it from the Soviet times. Another reason is the religious voice that was present in the political agenda for a long time. Now they are gone… Not that they influenced a lot of people; however, they did create the general atmosphere where homophobia in the public sphere was alright, accepted. That is changing now. Another reason is conservatism in general - Latvians don’t like changes, don’t like innovations much, don’t like anything different from what we have been used to for a hundred years... The society’s reaction is negative because people honestly believe they don’t know any LGBT people, that they don’t exist amongst their circle of family, friends and colleagues - which most likely is not true.”

She said no published studies have been done on the number of LGBT represented in the Baltic States. “But generally worldwide the number is pretty much equal throughout all societies and all times. Usually the most common figure you’ll hear is 10 percent of the population… Regardless of the number, whether it is ten percent or five percent, or even one percent, it is a huge number of people.”

“The problem is lots of local people are still closeted. Homophobia is still a huge problem here. We can’t judge people for hiding, or force them out of the closets. But we do want more local people to come out and march with us. In terms of the Baltic States, Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians do not consider each other foreigners. When Lithuanians and Estonians march in Riga at the Baltic Pride, they are part of the locals. We fought for our independence from the USSR together; we can do this together, too. It makes sense.”

It is estimated 2012 could see as many as 650 participating in Saturday’s parade on June 2.
And this number of people has a powerful team backing them in their quest. United States Ambassador to Latvia Judith Garber, in a written statement to The Baltic Times, said: “Since January 2009, the Department of State, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has championed a comprehensive human rights agenda - one that includes the protection of the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. The United States believes we must work toward the elimination of violence and discrimination against LGBT people worldwide, particularly those forced to flee their homes or countries. So we are marching in support of LGBT people here in Latvia, in the Baltics, in Europe, and throughout the world.

“Human rights are inalienable and belong to every person, no matter who that person is or whom that person loves. That’s why Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia, the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia, Michael Polt, many Embassy officials from our U.S. missions in the Baltics, and I, will be marching in Baltic Pride this year. It’s simple: we are marching for equality.”

Mozaika receives most of its financial backing from abroad, but Kristine said it’s the same for most Non-Governmental Organizations working in Latvia and the Baltics. “We aren’t unique in this situation; it’s not just the LGBT organizations left to their own devices to find their own funding. For this particular event we have received support from the Open Society Foundation and the Soros Foundation Latvia. A lot of embassies have ‘chipped in’ to help us with various events. We do have some support from the officials this year, not financial though… The City Council (except the religious bunch) isn’t supporting us, however they aren’t trying to stop us either, so that is kind of a support compared to what we had the previous years. Not having to go to court days before the event is very helpful. We like that the mayor so far holds a very practical, down-to-earth attitude towards Pride. Even if it’s not very convenient for the city, it is an event that is going to take place, so the city will have to deal with it, no debate there. I can sympathize with the fact that a lot of policemen will be forced to work on a Saturday and lots of resources will go into securing Pride, yet it is the price of democracy, and that is one very important democracy exercise for these days, in this country and city.”