The love that dares to speak its name

  • 2004-01-08
  • Philip Birzulis
RIGA - After decades of repression, Latvian homosexuals are out of the closet and walking down the (symbolic) aisle, as Philip Birzulis reports.

With a multitude of discos, bars and strip joints, Riga is quite a hedonistic town. But straights aren't the only ones having fun.
On a Saturday evening at XXL, one of two gay clubs in the city, the techno music is deafening. The murals of macho guys in overalls, leather and other gear a la the Village People are none too subtle either, and sado-masochist videos blur the boundaries between pleasure and pain. About two dozen women and men drink, dance and occasionally slip off to a "dark room" whose English name - "Fuck Me" - doesn't leave much to the imagination.
The venue has been open for five years and patrons and staff members say they aren't bothered by the police, homophobic louts or anyone else.
But beyond the freedom to party however they choose, some Latvian gays want to affirm their relationships in the most serious way possible. And they are increasingly vocal in calling for society to give its blessing.

Aigars Rubezis, 18, asserts there is a simple reason why he and his partner Oskars Krumins, 24, want to get married.
"You can ask any male and female couple that question, and the answer will be the same - we love each other, and we want to affirm this before God," he said.
But their path to the altar is not so easy since the Latvian state does not permit same-sex marriages. It is complicated further because they are both religious believers and insist on having a church wedding, despite the fact that the local leaders of the major Christian denominations are hostile critics of homosexuality.
They originally thought of going to Hungary, one of the few former communist countries where gay marriages are legal, but scrapped that because they would rather get hitched at home. Even if it is a symbolic act with no legal force - and not just to cause a stir, they insist.
"This isn't just agitation - we want it for ourselves," said Krumins. "We have to examine our feelings, and I feel that God supports us."
Leaving aside what the Almighty may think, both young men believe Latvia has come a long way from Soviet times when homosexual intercourse was illegal.
"If this was 1980, I would have married a woman, I would have hidden," said Krumins. "Now I don't have to lie, I don't have to cheat anyone, I'm not 'sick' - all that falls by the wayside."
It's not all smooth sailing - Rubezis said he was once beaten up after leaving a nightclub. But after some emotional turmoil, friends, family and work colleagues accept them. When they dance together at straight nightclubs other patrons even buy them drinks.
Beyond tolerance, the couple is wary of pushing for full equality too quickly. They would like to adopt children, but accept that society is probably not ready for that, and they are concerned about how a child of theirs would be treated.
Krumins doesn't believe in outing the numerous prominent members of society in the arts, politics and the media who he says are gay, believing that everyone has to make their own decision. Of course everyone could breathe easier if there was a role model like the openly gay Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, says Krumins, but care and support is a better way to go. In fact, he claims that repressed gays are the most aggressive opponents of those who are out, so gently helping people to lose their inhibitions would assist everyone.
Krumins is one of the founders of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Support Group in Riga, which has brokered some unexpected meetings of minds. He says that former prisoners often hate gays because they have been sexually abused in jail, but ex-inmates who have attended the meetings have come to terms with what happened to them.
Being open can literally be a matter of life and death, says Krumins. Education about safe sex is easier when people aren't hiding, and he said that most gays were aware of the issues. Statistics from the Latvian AIDS Prevention Center probably support this assertion; out of a total of 2,702 registered cases of HIV in Latvia as of last December, 113 had been contracted through homosexual contact. The number of new gay cases of infection fell from a peak of 22 in 1998 to 12 in 2003, but Krumins warns that some young gays feel that the danger is over and are engaging in risky behavior again.
The couple has a mixed attitude toward the media, claiming that news of the wedding slipped out by accident but at the same time granting numerous subsequent interviews. But the big day itself will be private, and the exact location and date are secrets. All they will reveal is that it will take place some time in January.