Paradigm Change?

  • 2015-07-02
  • By Karlis Streips

RIGA - “It was a paradigm change,” someone wrote on Facebook last week about the Europride festival that was held in the capital city of Riga on June 20.  
Well, it was certainly the largest gay pride event ever held in Riga and, one dares surmise, anywhere in the former Soviet Union.  There were an estimated 5,000 people in the march, with another 1,000 or so watching from the sidelines. 

Participants came from all over the world, quite literally.  I met a young man from India.  There were people from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Russia, Lithuania, Estonia, etc.  Celebrities included Steve Grand, the Chicago-born musician who became an overnight sensation on YouTube, and Stuart Milk, nephew of the legendary San Francisco politician and martyr Harvey Milk.  They were both in Riga courtesy of the United States Department of State and its Cultural Ambassadors Programme, which sends artists of various kinds all around the world to promote culture, tolerance and understanding.  A week before Pride, the happily gay celebrity chef Art Smith was in town as part of the same programme to teach classes, host a popup dinner of unbelievably delicious fried chicken at the Zoste restaurant, and be guest of honour at a dinner thrown by the US Embassy.

Homophobes, this time acting under the aegis of Latvia’s so-called anti-globalists made a big fuss in advance of Europride.  They filed suit against the city of Riga after the city denied them the right to hold a “pro-family” rally in the same park where Europride was held and at the same time.  Needless to say, the court told them to take a hike.  We are long past the days when the courts in Latvia uphold bans on Pride itself.  Freedom of assembly has taken hold, but not, of course, when it is meant for aggressive purposes.

In the event, protesters were scattered and few.  A few downturned thumbs, a few sour faces, a few signs about supporting “traditional families” (as if LGBT people didn’t have traditional families in the form of parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc.)  That was about it.  The march covered 2.2 kilometres through the streets of Riga.  When we reached the so-called “corner house,” which was headquarters for the KGB secret police during the Soviet occupation, we shut off the music and paid our respects to those who fell victim to the horrors within the building.

Other than that, however, Europride was a massively joyous occasion.  It was my great honour to MC the rally that was held after the parade.  Lots of people spoke, several bands and individual singers performed.  I knew that one young man in the audience was celebrating his birthday that day, so I called him out, and everyone sang “Happy Birthday to You.”  The only other city in which I have ever attended a Pride event is my hometown of Chicago, where the scale of the event, of course, is massively larger than it could ever be in Riga.  This year Pride in Chicago will be held on Sunday, June 28, and if in the days before that, as expected, the US Supreme Court rules that gay marriage is constitutional in all the land, it is going to be one hell of a party.

That said, Europride was a good and proper Pride event, as well.  I don’t know that I would agree that it was a paradigm change in the sense that it is unlikely that it changed too many minds among homophobes and, particularly, among this country’s political class, which in almost all cases is scared to death of uttering any pro-gay sentiments for fear that this will cause rejection in the electorate.  The few exceptions include MPs Ilze Vinkele, Veiko Spolitis and Lolita Cigane, who all marched in the parade, and thanks and kudos to them.  That does not mean, however, that Parliament as such is likely to be any more eager in discussing a partnership law than it was before the event, when the overall reaction was no, no and no once again.

On the other hand, I do believe that the massive success of Europride will inform similar events in this part of the world in future.  Next year Baltic Pride will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Pride events have been attacked by protesters and an unsympathetic local government in the past.  Europride in Riga showed that a large event can be held peacefully and happily, and God willing that this will be true in Lithuania, as well.

Even more, God willing that it will be true in places like Kyiv.  During Europride week I attended a conference at which a woman from Ukraine talked about this year’s Pride event there – a few hundred people shunted off to a peripheral part of the capital city, with a massive police presence not deterring someone from throwing a bomb packed with nails.  In the event, the only person injured was a police officer, who was hurt very badly and ended up in hospital.  The LGBT community in Ukraine raised funds for his treatment, which I believe is most noble.  The woman said, however, that she hopes that next year, Kyiv Pride can be out in the streets.  I join in that hope.

Europride was simply magnificent.  I am writing two days later and am still all aglow about it.  Several times during the event I came close to weeping for the triumph of it all.  I hope that our LGBT community will make some hay out of it.  We cannot remain in the Dark Ages in this regard forever.