Visiting The Surprising City Picked for EuroPride

The Latvian capital is a surprising choice for the pan-European LGBT Pride celebration, but locals and organizers have high hopes that the positive impact will be long-lasting.

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Riga’s parade marchers, accompanied by police and protesters in 2009.

 

Seventy LGBT activists took to the streets of Riga on July 22, 2005. They were met by thousands of protesters. If the message of the council hadn’t been clear before, the protesters were clarifying now: Homosexuality had no place in Latvia.
Tensions escalated and an overwhelmed and underprepared police force formed a protective ring around the participants and altered the parade’s route. As things turned violent, members of a nearby Anglican church offered the parade participants sanctuary. They waited there for hours while the police attempted to clear the crowd. When they eventually emerged through a back door, they were pelted with eggs and vegetables by defiant protesters.
Latvia’s first and only LGBT organization, Mozaika, was born out of the homophobia experienced that day. Since then, its members have persevered and transformed Riga Pride into an annual event, one which now attracts thousands of participants. Though it still faces vocal opposition and repeated attempts to ban it, protester enthusiasm has dwindled to the extent that only a few hundred bothered counter-demonstrating in 2014.
It’s a sign of progress, but the reality is that the annual festivities of Pride are a brief hiatus from the closet for the country’s LGBT community. Latvia remains a deeply conservative society, one influenced by its powerful Russian neighbors and religious tradition. With homophobia still rampant, LGBT visibility is negligible. Those who are out in public face marginalization, verbal abuse, and violence.
This June, 10 years after that first march, EuroPride will parade through the capital in all its feathered glory. It could be the catalyst to change that Latvia’s LGBT community so desperately needs.
We’re not allowed to go into [Russia] without getting arrested for being who we are, so of course [EuroPride is] the next best thing we can do,” says De Meyer. “It’s not only Latvia; if you look at what happened last year in Baltic Pride and the difficulties they had organizing it in Vilnius, Lithuania, the country next door, it’s exactly the same thing. There’s still this Russian influence that plays a part in the acceptance of LGBT rights.
In the three years since Riga won the bid, the situation has worsened in Russia and other ex–Soviet states. Belarus and Lithuania have considered implementing their own bans on homosexual propaganda, while Ukraine has experienced a string of high-profile homophobic attacks from various neo-Nazi factions. The need to march in Eastern Europe has only intensified.
The decision to award EuroPride to Riga prompted outward reactions from both camps in Latvia — celebrations from Mozaika, condemnation from conservatives. But the response from Latvia’s wider LGBT population was conspicuous by its absence.
When EuroPride hits Riga, it’s unlikely to attract anywhere near the numbers experienced by events in Italy, Spain, or the U.K. But its legacy could be far greater. As LGBT rights progress, as the fight for equality succeeds, the meaning of Pride shifts — from demonstration to celebration. The defiant marches become victory parades, a tribute to all those who fought for equality and won. In June this year, when the parade through Riga follows in the footsteps of 70 activists a decade ago, we may just witness that transformation firsthand.
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“Slash” | 18th June | Riga

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The first Queer themed art project in Latvia

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TOM OF FINLAND (Touko Laaksonen, Finnish, 1920 – 1991), Nordic God, 1969, Graphite on paper, 11.50” x 8.00”, Tom of Finland Foundation Permanent Collection, © 1969 Tom of Finland Foundation

Represented artists: Tom of Finland (1944-1990, FI/USA), Aleesa Cohena(Canada), Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst (USA), Lucas Foletto Celinski (BR/DE), Atis Jākobsons (LV), Matthew Lutz Kinoy (USA), Inga Meldere (LV/FI), Vladislavs Nastavševs (LV), Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay(Canada), Armīns Ozoliņš (LV), Edgars Ozoliņš (1930-1987, LV), Karol Radziszewski (PL), Wolfgang Tillmans (DE), Vilnis Vējš  (LV).

Thinking about the problematic contrast of social acceptance and gay rights or their absence in the present Latvia, this project follows an idea about the universalising view on sexual identity and desire questioning previously dominant model of binary oppositions (male/female, homosexual/heterosexual) and the open-source mentality of the later concepts of queer sexuality, “third sex”, etc.

Avoiding any presumptions that certain individuals are truly born gay and only those born with the “deviant” traits share an interest in them, this project stresses that homosexuality is important to persons with a wide range of sexualities, as there is no such a thing as a stable erotic identity, and everyone is to some degree queer in their inherent qualities of mind and character, even if not in their physical behavior.

The iconic figure of Tom of Finland serves as a platform to question the stereotypes of sexuality, gender and idealized body. To name few other participants: exhibition would also include collaborative work of American artist couple Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Last summer (2014), they hit a high point in their careers by being included in the Whitney Biennial.

Exhibition will bring in a juxtaposition between Tom of Finland’s works and Latvian artist Edgars Ozoliņš, whose photorealistic and overtly sexualized illustrations of teen novels from the 1960s – 1980s encouraged the soviet-time public discourse on sexuality. By illustrating a scandalous (and exceedingly homophobic) book on sex and marriage, the artist succeeded to, for the first time in soviet history, create a set of drawings depicting a vast variety of sexual postures.

With various invited speakers (among them German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, Latvian and foreign poets, theoreticians, historians) the synchronous talks will question the concepts behind the exhibition ideas through talks, presentations, and more.

kim? together with Berlin based Latvian curator Kaspars Vanags (curator of the Latvia’s National pavilion at Venice Art Biennale 2015) and with support by Gary Everett (founder and current artistic director at Homotopia Liverpool and an official representative of Tom of Finland Foundation in Europe) is organizing the first art exhibition in Latvia dedicated to queer issues featuring new and recent art works from international and local contemporary artists as well as museum worthy display of Tom of Finland and Edgars Ozoliņš.

Exhibition shall open during EuroPride and run through 2nd August.

Latvia is the first country in the territory of former Soviet Union to host EuroPride. kim? Contemporary Art Centre’s mission is to support the development of emerging artists, theoreticians, curators, philosophers, translators and thinkers of other spheres aiming to provide a responsive context to their work and to make critical practices accessible to a wider audience. 

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