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.
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.