Riga, Latvia, hosts EuroPride this weekend, the first former Soviet country to do so.
If you’re passing through Riga, says Kaspars Zalitis, you must make time for the Latvian capital’s fantastic Art Noveau architecture, the ornate late 19th, early 20th century style that dots the city center. The beaches, too, are not to be missed. The Baltic Sea, to the north of the city, is no Mediterranean, but the coast is studded with beautiful, sandy beaches that are popular among locals and tourists alike. And if you happen to be in Riga this weekend, Zalitis says—June 19 through June 21—you should definitely make time for the event he’s been organizing since 2012. Zalitis, an LGBT activist, is the co-chair of this year’s EuroPride, an annual, weeklong celebration of the European LGBT community, which is expected to draw 2,000 to 5,000 people to the city.
Another local attraction? Riga is just 200 miles, a two-hour drive, from the Russian border. Russia is notoriously hostile to its LGBT citizens; a Human Rights Watch report published last December finds that anti-gay violence there has grown since the parliament passed a law prohibiting the dissemination of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors in 2013.
That proximity makes this year’s EuroPride celebration, the first in a former Soviet territory, even more significant. “Pride always has the potential to be controversial,” says Jordan Long, the associate director of the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Campaign’s global arm. “[Pride] demands rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Those rights are much harder to realize in the post-Soviet context. That’s why Latvia is particularly challenging.”
LGBT life in the capital
Latvia itself is not especially welcoming to members of the LGBT community. While two-thirds of the countries that have legalized gay marriage are in Europe, Latvia is positioned well within the conservative “Bible belt” of the eastern section of the continent. Sixty percent of the country identifies as Christian—23 percent as Roman Catholic, 20 percent as Lutheran, and 17 percent as Orthodox Christian. The country amended its constitution to ban same-sex unions in 2006, just months after about 70 activists celebrated the first Pride in Latvia and were greeted by hurled eggs, epithets, and hundreds of protesters.
The situation attracted anti-gay activists from places as far-flung as the United States. Latvia "is the battle line where homosexual powers from the U.S. and Europe are trying to put their way into former Soviet Union,” the American activist Scott Lively told a documentary filmmaker in 2006. “The doorway is Latvia.”
Things have changed in the intervening decade, says Maris Dingelis, a Latvian journalist who is gay and now lives in the United States. “I would say on a daily basis, no, I don’t think its LGBT community is threatened in any way,” he says in a phone interview. “They can live—they can just live quietly.”
But Latvia still has just one LGBT organization, The Advocate reports: Mozaika, whose small staff has worked overtime to prepare for this month’s celebration. And even Riga, the more liberal capital, has just two gay bars. Walking down the street holding hands with another man wouldn’t be “dangerous,” Dingelis says, but it would “get glances or comments or whistles, maybe.” (Things might get more heated, he noted, if two men held hands around drunks.)
The municipal government has supported EuroPride’s right to gather. Under international pressure, the city council went as far as to reject an anti-gay group’s bid to use the same space as EuroPride. But individual Riga officials have made their personal stances clear. EuroPride is “a pretentious demonstration of oneself, which does not promote understanding,” Riga Vice Mayor Andris Ameriks told the Baltic Times last month. “[T]he organizers should understand this.”
The global giant next door
In late 2014, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics made a surprise announcement over Twitter.
Mūsu valstij ir jārada tiesisks regulējums visu veida partnerattiecībām, cīnīšos par to, zinu, ka tūliņ būs megahistērja, bet #Proudtobegay— Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) November 6, 2014
I proudly announce I'am gay... Good luck all of you...— Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) November 6, 2014
Reaction was mixed, the New York Times reported. While activists within Latvia and politicians in Estonia, Italy, and Germany rushed to congratulate Rinkevics on the announcement, one popular Latvian news site was forced to shut down its comment section after it was flooded with homophobic rhetoric and slurs. And in a commentary published by a Russian state news agency (and later translated by the online translation journal The Interpreter), one Russian journalist wondered whether “it would be more correct and humane to not pay any attention to [Rinkevics’ statement] at all. In the end, everyone has his faults. Although not everyone tries to elevate them into virtues.”
Russia’s deputy prime minister responded sarcastically via Twitter: “[Rinkevics] found something to be proud of. Though, if you have nothing else to be proud of, you can be proud of that :)”
@edgarsrinkevics: "I proudly announce I'am gay..." Нашел чем гордиться. Хотя если больше нечем гордиться, то можно гордиться и этим)— Dmitry Rogozin (@Rogozin) November 7, 2014
Zalitis, the EuroPride organizer, says this Russian dynamic will cast a shadow on the celebration’s proceedings. “What is happening in our neighboring country, Russia—everyone will understand that [EuroPride] will be a true celebration of human rights,” he says. The Pride parade, scheduled for June 20, will have a special place for LGBT activists from the former USSR, and for those who cannot march in their own countries: for Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, Armenians, Kazakhs, Kyrgyzs, and Russians.
The parade will snake 2.2 kilometers (1.4 miles) through Riga’s central streets and its Vermanes Park. That’s four times longer than any previous Riga Pride parade, Zalitis says. In 2007, during the city’s second Pride, celebrants paraded inside the same locked park as protesters pressed against police-erected barricades and jeered. This year, Zalitis is not worried about safety, though an anti-Pride rally is scheduled to take place across the street from the park. “I think it’s going to be a great celebration, a great demonstration,” he says.
If you’re going on Saturday—to see the beaches, to see the architecture, and to march in Pride—the gathering begins at 1 p.m. local time. “The parade will start—we love to consider ourselves a Nordic country—it will start at 2 p.m. sharp,” says Zalitis. “Please be on time.”