Latvia’s turn to­ward gay rights

In Eastern Europe, long a strong­hold of ho­mo­pho­bia, the is­sue is a new front in the con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and the West

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY MICHAEL BIRNBAUM IN RIGA, LATVIA michael.birnbaum@wash­post.com

The first time this tiny Baltic na­tion held a gay pride march, the mi­nus­cule crowd was pelted with rot­ten eggs and bot­tles un­der the cop­per-green spires of Riga’s me­dieval old city. The par­tic­i­pants— all 40 of them — fled to safety in a church.

That was a decade ago. This year’s pa­rade drew thou­sands from across Europe, and the egg-throw­ers stayed at home.

Eastern Europe, long a strong­hold of vir­u­lent ho­mo­pho­bia, is re­ex­am­in­ing at­ti­tudes to­ward gays and les­bians, and the de­bate has be­come a new bat­tle­ground in the con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and the West. The Krem­lin has seized the open­ing, warn­ing its for­mer satel­lite states that if they align with deca­dent Europe, moral col­lapse will soon fol­low.

Rus­sia’s ar­gu­ments have taken hold in Ukraine, Ge­or­gia and other coun­tries out­side the Euro­pean Union’s high walls, where pro-Western lead­ers have re­sisted Euro­pean de­mands for tol­er­ance of gays and les­bians. A gay pride march in Kiev, the Ukrainian cap­i­tal, last month ended in fist­fights and con­tro­versy. Gay rights or­ga­niz­ers in Ge­or­gia called off public events af­ter a 2013 march in Tbil­isi was be­set by Ortho­dox priests wield­ing stools and sting­ing net­tles.

But in Latvia, which long ago made a firm choice to steer away from its old Krem­lin over­lords, tol­er­ance of gays and les­bians has in­creased markedly in the 11 years since it joined the Euro­pean Union. When­the for­eign min­is­ter, Edgars Rinke­vics, came out as gay last fall, he pre­dicted “megabut the re­ac­tion was barely a rip­ple.

“The E.U. has helped. Lat­vians want to fit in,” said Linda Freimane, a long­time Lat­vian gay rights ac­tivist who helped or­ga­nize this year’s pa­rade, which drew peo­ple span­ning the width of the 28-na­tion Euro­pean Union. “We want to be the good guys in school.”

The tug-of-war over gay rights has taken on spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance af­ter a re­cent string of U.S. court de­ci­sions up­hold­ing same-sex mar­riage. Cait­lyn Jen­ner’s very public tran­si­tion from her old life as Bruce, mean­while, has thrown a spotlight on trans­gen­der is­sues and ac­cep­tance. Moves to­ward ac­cep­tance

In Latvia in 2005, hun­dreds of fu­ri­ous anti-gay coun­ter­protesters poured into Riga’s cob­ble­stone streets on a July af­ter­noon so driz­zly that when they tried to burn a rain­bow flag, they had trou­ble get­ting it to ig­nite. The jeer­ing crowds far out­num­bered the gay rights marchers, who were hemmed in by a thick cordon of po­lice of­fi­cers.

Latvia had joined the Euro­pean Union a year ear­lier, and mem­ber­ship in the club had just started to re­make the na­tion’s so­cially con­ser­va­tive at­ti­tudes. Cit­i­zens sud­denly had the right to travel and work any­where in Europe they pleased, and they flocked west­ward in droves, to coun­tries tol­er­ant of gays and les­bians. A new gen­er­a­tion has come of age with lit­tle or no mem­ory of the Soviet era, when ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was out­lawed.

Af­ter the calm fol­low­ing the for­eign min­is­ter’s com­ing out on Twit­ter, “peo­ple re­al­ized there wasn’t this groundswell of ho­mo­pho­bia in so­ci­ety,” said Pauls Raud­seps, a colum­nist for Latvia’s Ir newsweekly.

At this year’s pa­rade, fam­i­lies car­ried a rain­bow of bal­loons un­der­neath the watch­ful carved faces on the build­ings in Riga’s Art Nouveau quar­ter. Moth­ers push­ing strollers walked along­side men car­ry­ing ban­ners pro­mot­ing tol­er­ance. The week be­fore, the U.S. Em­bassy hoisted the rain­bow flag along­side the Stars and Stripes, and top diplo­mats marched among the crowds wear­ing vi­sors de­signed es­pe­cially for the oc­ca­sion.

But chal­lenges re­main. Just days be­fore last month’s pa­rade, Latvia’s Par­lia­ment ap­proved a law re­quir­ing “vir­tu­ous” ed­u­ca­tion in the class­room that pro­motes tra­di­tional mar­riage and fam­ily struc­tures. The mea­sure was spon­sored by Latvia’s largest eth­nic Rus­sian party, but it was ap­proved with sup­port from con­ser­va­tive anti-Rus­sian na­tion­al­ists.

“Why do we need to be like ev­ery­one else? We don’t need Euro­pean cul­ture. We don’t need global cul­ture,” said Vik­torija Pe­travska, 22, a gar­dener who drove three hours to join the sev­eral dozen coun­ter­protesters at the Riga pa­rade.

In Ukraine and Ge­or­gia, the di­vi­sions have been far starker. Wedged be­tween Rus­sia and the West, nei­ther na­tion has taken decisive steps to be more wel­com­ing to­ward their gay cit­i­zens. Even many of the pro-Euro­pean protesters who over­threw Ukraine’s Rus­sian-friendly pres­i­dent con­sider gay rights to be ra­dioac­tive. Be­fore Ukraine signed a land­mark E.U. pact, lead­ers won a re­prieve from E.U. anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion de­mands, to the dis­ap­point­ment of the coun­try’s gay rights ad­vo­cates.

Rus­sia has seized the open­ing, push­ing hard to make it­self the leader of the tra­di­tional val­ues camp and warn­ing both at home and abroad that Western val­ues eat at fam­ily struc­tures and so­ci­ety’s ba­sic fab­ric.

“In place of Vic­tory Pa­rades in Kiev there will be gay pa­rades,” wrote Alexei Pushkov, chair­man the for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee in Rus­sia’s lower house of par­lia­ment, as the con­flict in Ukraine heated up last year.

The Rus­sian anti-gay rhetoric has pro­moted the idea that gay mar­riage is a weapon aimed straight at the Krem­lin.

“This is­sue is very tightly con­nected with anti-Western, an­tiAmer­i­can ideas,” said Yury Gavrikov, a lead­ing gay rights ac­tivist in St. Peters­burg. Clashes in Kiev

In Ukraine, a gay rights march that took place on the out­skirts of Kiev last month was dis­rupted by far-right op­po­nents who threw smoke bombs and scuf­fled with par­tic­i­pants and the po­lice of­fi­cers pro­tect­ing them. Most of the vi­o­lence came from mem­bers of the Right Sec­tor group, a ruc­tious Ukrainian na­tion­al­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion born of the pro-Euro­pean protests that is heav­ily armed and has taken part in the fight­ing against the Rus­sia-backed rebels in Ukraine’s east. Right Sec­tor is also sus­pected in a re­cent se­ries of at­tacks on Kiev’s gay clubs.

Even main­stream proEu­ro­pean politi­cians such as Kiev’s Mayor Vi­tali Kl­itschko, a leader of the 2013 protest move­ment, en­cour­aged ac­tivists to stay home. Ukrainian at­ti­tudes are so over­whelm­ingly skep­ti­cal to­ward gay rights that ad­vo­cates con­sid­ered Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko’s de­ci­sion not to op­pose their event a ma­jor win.

“For years, there was a sit­u­a­tion where this topic wasn’t re­ally talked about in our so­ci­ety,” said De­nis Panin, a mem­ber of the board of Ful­crum, a Ukrainian gay rights or­ga­ni­za­tion. “But if you ask peo­ple’s in­di­vid­ual at­ti­tudes, they would say they didn’t ap­prove of gay peo­ple.”

And in Ge­or­gia, op­por­tu­ni­ties for gay rights ad­vo­cates seem even more dis­mal. The Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox Church — which has pow­er­ful his­toric ties to its Rus­sian Ortho­dox coun­ter­parts — has come out swing­ing against any ef­fort to pro­mote tol­er­ance of gays and les­bians. It suc­ceeded in briefly ty­ing up leg­is­la­tion re­quired for E.U. visa lib­er­al­iza­tion, a pop­u­lar pro-Euro­pean mea­sure, be­cause Europe re­quired that Ge­or­gia out­law anti-gay dis­crim­i­na­tion. The black-clad priests who took a lead­ing role in the vi­o­lent anti-gay riot in 2013 wielded weapons against a hand­ful of pro-tol­er­ance protesters.

Many Lat­vians credit Europe for the shift­ing at­ti­tudes in their na­tion. Some hope the wave might roll into Ukraine and Ge­or­gia if those coun­tries suc­ceed in forg­ing closer bonds with the West.

“It’s an in­cred­i­ble feel­ing. You can’t even ex­press it in words,” said Kas­pars Zali­tis, a gay rights ac­tivist who par­tic­i­pated in Latvia’s 2005 march and was a main or­ga­nizer this year. “If no­body be­lieved we are be­com­ing an open, demo­cratic so­ci­ety, this is proof of it. We are be­com­ing a nor­mal Euro­pean coun­try. It’s part of be­ing in the E.U.”

“The E.U. has helped. Lat­vians want to fit in.” Linda Freimane, a long­time gay rights ac­tivist who helped or­ga­nize this year’s pride pa­rade

OK­SANA DZADAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

ABOVE: Last month’s gay pride pa­rade in Riga, the Lat­vian cap­i­tal, drew thou­sands from across Europe, a sharp con­trast to the egg-pelt­ing coun­ter­protesters a decade ago. BE­LOW: For­eignMin­is­ter Edgars Rinke­vics came out as gay last fall, and the re­ac­tion was barely a rip­ple.

SA­MUEL KUBANI/AFP VIA GETTY IM­AGES

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