LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Baltic Pride 2018 in Riga – a striking paradox between societal acceptance and political will

Pride events
community organising

Daina Rudusa, ILGA-Europe Advocacy and Programmes Officer 

8000 people. 3 political parties. 1 business. This year’s Baltic Pride in Riga was a year of many firsts. It was undeniably a tribute to how far Latvian society has come in terms of acceptance. The 100 days of Pride events that took place in the city were a celebration of diversity and the human rights of all people, including LGBTI people. It was a testament to the strength of the LGBTI community, the dedication of its allies, and, unfortunately, the opposition, ignorance or cowardice of the country’s ruling politicians.

8000 people marched in the 2018 Pride march in Riga. 8000 people from the local LGBTI community, from the cultural sector, from allies and supporters, and Latvian society members. Lots of young people took part, there were families with children of all ages, dogs, even a cat.

The entire route of the march was lined with people watching, cheering, smiling, and dancing along with the marchers. They looked out of the windows, raised glasses from their balconies, hung rainbow flags from their windowsills. A full 100 days of Pride events preceded the march. Thousands of people attended the hugely varied cultural programme in all parts of the city, including at the National Library, celebrating not only diversity and human rights, but 100 years of independence of the Baltic states.

For the first time, a business – Accenture – marched in the Pride, expressing its commitment to its LGBTI staff, to human rights more broadly. For the first time, three political parties were present in the Pride park; they marched together with participants, and spoke on the rally stage. For the first time, businesses around Riga celebrated Pride with special window displays. Several cafes offered Pride rainbow cake, a small brewery (paradoxically typically liked by nationalist patrons and correspondingly risking much of their usual clientele) created a special Baltic Pride beer, a local designer designed a fabulous Baltic Pride t-shirt line… this might sound like typical Pride activities to some readers, but in the Latvian context, it is hugely significant!

In countries with a rich history of Pride marches and much progress in the promotion and protection of the human rights of LGBTI people, there is widespread debate about commercialisation of Pride, and questions abound over whether Pride is losing its essence to commercial gain. In my mind, this is absolutely not the case in Latvia, or the rest of the Baltics for that matter. Today, still, businesses take a big risk when they come out for equality, and their support only strengthens the movement and encourages community members.

Just over a decade ago a Pride march in Riga was banned. Back in 2006, the couple of hundred participants attending closed events (such as a church service or Pride rally in a hotel) were showered with bags of faeces. An aggressive crowd surrounded event venues and the participants were trapped. Finding venues for any events was extremely challenging, as hardly any businesses were willing to work with the LGBTI community.

This year? A handful of protesters were present. They were not organised, they were not aggressive, they stood on the side-lines with their banners in support of “traditional families”, which they have every right to do.

Society has come a long, long way since the first Pride events in Riga.

With all of this progress in society, it seems quite a paradox that Latvia is still the lowest ranked EU member state on the Rainbow Europe ranking, with fewer legal and policy protections for LGBTI people than neighbouring Lithuania. And far fewer than EU accession countries like Albania, or Serbia.

Politicians in Latvia continue to side-line their LGBTI citizens, often under the guise of “society is not ready” arguments or maintaining the pretence that LGBTI issues are ‘foreign’ to Latvia. Just recently the Mandate, Submissions and Ethics committee of the Saeima rejected a petition for introduction of partnership legislation which would recognise all unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, without even submitting the petition to the relevant parliamentary committee.

It seems to me that there is a massive mismatch going on. The prevalence of Baltic Pride events around the city, even in cafes and businesses not at all associated with the organisers, the number of local people who came to events and the march, the number who came to watch and cheer – all of this clearly shows that society has long surpassed its elected officials. Society is ready, accepting and supportive of its LGBTI members, and it is their elected officials who have fallen behind.

Just a few months before Latvians head to the polls to elect a new parliament, Baltic Pride has been an eye opener, a clear indication of the fact that a new political energy is needed. One which does not live in an outdated past, but which respects and celebrates the diversity of its society, protects and champions human rights, including human rights of LGBTI people, and moves forward together with society.

And if every person who attended a Pride event this summer reaches out to the political parties to find out their position, speaks to the candidates, and, most importantly, votes, then things will change. That way, they can make sure that the next time Baltic Pride comes to Riga, in 2021, we can celebrate not only societal but also legislative and political progress in the promotion and protection of the very basic human rights of LGBTI people.