The region has lagged behind Western Europe when it comes to gay rights thanks to its reactionary nationalist movements and Russia's outwardly homophobic regime.
Photos by Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert
This article appears in the September Issue of VICE
When he was three years old, Daniel Timofeev started draping himself in his mother's scarves and dancing around his bedroom in the Latvian village of Balvi, about 20 miles from the Russian border. His parents were horrified and screamed at him to stop. Though they didn't discuss it openly, they saw his behavior as the first signs of homosexuality, which they regarded as a disease. At school, his peers were more explicit, taunting him and calling him a faggot and girl when he tried to go to the boys' bathroom or play sports.
As a teenager, Timofeev started to sneak off to Riga, the capital, in pursuit of some people who might be like him. It was the early 2000s, and with just a decade of independence from the USSR behind it, the country was still trying to distance itself from its Soviet past. In Riga, going to clubs and meeting other queer men, Timofeev experienced gay culture for the first time. "Riga was like a wonderland compared with where I came from," he said. Even so, he was mugged on his first trip to the city, and when a man he had arranged to meet for a sexual encounter failed to show up, he had to sleep on the street. Unlike the rest of the country, Riga had two gay clubs where the LGBT population could find momentary refuge. But once beyond the walls of the high-security clubs, Timofeev was back on his own and encountering the same verbal violence that he did in Balvi.
Once Timofeev graduated high school, he started looking for a way to get out of his hometown, where he could tell almost no one who he really was. On the social networking site Draugiem.lv, he started chatting with an older man in Riga who wanted to meet him. Timofeev half-jokingly asked if the man would come pick him up in Balvi, and five hours later he arrived. Timofeev told his mother he was going out for a while, packed up his things, and moved to Riga that afternoon.
When Timofeev arrived he encountered a post-Soviet gay community whose members made great efforts to keep their lives secret. The official myth in the Soviet Union had been that there had been no homosexuals within its borders. Yet under its criminal code, sex between men was punishable by five years in prison. According to the Soviet Union's first and only sex manual, In the Name of Love, written by the Latvian psychotherapist Janis Zalitis, homosexuality was a sickness but could be cured with hypnosis. A newly independent Latvia had overturned the Soviet criminal code and seen the opening of Latvia's first official gay clubs in the early 90s. But because of hundreds of years of occupation, its own history of fascism, and a newly powerful church, the new Latvia was deeply nationalist and xenophobic, and suspicious of what they regarded as outside forces—homosexuals chief among them.
In 2003, Latvia held a referendum on the question of joining the European Union as part of the group's expansion to include many states from the former Eastern Bloc the following year. Those advocating a no vote argued that the country shouldn't give up its sovereignty so soon after gaining independence, but supporters won out, arguing that the move would provide further protection from Russian influence. When a small gay activist community started to emerge after the EU accession, politicians were eager to dismiss them as the influence of Western forces, as there were still officially no gays in Latvia.
The climate in Riga remains one in which gay people are encouraged to live in hiding. With an androgynous style of silvery lavender hair, tailored feminine clothing, and an ever-present touch of blush, foundation, and bronzer to highlight his delicate features, Timofeev doesn't blend in. A few months ago he discovered RuPaul's Drag Race on Facebook and began experimenting with drag. "My drag is very fishy," he said, using language he learned from the show. But as comfortable as he is with himself, he still has to fight to walk down the street. "Someone in a car drove by me this week, rolled down the window, called out 'faggot,' and drove away. And if I'm on public transportation it's a constant, 'Is he boy, is he girl, why is he gay?'" he said. "I have to live with that."
This January, Latvia assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU for the first time. Leading up to the ascendency, the country's gay activists decided they should use the occasion to make a statement. While gay rights have rapidly made advances in Western Europe in the past decade, Eastern Europe has lagged behind, feeling the pull of its reactionary nationalist movements and Russia's outwardly homophobic regime.
Gay groups successfully lobbied to bring EuroPride, an annual weeklong celebration of Europe's LGBT community, to Riga—the first time in its 24-year history that it would be held in a post-Soviet nation that shared a border with Russia. Besides the symbolic pushback against the oppression that is happening across the border, the event was to provide a place for queer people from across many post-Soviet states, including Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia itself, to draw attention to their cause and organize. EuroPride Riga was to be a "historic" event, with a "human rights march" as a focal point—the biggest showing of LGBT people and their allies in Latvia's history.
Within days of the announcement, the event met with extreme resistance. Local politicians and anti-gay groups, who call themselves "no homo" activists and "anti-globalists," began trying to shut EuroPride Riga down. With no support from the government, the organizers were forced to launch a crowdsourcing campaign to offset the massive costs.
But when he heard about EuroPride coming to Latvia, Timofeev was unimpressed. He wanted the big Riga event to be more of a celebration "with drag queens and angel wings and feathers," not an understated human rights march. In his everyday presentation and flouting of gender norms, he was already risking everything. For Pride he wanted something better than survival. "I'm already making my political statement every time I leave the house," he said. "I'm already protesting every day."
Riga had its first Pride march in 2005, after Gabriels Strautinš came home from volunteering at a Pride event in Stockholm with the idea that it was time for gay Latvia to have its own party in the streets. The intention wasn't to be political; like Timofeev, Strautinš and his friends were hoping for a celebration. Latvia had just officially joined the European Union the year before, and the permit application was quickly approved. That was all it took for the reality of the country's homophobia to show itself. Latvia's prime minister, Aigars Kalvītis, publically opposed the event, telling a local television station, "For sexual minorities to parade in the very heart of Riga, next to the cathedral, is unacceptable." Soon the Riga city council withdrew the organizers' permit, citing fears that the parade would spark violence, but a court eventually reversed the decision, allowing the marchers to make their way through the old city. Riga's deputy mayor, Juris Lujans, resigned his post in protest.
When the approximately 70 supporters convened at the Anglican church in the city center for the march, they faced a group of 3,000 protesters who pelted them with eggs and tomatoes. Police formed a chain around the marchers and redirected their route to protect them from the opposition, but homophobes still broke through the barriers and violently attacked the participants. Kaspars Zalitis, who had come as an activist, was punched in the stomach by the current parliamentary secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Janis Iesalnieks. "He probably doesn't remember that," he said, "but I remember it."
For Kristine Garina, the horror of the first Pride came as a total shock. Garina, a straight woman from Riga, had gone to Prides in other cities and had a great time. She didn't attend the Riga parade with the intention to march, but she quickly changed her mind. "When I arrived, I saw that there was this small group of Pride marchers and a huge crowd of protesters around them, and I thought, There's no way I can watch this, I have to join," she said. One of the biggest shocks to Garina was seeing one of the heroes of the movement for Latvia's independence from the USSR, Elita Veidemane, reach into her bag to hurl eggs at the marchers. "This was a woman I respected!" she said. "I thought she was an intelligent, smart, inspirational woman."
At the parade, Garina met Zalitis and a few other horrified participants. They exchanged numbers and, over the next few months, came together in cafés, restaurants, and their homes to discuss how to improve the lives of LGBT people in the country. By February of the next year, they decided to form Mozaīka, Latvia's only LGBT rights organization, with the goal of strengthening the country's queer community.
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After that first Pride, the political climate in Latvia around LGBT issues became even more hostile. Parliament refused to implement a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation in the workplace, which had been a condition of its joining the European Union in 2004, and it amended the country's constitution to define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. Neo-Nazi, ultranationalist, and Christian anti-gay organizations also strengthened their grassroots efforts. They were helped by the arrival of Scott Lively, an American Evangelical famous for promoting Uganda's "Kill the Gays" law, who teamed up with a local church to warn Latvians about Western infiltrators spreading a gospel of homosexuality.
In 2006, Mozaīka petitioned to have a second march under the more innocuous name of Friendship Days. By that time, the organizers of the first Pride had left the country, disavowing the event as a shameful spectacle that made Latvia an international laughing stock. The Riga city council again tried to ban the march, but Mozaīka appealed the ruling, settling for an indoor rally on the second floor of the Reval Hotel Latvija. This time, it was even worse; protesters blocked the hotel entrance for hours, taunted and attacked people coming in and out, and eventually infiltrated the event, all as the police stood idly by. After a church service celebrating Riga Pride that morning, participants were showered in rotten fruit, feces, and holy water.
Undeterred, Mozaīka organized marches again in 2007 and 2008, the first of which attracted 800 participants and a thousand protesters. In both marches, the international participants far outnumbered the locals. In 2009, Mozaīka collaborated with partner organizations in Lithuania and Estonia to initiate a rotating Baltic Pride starting with Riga; the city council again tried to ban the march, but a court reversed its decision. For Baltic Pride Riga 2012, there were around 600 participants and no court ban; about 100 people showed up to protest. The dream of something bigger for the 2015 Pride began around then. "This was the year Latvia had the EU presidency, the ten-year anniversary of the first Pride, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union," Garina told me. "We thought, This is a good time for EuroPride to come to Riga."
EuroPride began in London in 1992, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, as a way for Europe's gay communities to assemble in one place each year to show their collective power. Riga's local Prides had raised awareness about the gay population in the city, but their impact had been limited and stifled by the country's homophobia. Bringing in EuroPride and its cadre of loyal attendees had the potential to bring the scrutiny of Europe to the struggles of Latvia's LGBT community. Up against cities like Barcelona, Manchester, and Milan, Riga did not seem the obvious choice. "We didn't have the government support that Manchester had. And we weren't going to bring the big party that Milan and Barcelona would. And as you can see, the weather in Riga is crap!" Garina said.
With no corporate or state support, the organizers had to rely almost entirely on the political urgency of their bid. Mozaīka decided to frame the proposal as a chance to make Latvia a "beacon of hope to other Eastern European countries," said Hans De Meyer, the president of the European Pride Organizers Association (EPOA), which runs EuroPride. They wanted to say to their own government and the governments in the region, despite so much insistence to the contrary: "We exist." Eager to make a statement as well, EPOA selected Riga, crap weather and all. And in case anyone unused to Pride being anything but a party should feel overwhelmed by all the duty and urgency, EuroPride Riga made a promise: "Changing history is hot!"
The Kanepes Culture Center is located in central Riga among the city's many cultural landmarks: St. Gertrude Old Church, the Jewish Museum, and the former KGB building. For EuroPride's weeklong celebration, Mozaīka had transformed the center, originally used by Russian and Baltic aristocrats as a bohemian gathering spot, into Pride House, a central meeting place for the celebration's participants. In the courtyard, they had hoisted the rainbow flag—the first time in Latvia's history that it had been flown in a public space, according to EuroPride's website.
I met Zalitis and Garina there on June 17, which was both the third day of EuroPride and an official Latvian holiday commemorating the beginning of the Soviet occupation in 1940. In honor of the day, every property unit was required to hang the Latvian flag with a black ribbon tied to it. Many Latvians who opposed EuroPride were angry that it had been arranged to coincide with the holiday. One Lutheran pastor had hung a black flag outside his church to protest EuroPride, comparing the LGBT community to communists and Nazis and promising that there would come a time when they too would have to answer for what they'd done to society. Zalitis, who had met a Dutch princess at the National Library that morning and was on his way to a television appearance that afternoon, was unmoved by the condemnation: "I'm sick of crying all the time. Latvians are champions of suffering. If they want to live in that mental Soviet Union, fine. But I want to make my country better. I want people to come to this place and see how beautiful it is."
While gay rights have rapidly made advances in Western Europe in the past decade, Eastern Europe has lagged behind.
A couple thousand international guests had already taken him up on the idea, coming from all over Europe to participate in a week of events—Latvia's first-ever LGBT history exhibit, its first queer art show at a major gallery, performances, film screenings, and workshops on topics such as trans rights and LGBT organizing in Eastern Europe. Of course, there were also the almost nightly parties, including two that would last until the early hours of Saturday's major event: the Pride Parade, which, no matter how many LGBT locals or counter-protesters turned up, was sure to be the biggest Pride parade in Baltic history.
In addition to bringing EuroPride to Riga, Mozaīka had been pursuing a legal and social campaign to make gay rights a reality in Latvia. In the past ten years, it has created an LGBT youth group, Skapis (which means "closet" in Latvian), organized an LGBT library, and started Latvia's first women's basketball team. Mozaīka is also advocating for the adoption of a civil-union law, which would apply to all cohabiting couples, regardless of their gender, and has been building a database of LGBT hate crimes, which are not recognized as such by the government.
Parliament eventually banned workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation in order to secure the country's place in the EU, but that remains the only segment of society in which such discrimination is illegal. Today the law, passed in 2006, is rarely invoked because in order to claim its benefits you have to be out. "This often makes it impossible to document the discrimination," Garina explained. So Mozaīka has also made it part of its mission to give queer people the "self-confidence" to come out. In their view, if people don't come out, the LGBT community can't make progress as a whole. "I think our biggest struggle right now—because the political mood is changing—is the community who just doesn't come out," Garina told me.
There are about 50 local EuroPride volunteers, and by Garina's estimation, they are probably the only 50 people in the entire country who would be comfortable enough to openly associate themselves with the LGBT movement. At least half the LGBT activists in Latvia are straight, Garina said. To her mind, there are maybe 150 people who go to the gay bars, but most of them are not out and are living in secret. She told me about a trans woman who calls Mozaīka about once a year very drunk. "This is her only way to express herself, because nobody else listens," she said. Mozaīka's volunteers always encourage the woman to come visit them at their office, but she makes sure to get so plastered that if she did for a moment lose her mind and give into the urge to come, she'd be too drunk to walk.
Before I came to Latvia, I put a friend of mine to work on the gay networking site DudesNude.com to find me some Latvian men to interview. Out of seven men he wrote to, only one responded. "I would never go to Riga Pride, too much hate," he said. "I will be in Barcelona." When I told Garina about it, she was silent for a moment and then said, "That hurts me a little bit, because he is just waiting for other people to fight his battle. But I can also understand the hesitation."
On the first day of EuroPride, Tālivaldis Kronbergs, a cultural worker and editor of the site Pride.lv, published an open letter online titled "Out of the Closet, at Last and Publicly: Why I Grew Tired of Kārlis Streips's 'Dominance' as the Only Homosexual Man in Latvia." For many years, Streips, a liberal journalist and television commentator, was the only officially out person in the Latvian media. Last November, Latvia's foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, came out on Twitter, becoming the country's second openly gay public figure. Mozaīka helped organize support for Rinkēvičs on Twitter, but his approval ratings have dipped by 20 percent since he came out.
Soon after, the director of the Latvian National Opera, Zigmars Liepiņš, published an article mocking the foreign minister, in which he came out as a straight white Christian man, an identity he said was becoming endangered. In Latvia today, homophobia is virulent in the hatred spewed in online comments. "If you log in to the most popular websites, like Apollo.lv, you read five comments and it's enough," Annija Sprivule, a 27-year-old Mozaīka youth-group leader, told me. What's harder to measure and perhaps more dangerous is the way in which most Latvians don't speak up against it. "It's a culture of silence," Sprivule said.
I think our biggest struggle right now—because the political mood is changing—is the community who just doesn't come out.
In Kronbergs's letter he wrote that he was "sick of keeping quiet and listening to idiocies... about myself and other homosexual people." He decided that the week of EuroPride was the time to come out. "Many of you will probably ask, 'So what?'" he wrote, but he reminded his readers that Latvia is not Western Europe. People in Latvia have been forced to live in secret, leading double lives out of a very realistic fear of losing their jobs. According to Kronbergs, Latvians need to be free to come out because the country is in danger of losing "a whole other village of emigrants... We will [be left with] the society that we sow."
Since the first Pride, many of Latvia's LGBT people have immigrated to more tolerant countries throughout the EU. (Many people repeated the joke to me that London is now one of Latvia's largest cities.) One person who fled was a founding member of Mozaīka, Māris Sants, a teacher and clergyman, who left Riga recently after he was denied a job at a school and excommunicated from the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church. To make matters worse, on the fourth day of EuroPride, Latvian parliament passed legislation aimed at the country's teachers in the vein of Russia's infamous anti–"gay propaganda" law. The "immoral teachings" law stated, "The educational system shall ensure the moral rearing of persons who are being educated, doing so in accordance with the values that are included and protected in the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, particularly with respect to issues such as marriage and family." Though the law's wording was vague, the message was not lost on liberal and queer communities: LGBT and LGBT-friendly teachers are being watched.
Mozaīka's strategy of encouraging people to come out and be more open has arisen largely as a response to laws and attitudes meant to keep people from speaking up and asserting their identities. Indeed, over the past 40 years in the West, queer communities have made advances in securing fundamental rights in part through campaigns of visibility—from the Stonewall riots to ACT UP's AIDS advocacy to the media strategy that helped make gay marriage a reality. But many people I met in Riga complicated that orthodoxy, challenging whether or not a politics of outness is an all-purpose approach to gay liberation. Even Kronbergs emphasized to me that he didn't mean to encourage people to "act gay" in public by coming out.
At Pride House, I met a manual laborer who was happy to talk to a writer from VICE ("I would only be happier if you were from Butt magazine," he said) so long as he remained anonymous. Though he was volunteering for EuroPride, he wasn't planning on wearing a T-shirt at the parade or saying he was attending the event on Facebook. He took issue with the notion that there is something wrong with him for wanting to be private. "What are the roots of the concept that being out is the right way?" he asked. "That everyone should be out? That it's best for the community, it's best for everyone? Like who said that?" When I asked him what he hoped to achieve by volunteering for EuroPride, he told me, "It's not just about encouraging people to come out. I think it's more about make things boil over."
For many Eastern European activists, one of the big draws of EuroPride Riga was the opportunity to meet and discuss strategies to pursue legal rights in their countries, almost all of which lag far behind Western Europe. Outside a hotel where a discussion on the "successes and challenges" of LGBT movements in Eastern and Central Europe was being held, I met Armen Buonarroti, an Armenian activist and journalist, and Olena Shevchenko, executive director of the Ukrainian LGBT rights organization Insight. They were going to join Kaspars Zalitis on Latvian TV later that afternoon to speak about LGBT rights in their countries. Their goal was to align their movements and their countries with the European Union rather than Russia. Shevchenko told me that it was the right moment for Ukraine to establish a standard of equal rights now that it had voted in a pro-European government. "[We are] moving toward Europe and European standards of human rights," she said.
Inside, another Ukrainian activist, Anna Dovgopol, was giving a presentation on the most recent Kiev Pride, which she had helped to organize. The parade had taken place on June 6, a few months after the toppling of Ukraine's pro-Moscow government, and many who participated had also been at the Euromaidan protests the year before to bring down the old guard. Like the Euromaidan demonstrators, many of the gay activists were accused of being Western infiltrators. "But how is human rights a Western concept?" Dovgopol asked, befuddled. "Human rights should not be perceived as a Western issue." There had been violence at Kiev Pride, and 25 protesters were arrested after nearly 20 people, including nine police officers, were hurt. One of the injured cops had encountered a firecracker set off by the attackers, severing an artery in his neck. Even though it was the hecklers who had caused his injury, Pride participants raised money to cover the cost of his surgery.
When she finished her presentation, Dovgopol talked to me in the hotel lobby about the struggle that LGBT rights groups are facing in appealing to a broad swath of Eastern European society. Beyond contending with homophobic protesters in the streets, Kiev Pride had also faced criticism from the left that its march was too mainstream. "They accused us of homo-nationalism and wanted us to use anti-capitalist slogans," she said. "But I am talking about [a population] that I can't even say the word 'feminist' to. If we push a more leftist agenda, we will be less understood. We have not solved this."
Still, the blueprint for improving the lives of gay people in Eastern Europe, and the ideas in circulation at EuroPride—coming out, Pride parades, and public visibility campaigns—are Western strategies. Eastern European LGBT activists find themselves in a vicious circle: Take up Western strategies for gay rights, and get criticized by the right for being too Western and by the left for being too mainstream. But in a region where participating in Pride is sometimes criminal (at this year's unofficial Moscow Pride, at least ten marchers were arrested, including two organizers who had to serve ten-day jail sentences), gay people coming together to say "we exist," in any formation, remains radical.
Before arriving for EuroPride, the last time I had been in Riga was in 2008, to visit my grandparents. My grandmother often called me an old maid, carefully scrutinizing my face and body before exclaiming: "I don't know what it is, men just don't like her!" Under their care, not only was I not allowed to go out at night, I wasn't allowed to be gay.
Before that trip, I'd found a bar online called Purvs, which means "swamp" in Latvian, advertised as a club for "gejiem, lesbietēm, biseksuāļiem, transvestītiem." I was fascinated by the potential subversiveness of queer spaces, and I was set on visiting Purvs when I got to Riga. In the days before I arrived, I scoured MySpace for Latvian lesbians. Most of the women I found looked like porn stars, until I came across Marina, a feminist-anarchist punk much more my speed. Even though she told me that she was in fact straight (she wrote lesbian on her profile to keep men away), she agreed to go with me.
Purvs was on the first floor of an apartment building near Ziedoņdārzs Park on Matīsa, a residential street with a cable-car line. A window of rainbow stained glass crowned the door to the club. Once I was past the thick Plexiglas entrance, where I was required to check my bag, Purvs was resplendent in fluorescent pink and blue and purple. Glow-in-the dark flowers lined the walls of the dance floor, mixing with disco lights that danced like fireflies.
Purvs felt otherworldly to me, like a future dreamed up by a queer imagination, and I was quickly reminded that it was not at all indicative of life outside its walls. One woman on the dance floor told me, "It is so fun for you to come and visit. But we can't even hold hands once we leave here. We will be beaten." It was at Purvs that I first heard about the feces at the 2006 Pride, the human rights violations, and the homophobic churches. Still, I danced all night with Marina, secretly hoping that she would change her mind and decide to be gay for me.
Riga's early gay clubs were informal, occupying spaces at night intended for something else entirely during the day. During the Soviet era, people met at a bar nicknamed the Closet, near the Freedom Monument downtown. The first post-Soviet gay bar in the city opened in 1991 on the top floor of someone's house. "To get there, you had to climb up this set of stairs with people peeking through their doorways," Karlis Streips, the TV personality, told me. "Then you got to this hallway, where the pipes were overhead, so you had to walk, like, low, low, low." The second bar appeared in 1992 in someone's basement, then came the gathering place in a conference room of a toy factory. The next one, called Aptiecina, meaning "little pharmacy," was in the basement of the Museum for the History of Medicine, which made sense because the director of the museum was gay.
Riga's first formal gay clubs were Purvs and a bar called 818, both of which opened in 1995. Next came XXL, a Ukrainian-owned gay disco, in 1999, and then Golden, a lounge and club, in 2005. According to Streips, who has been around long enough to know, Riga can only support two gay clubs at any given time, so within a few years of Golden's opening, Purvs shut down.
Though XXL is now Riga's oldest surviving gay bar, it wasn't host to any EuroPride events or mentioned in any of the tourist materials. I decided to visit to see what part of Riga's gay culture unapproved for European visitors looked like. Outside the bar, a sign with a rainbow and the word "SAUNA" hang above the door. Like Purvs, it is high-security: Guests had to ring a doorbell labeled "FACE CONTROL" and then pay a ten-euro fee, a discounted rate in honor of EuroPride, to enter. In the corner of the bar, a muscular male dancer—decked out in a black wig, bustier top, short jean shorts, fishnet stockings, and Toms slip-ons—did an idle sidestep in front of a stripper pole. Down a hallway were black rooms with glory holes and labyrinths, a room where free HIV tests were being administered, and a dance floor with a mural featuring an image of Madonna, in profile, shoving her face into a very white ass.
I heard from more than one local that you can see the divide between ethnic Latvians and Russians playing out in the gay bars. "XXL has more of a Russian-speaking crowd, with black rooms, and more people living in secret," one gay Latvian told me. "At Golden, the drinks are expensive, it is lighter, more of a lounge, no sordidness, and the people are quite open." XXL plays Russian music, which many Latvian clubs refuse to do, evidence of the lingering animosity over Soviet occupation. Golden is one such club and, for its part, hosted a few nights of Baltic music as part of EuroPride.
For Ruslans Kaflevskis, a co-owner of XXL, both Latvian nationalism and pro-European feeling are too prevalent in the gay community in Latvia. "Gay is gay. Whether you are from Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, America. Gays have no nationalities." His Latvian boyfriend, Sergejs Rimss, who got up every couple of minutes to let "nonaggressive" people in, said that Mozaīka only worked with Golden "because we aren't nationalistic enough for them." Mozaīka told me that XXL had a reputation for ripping off European tourists, which was very much substantiated in online reviews of the club—definitely not the side of gay Riga that EuroPride wanted to showcase. XXL's atmosphere, for all its fun smuttiness, was also so clandestine as to feel vaguely threatening. Within a few minutes of arriving at the club, a sunglassed patron tried to attack the photographer I was with after he asked if he could take his picture. Evidently, many people at XXL did not want their queerness known beyond its walls.
Purvs had served as an intermediary space where anything felt possible—a home for Latvian gays in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the early years of the country's longed-for independence. XXL and Golden, in contrast, show a Latvia that is gripped by nationalism and the regional demand to choose between Russia and the EU. This masculinist showdown between the two clubs has left little space for queer women to meet. Purvs had been mixed gender, but neither XXL nor Golden felt particularly inviting to women. In the month before EuroPride began, H-People, a new gay bar, and the first aimed specifically at lesbians, had opened. It's only a "project" right now, open on Friday and Saturday nights in the old city, and so far it's attracted an ethnically mixed crowd. It will be interesting to see, following Streips's theory, which of the current gay bars H-People supplants.
On the Saturday morning of the parade, participants gathered in Vērmanes Park, which the organizers renamed Pride Park for the week. Vērmanes is big, central, and easy to safeguard. All along the park's perimeter were barricades and police stationed in riot gear. Local bystanders with inscrutable looks on their faces peered through the fences at the steady stream of colorful marchers making their way into the park. There were representatives from the European Union and the American Embassy, Stonewall 50, and political organizations like Amnesty International and ILGA-Europe, as well as various Prides—Copenhagen Pride, Hamburg Pride, Queens Pride, replete with rainbow and EU flags. Many of the Eastern European LGBT activists I met earlier in the week arrived in traditional costumes. One group held a banner that read "EUROPRIDE, COME TO MOSCOW NEXT!" Near them was a group of Russian men in tiaras and pink and blue tutus who assured me they were not activists, just there to have fun.
Big street displays—whether as celebrations or protests—are not common in Latvia. "Latvians aren't used to marching in the streets for rights," one gay government worker who asked not to be named told me. "They are more interested in flower-laying ceremonies and quiet commemorations." Political marches are still associated with Soviet times, when people were obligated to participate in celebrations of the State or risk losing their jobs. Because the movement to claim one's gay identity publicly, either in the form of coming out or marching for rights, has no precedence in the country, many activists were eager to see just how many Latvians would feel comfortable participating in such a big display. "The most exciting thing would be to see a lot of local people," Annija Sprivule told me.
As the march left the park, I met a young woman with long white hair, a spiky choker, and purple contact lenses. She said that she had come with a huge group of similarly clad straight women to support her gay friends, who were too scared to come. "They don't want to have shit thrown at them," she said.
Around the first corner of the route, a small handful of counter-protesters holding signs that said "DON'T TOUCH OUR ASSES" and pointing their thumbs down came into view. Marchers had to step around a spot where a lone cracked egg lay on the cobblestones, but the person who threw it had been quickly arrested before he had a chance to throw more. It was clear that many more than the 2,000 people Mozaīka had been expecting were there for the parade, and the protesting contingent, only about 40 people, barely registered in comparison.
Political marches are still associated with Soviet times, when people were obligated to participate in celebrations of the State or risk losing their jobs.
By the time the march had been going for 30 minutes, the crowd had become decidedly blissful. Cars blared Queen, Beyoncé, and ABBA along the route, as people from groups from all over the world chanted and showed their signs: "ANGRY QUEER FEMINISTS AGAINST CATEGORIES;" "QUEERS AGAINST AUSTERITY;" "DON'T SWAP STRUGGLE FOR PRIDE. DON'T SELL PRIDE FOR THE EURO." When the march passed Outlet Optika on Tērbatas Street, Daniel Timofeev looked on from inside. Though he hadn't planned on joining, seeing the sheer size and vibrancy of the parade compelled him to run out of the shop where he worked and dance along to Pharrell's "Happy."
In the end Riga didn't have the violent Pride that many had braced for, but the global gay community wasn't entirely spared. Just days after EuroPride, riot police used a water cannon and rubber bullets on marchers peacefully participating in a Pride parade in Istanbul. And in Jerusalem in July, an ultra-Orthodox settler from the West Bank stabbed six people participating in the city's annual Pride event, killing one. Israel has made huge efforts to sell itself as a beacon of gay rights in the Middle East, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since promised to bring the perpetrator to justice.
When the parade finally snaked its way back to Vērmanes Park, Zalitis made a triumphal speech from a stage. "Ten years ago we were seventy versus three thousand protesters. This year, we were five thousand and maybe forty protesters," he said. "In two thousand six, they were throwing different stuff at us—this story is going down with the closet."
Zalitis encouraged all the Latvians in the crowd to sign a petition Mozaīka was circulating for the cohabitation law it had been advocating for. If the petition garnered at least 10,000 signatures, parliament would be obligated to debate it. A government worker in the crowd told me that even though it looked like Mozaīka would get the signatures it needed, it was very likely that the law would just be dismissed. Dzintars Rasnačs, the country's Minister of Justice, has made it clear that he would do what he must to stop it. "Partnership registration is the first step toward recognizing same-gender marriage," Rasnačs said in an interview with Latvian media. "And that will probably be followed by the next step—adoption of children by such couples."
After the parade, I met some Latvian expats who had returned to their home country for EuroPride at a nearby bar. Liene Dobraja, a Latvian costume designer living in New York and the best friend of Zalitis, was almost in tears. "This is the most important day of my life," she said. Margo Zālīte, a queer opera director who moved to Berlin mostly because of the conditions of LGBT people in Latvia, said that the parade made her think she could live in Riga again. But Kaspars Vanags, who had returned to curate EuroPride's queer art show, spent most of the evening engrossed in his phone. He was fighting with some people who opposed the march on Facebook. Perhaps the protesters had stayed home, but that wasn't going to stop them from making their voices heard on the internet. EuroPride had succeeded in making Latvia's LGBT community visible and in bringing them out in unprecedented numbers, but the homophobia didn't just disappear overnight. As gay people have come out of hiding, homophobes have gone into it. They may have been pushed from the center of the conversation, but they weren't gone. Within a few days, Dobraja had written me that she was embroiled in a familiar fight with her family: The day after the parade, she was back to explaining the difference between a pedophile and a gay person. "It just shows how large the gap is that still needs to be sealed," she said.
On my flight back to New York from Riga, I was seated between a Ukrainian man who lived in Westchester and a Russian teenager who was on his way to an English-language immersion camp in Connecticut. Once the plane took off into the night, the Ukrainian and I started chatting, with the teenager intermittently removing his headphones to chime in. The Ukrainian told me he was in the process of closing his businesses in New York so he could move to Russia. His reasons were political. "America is not a place I can stand to live any longer," he said. "Why are American troops in Ukraine? A lot of people are thinking we will go to war, and if we did I would fight along with Russia against the United States." He and the teenager launched into an explanation of why Ukraine belonged squarely in Russia's domain. When I told him I was Latvian, he criticized Latvia's decision to go with the EU and sanction Russia. "No one in the EU wants to buy those fishes and things Latvia has to trade," he said. "It's the biggest mistake it could have made."
Though bombastic, I found his critique of EU imperialism refreshing, and I told him so. I wondered if it meant that he was progressive in other areas and asked him about his stance on social issues in Russia, like the anti–"gay propaganda" law. "This subject I hate," he said. "There are no gay people in Russia." I thought of the Russians in tutus and tiaras at the parade, and a group that chanted "Russia will be free" as they marched with Latvian gays. "I met a bunch of Russian gays in Latvia," I told him. He leaned forward, restless in his seat. "Have you even read the law? Have you? Nothing it says is bad." I regretted having brought the subject up. "Yes, the law is just so that children don't have to see it," the teenager earnestly chimed in. A sign from the march that read "I AM NOT PROPAGANDA" came into my head.
The Ukrainian became more heated and told me a story about punching two men who had came on to him at different times in his life. "At one time, I was very handsome," he said. If I got violent every time I got some unwanted attention from men, I explained, I would be in jail. He was genuinely shocked: "Svetlana, how can you compare these? Let me ask you, are you gay? I don't mind lesbians, I even like them sometimes." I didn't want to answer the question. "I'm an activist," I told him. His blue eyes burned with rage, and he spoke without restraint: "If a gay man came near my child I would kill him." He was attacking me, and he knew it. The teenager stared out the window. I was crying and trying to hide it. "I don't want to talk anymore," I said.
In Riga, I wanted to listen carefully to the distinct and varied voices in Latvia's LGBT community. I made a considered decision to avoid interviews with bigots and homophobes, but for the last eight hours of my trip, I sat couched between verbal violence and enabling silence. EuroPride had made it its mission to clearly say to the region that gay people exist. In that gaping moment, when I sat stuck between two Eastern European men who wanted to tell me it wasn't true, I realized how impossible that was to say alone.
Note: In a previous version, the name of one of Riga's first gay bars was transcribed to"Apecina" in Error. The correct name of the bar is "Aptiecina."