Inside Latvia's Gay Rights Battle

Published: July 19, 2011

The last time I flew to see my father in Latvia, he didn’t get up to greet me. It was the spring of 2008, and he was battling cancer. His hair had lost all of its pepper. His chest and shoulder muscles had evaporated. He sat by a walker surrounded by local newspapers and countless political magazines. "Did you hear we had a gay pride parade again this year?" he said as we sipped black tea. "I don’t care what these people do in bed, but why do they have to parade it in front of everyone?"
 
Whenever my father raised this issue, my heart sank. He was one of the most open-minded and humane people I knew. He married my mother, who is Jewish, in the ’70s, a time when such marriages were rare in Latvia. His mother stopped talking to him for a few years. Most weekends, our house was filled with an unusually diverse circle of friends: Latvians, Armenians, and Jews grilling Georgian pork kebabs, eating Latvian peas and bacon, and drinking Russian vodka. When Latvia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the tensions between Latvians and Russian-speaking groups flared up, my father was among a handful of Latvians who supported less restrictive citizenship laws. He was progressive on everything I could think of except gay rights.
 
While we continued to fight over gay rights at home, gay Latvians took the fight to the street. On July 23, 2005, a few dozen openly gay, lesbian, and transgender people walked through Riga. They were greeted by a much larger group of protesters, who jeered, spat, and threw eggs and bottles. (At future parades, they threw excrement.) The police didn’t provide enough protection, and the parade’s participants fled to a nearby church until emotions subsided.

Filmmaker Kaspars Goba had received an invitation to the nation’s first gay pride event from a friend, a Lutheran minister who’d been excommunicated for coming out. "What I experienced in the Old Town [of Riga] that day rattled me like nothing had before," he recalls. The event inspired him to embark on a five-year project to dig into the psyche of a post-Soviet nation trying to make sense of democracy and individual rights. The result is the fascinating, fast-paced documentary Homo@lv.
 
From 2005 to 2010, Goba followed the struggle between LGBTQ organizers and antipride advocates as families were torn apart, jobs lost, and ministers excommunicated. Goba also zeros in on the hypocrisy of local politicians who exploited the issue. A journalist observes how one politician calls pride organizers promoters of "pervert values," yet doesn’t seem to mind renting out an expensive hotel he partially owns for a gay rights conference. As the fight heats up, Amnesty International gets involved, as do hardcore antigay activists from the United States. Scott Lively, an active international antigay advocate, became a regular presence in Latvia. In 2009, Ugandan legislators proposed a bill that called for the death penalty for homosexual acts a month after he visited the country. Fortunately, there are no bills like that in sight in Latvia, but in 2006, legislators adopted a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Latvia "is the battle line where homosexual powers from the US and Europe are trying to put their way into former Soviet Union. The doorway is Latvia," Lively tells Goba.

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