Thursday, July 2, 2015

Riga: EuroPride where it’s needed!

Rainbow over Riga after Pride weekend on June 22
With the heavy influence of Russian “news” and many people who still consider Russian their main language, it’s difficult to change hearts and minds in Riga – as well as the other Baltic states. That's part of the reason EuroPride organizers decided to hold it here - the first EuroPride in a former USSR country! Thankfully, after nearly 10 years of sometimes dangerous Pride events, there were only a few protesters, a couple thrown items and (pleasantly) many smiling faces & waving hands that lined the route – even a party on a balcony! People here can be and are generous and friendly – yet you won’t immediately be welcomed and making friends, I imagine, takes time. Thankfully, there’s an incredible hipster culture here (Riga's central 'hood was named the most "hipster" in the world!) that in most instances is at least gay-neutral if not friendly.

End of the Pride route in Riga
This is a part of the world known for dreary cool weather – but the sun also shone down on this Saturday for Pride! Locked closed and lined with police for the duration of the day’s activities, Vērmanes Dārzs Park served as the staging ground for the main Pride events. I was prepared (per tradition of late) to wear my rainbow suspenders with shorts – but I realized that not only was the weather not quite warm enough to go without a shirt – that’s the stereotype organizers hoped to avoid. So I wore my Stoli tank top (Stoli is bottled Latvia, not Russia like DanSavage had you believe!) with an open white button-down.

Police in full riot gear protect the parade route!
The route was lined with police – at key points in full riot gear (though not as many as I witnessed for Warsaw Pride in 2013) – and shoulder high barricades (not tape) prevented onlookers from really participating. Yet it was also lined with people sometimes watching sternly, but more often smiling or waving; sometimes accepting rainbow flags I helped hand out and even cheering. Let’s face it, here was not the place where I would get to make-out on the route with my “pride boyfriend” those would only be accessed later at the bar (or via Planet Romeo, Grindr or Hornet). Several times I had to check myself, because new friends even balked at public hugs!

Posing with Country star Steve
Grand & US Embassy Berlin 
Spokesperson, Tim Standaert
The route took us around the main city center in a circle – and a return to the Park for speakers - (including the US LGBT Envoy & Chargé at the US Embassy), songs and cute US (gay) country singer SteveGrand! The week before Saturday’s celebration included dozens of workshops and events at a (truly) hipster local venue known as the Culture House – or as we called it the “Pride House.” All week long, documentaries were shown, speakers explored LGBT issues and people had a constant meeting place to connect. I saw an incredible expose about Baltic Pride as well as a beautiful story of the first gay-married couple in Switzerland. Organizers also held an international conference on Friday – bringing European parliament leaders and major media experts to explain the current (difficult) picture for LGBT people in the Baltics & Eastern Europe. Yes there were a lot of tourists - including many Dutch & Swedish guys here - and even Americans, but I also made an effort to get a taste of local culture.
Golden Bar - Riga

Golden bar and club served as Mozaika’s main Pride Sponsor – with some entertainment and great music all weekend long (even a late-night Sunday close for EuroPride participants!) Competitor XXL (which gets points from me for actually having rainbow visible to passersby) rudely interrupted one of the early Pride press conferences presumably because they were not a sponsor. Sadly, everyone I talked to pretty much bad-mouthed this sleazy bar – and I can see why. Perhaps the bar with sauna upstarirs is not the aspect the broader LGBT community does not want to be associated with – but at least they are willing to put forth a public presence.

New friends in Lithuania!
Besides the dozen or so Latvians involved and volunteering with Mozaika – the local LGBT organization – I met no other locals who actually participated in the events (besides of course the parties) - though even Russians traveled to participate. It’s still difficult for all to be fully and openly gay here. While some may have opposed Pride – questioning the need to "advertise" – most realized its importance even if they decided that they would not march down the street. And that’s the true purpose of Pride – to show some visibility – and to show those that fear that they have a reason not to – that they can be visible.

Pancakes & Rhubarb
Not only did I get to party and participate in helping to show some of that visibility, but I had the opportunity to experience Latvia - and nearby Lithuania as well. The food is hearty - and potato heavy - but I especially enjoyed Rhubarb drinks & potato pancakes - and of course the variety of sausage! Vilnius is also particularly beautiful - and one daring new friend was even willing (perhaps making his own stand) to hold my hand through the city center on a weekday evening. We had some surprised or confused stares but nothing untoward. The weather may be cooler than I would like - but the people here are warm and their desire for change burns bright.

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