Friday, August 05, 2005

The Right to Be Who You Are: On Last Week's Anti-Gay Demo in Riga

Greetings All,

I have been meaning to write for days, but have not managed to; I have once again landed on the European continent and am presently visiting friends in Riga before heading back to Ukraine at the end of the month. I AM SO HAPPY TO BE BACK IN EASTERN EUROPE!!!!

But not because of what I have to write about today:

The Latvian press has been ablaze with commentary on an incident that occured last week in Riga, which is an incident that, like all good news stories, has both a positive side and a negative one (quite a negative one in this case):

On the good side, the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender) community of Riga held it's first ever Gay Pride parade last week.

On the bad side is the huge homophobic and intolerant reaction that took place against the parade. I am not sure just how many participated in the parade (some say about 40), but I am sure from all the reports this week in the media--and the media here is just obsessed with the issue, as it should be--there were far more people who came out to protest against the parade than to participate (some say nearly 1,000). Anti-gay demonstrators attempted to block the parade from proceeding and then threw eggs and tomatoes at those participating in the parade. But not only that happened; a significant number of MPs (Members of Parliament) made statements about the immoral nature of the parade, as also did the Mayor of Riga (who initially hesitated to issue the permit for the march). The deputy mayor of Riga resigned in protest that the parade took place, and calls were made for the resignation of the mayor and the executive director of the city (equivalent of a chair of the city council) by members of the deputy mayor's political party.

However, back on the positive side: Amnesty International already has issued a statement strongly condemning the MPs and other politicos for fostering through their statements an environment of intolerance, and for thus contributing to the fierceness of the anti-gay violence that happened in reaction to the parade. Also, Human Rights Watch is expected to make a similar statement. Also, much about the parade has been commented on in the general European press, with reports of Western European officials making strong condemnations of the speeches of the MPs and the irresponsible behavior of all the politicians. Many European liberals apparently are taking the opportunity to once again assert that contemporary European values are those of tolerance for difference, and to remind all members that the EU was in part built out of the desire to never go back, no matter in what kind of small steps, to such extremes of barabirc intolerance as was manifested by the Nazis (who were already rounding homosexuals up into concentration camps by the mid 1930s).

HOWEVER, although I do agree that the message must be sent to the New Central Europe that such intolerance is precisely what the EU stands against on the cultural front, and although I do agree that these MPs and other politicians in Latvia should be held responsible for the anti-gay demos, etc., it is also disturbing to sense in much of the Western European liberal commentary what people in the eastern part of the continent are unfortunately coming to expect: Western liberals speaking with a tone of condescension toward their "backwards" and "'intolerant,'' "New European," brethren. Western liberals should be careful of acting holier than thou, for certainly anti-gay and anti-immigrant hysteria is on the rise in Western Europe, too. I am sure that one can open any one of the all-German or all-French right wing papers and find commentary happily applauding the little Easterners, either overtly or somehow subtly. The struggle to build a truly open and tolerant society is still an unfinished one, and will always be an incomplete project that will have to renewed. Western Europe certainly is farther along in acceptance of nonstandard sexualities or even better stated, of GLBT lifestyles, but things there are not perfect enough for anyone in the West to be throwing any stones toward the East. Homophobes of both the West and the East need be condemned. Thus, this is an opportunity for Western Europeans to also write polemics about the ongoing problem of barbarism in their own countries. . .for they should watch out: a right-wing and intolerant backlash threatens the very liberal values and practices that is the foundation of the EU, and liberals in the EU need to figure out how they will prevent the destruction of their relatively tolerant society through the same kind of backlash that is ripping up the United States today. Attitudes or statements betraying attitudes of cultural superiority do not help at all; in fact, they play right into the hands of rightist forces, if the US experience is any indication!

And I have not said a thing about the disgusting level of anti-gay hysteria in the US of today, and the pathetic way that many conservatives have used the issue of gay marriage for their political agenda. The social agenda of the new right and all the so-called centrist liberals who go along with it is sickening. It uses hatred and intolerance to further its goals, often in contradiction to the very religion it lauds (the universal law of the New Testament is one of universal love and acceptance, and the New Testament came as a negation of the Old Testament, etc., so no one is justified in going back to the Old just to justify their own immature intolerance), and this is simply unacceptable. The politicos of the US who are also fanning the flames of anti-gay hysteria in the US via the issue of same sex marriage should also be condemned for contributing to an atmosphere of intolerance. For did you know that gay couples are MORE loyal than non-gay and that liberals have a lower divorce rate as a group than members of the so-called Christian Coalition!!!!! Another way of putting it is to say that the current neocon leadership in the US should be condemned for a failure of leadership, for good leaders bring their people together--even if elements of their people don't like each other. Genuine leadership does not divide and rule. When was the last time the US had a leader that was a genuine, universal figure?

So back to the good: I was sitting in a cafe in Riga, in a location of a restaurant chain called Lido that serves traditional Latvian food (there are similar chains in Ukraine, serving Ukrainian food, of course), and I looked out the window to notice a tall, very muscular black man wearing a very tight black dress that came down only to mid thigh level, and who was wearing knee-high leather boots with stilleto heels. I was amazed. Ok, in the US one might be able to spot such bold display of one's sexuality, but here in Riga! And also given that he was a black man in a country where nonwhites are but a decimal point of the population,
one can guess that he was quite a sight. At the time, I had no idea how to read him and his display of sexuality but for to think, "Right on man, be proud!" But I could not believe the risk he was taking. He just strutted--and he strutted--up and down the street looking intently at each person who passed by. I therefore wondered about his eagerness most of the day, until later I learned about this whole anti-gay uproar. That fellow is just as courageous as any of the Latvians who boldly stood out to proclaim their right to be Latvian against the Soviet government. Or to put it another way, in light of last week's anti-gay fervor, walking down that street in that dress was just as bold and courageous (and potentially dangerous) for that man as it was for any Latvian to have walked the streets wrapped in the (red-white-red) national flag in the early days of perestroika and of open resistane to the Soviet regime. Thus, I truly, truly hope that neither he nor anyone else like him becomes martyred as did the many Latvians who bravely struggled against the Soviet regime for one thing: the right to be who they are.

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