A minister comes out

When Edgars Rinkevics, Latvia’s foreign minister, came out as gay last week, he had a good sense of the political and cultural minefield he was stepping into. “All hell is likely to break loose, but #proudtobegay”, his Latvian coming-out tweet concluded. The English-language version was shorter, and actually featured a typo. It was far less pomp than Apple chief executive Tim Cook mustered for his announcement the week before; there were no carefully-drafted opinion pieces in high-profile publications. But Mr Rinkevics’s coming-out was just as significant. It exposed the unenviable legal and cultural position of gays in Latvia, as well as the influence of its increasingly homophobic neighbour, Russia. And it may just manage to nudge Latvian cultural standards in a less conservative direction.

Mr Rinkevics’s timing has been a topic of broad speculation in Latvia, with conspiracy theorists muttering vaguely of hidden agendas or blackmail. But in one sense the timing actually was significant: it came two days after a controversial decision by a Riga city court to deny inheritance or state benefits to the live-in partner of a rescue worker killed in a Riga shopping-mall collapse last November. The couple were heterosexual, but the decision highlighted the serious social consequences of Latvian legislators’ insistence on traditional family norms in refusing to recognise any form of registered partnership other than heterosexual marriage. Mr Rinkevics’ Latvian coming-out tweet began with a reference to this debate: “Our country has to create a legal framework for all types of partnerships, and I will fight for it.”

Latvia is considered the most socially conservative of the three Baltic states. One of the country’s first gay-pride marches in 2006 was pelted with excrement and holy water by angry protesters. A constitutional ban on same-sex marriages was introduced the year before. These days the violence is mainly verbal—but equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, in marriage or otherwise, still seems a long way off.

The conservative nature of Latvian society is a legacy of its Soviet past, explains Maria Golubeva, a policy analyst at Providus, a Latvian think-tank. Most of the former communist countries have been slow in catching up with the European trend of tolerance for homosexuality. Latvia’s large Russian-speaking minority also plays a role. Vladimir Putin’s government, and Russia’s state-controlled media, have made homophobia an important element of their political and cultural agenda in recent years. Cultural conservatism in Russian-language soap operas, newspapers, and music reinforces the same tendencies in Latvia.

Homophobia has produced some odd bedfellows in Latvia. In recent months, Vladimir Linderman, an extreme-right activist in Latvia’s Russian-speaking community, has been working hand in hand with Kaspars Dimiters, a right-wing Latvian nationalist folk singer, to gather signatures for a referendum to introduce a law to prevent the promotion of “homosexual propaganda”. The law shares its name and much of its content with a similar law passed in Russia in 2013.

While Mr Rinkevics’s coming-out may not have been intended as a foreign-policy initiative, it has inevitably become one. The president of Estonia, several European foreign ministers, and Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign-policy commissioner, have all enthusiastically endorsed it. Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian deputy prime minister known for his crude and adolescent online humour, tweeted that Mr Rinkevics’ pride in being gay could be forgiven, considering that he “had nothing else to be proud of”.

But the real fallout from Mr Rinkevics’s tweet may be yet to come. His position in the coalition government appears strong, as does his foreign-policy record. The government seems to be slowly, though perhaps not enthusiastically, lining up behind him; Laimdota Straujuma, the prime minister, has suggested that the issue of registered partnerships (including same-sex ones) should be “looked into”. An MP is planning to introduce legislation to parliament soon. “Every such high-profile coming-out brings Latvians a step closer to accepting that gay people are respectable members of society, deserving equal rights,” says Kaspars Zalitis, of the Latvian LGBT rights group Mozaika. If Mr Rinkevics was betting that his tweet could help move the country in a more liberal direction, he may have bet right.

by A.U. | Warsaw
Source – The Economist