May 14, 2009 – PinkNews
Riga bans Baltic Pride
by Staff Writer, PinkNews.co.uk
The planned Baltic Pride march due to take place on Saturday in Riga, Latvia, has been banned by city officials. The parade had previously been approved but a majority of city council members wrote to executive director Andris Grinbergs, demanding permission to be withdrawn on the grounds that the march was offensive to public decency and posed a threat to public security. They threatened that if permission was not withdrawn by 4pm today, they would have the decision overruled by a vote in the city council.
The march has been organised by Latvian organisation Mozaika, the Lithuanian Gay League and Estonian Gay Youth. They plan to contest the decision in court. Kaspars Zalitis, coordinator of Latvia’s Amnesty International Youth Group, told the Baltic Times that the decision was illegal. He said: "This is extremely illegal and is based only on hatred. The decision should only be taken if there was extreme danger and the police have assured us they have all the resources in place to protect us."
The groups had expected 700 people to join the parade. Amnesty International has also expressed its disappointment at the decision. Nicola Duckworth, director of the Europe and Central Asia programme at the organisation, said: "This is a disgraceful move by the Riga city council. The decision is unlawful under Latvian law and violates the rights of Baltic LGBT people to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The council should immediately reverse its decision and allow the march. Amnesty International fully supports the legal challenge by the organisers."
The European Intergoup on Gay and Lesbian Rights has sent letters to both the president and prime minister of Latvia, reminding the country of its duty under the European Convention of Human Rights. Intergroup president Michael Cashman MEP wrote: "I urge you to use your authority to not let Latvia be in breach of European human rights liabilities in regard to the Baltic Pride parade scheduled for 16th May. "But I also urge you to tackle the situation in longer term and employ appropriate policies by your government to diminish homophobia in Latvian society."
29th April, 2011 – West End Extra
Former Latvian priest Maris Sants: ‘Since coming to London I’ve forgotten I am gay’
by Josh Loeb
A Priest and psychotherapist living in self-imposed exile in London because of violent homophobia in his native Latvia has spoken about finding sanctuary in the West End. Maris Sants, who works in a coffee house in Winnett Street, Soho, was excommunicated from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia in 2002 because of his sexuality, and his case was highlighted by Amnesty International after he was attacked by anti-gay thugs. In the years after he came out as gay, the 45-year-old found himself the focus of much attention in the media. People came from far and wide to congregate outside the church in Riga where he officiated but instead of listening to his sermons the skinhead visitors held placards condemning homosexuality.
Some even threw excrement or violently attacked him, abuse which caused Mr Sants to emigrate to London. The Metropolitan Police recently reported an increase in homophobic attacks in the West End. Appalling recent incidents include one in April when gay socialite Philip Sallon was beaten in the street near Piccadilly Circus in the early hours and Soho recently became the focus of a media frenzy after a gay couple claimed they were asked to leave a pub when someone objected to them kissing.
Nonetheless, compared with Latvia, the heart of Westminster is a paragon of tolerance, and for Mr Sants, living in a place where he does not stand out because of his sexuality is an exciting novelty. “One thing I have experienced since coming to London is that I have forgotten I am gay,” he said. “By this I mean I have forgotten what it feels like to be different, which is something new and wonderful. Here people don’t recognise me in the street. They don’t point and say ‘He is gay. He is different.’ I would almost say that I am healed because of this.”
Growing up in the 1980s, Mr Sants attended church secretly in the hope that religion might help him overcome what he regarded at the time as his immoral impulses. He said: “I thought that perhaps I should kill myself because I was a man who wanted to commit crimes.” Gay relationships were illegal in Latvia until the early 1990s, and homophobia remains widespread.
“There was a time in around 2005 when, possibly for a year or two, I was one of only two publicly known gay guys in the whole country,” said Mr Sants. “Those who came out, most of them had to immediately emigrate. By the time I came out at the age of 36 I had been through different healing programmes. I had been to psychiatrists and psychotherapists and had gone to ‘ex-gay’ ministries with evangelical Christians who believe homosexuality can be cured. When I turned 33 a serious thing happened and I understood – and this was really like a revelation – that actually it was completely OK. I understood then that hiding my homosexuality was a sin.”
Following his excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, Mr Sants founded a congregation that was open to all, regardless of sexual orientation. It hosted the inaugural LGBT Pride march in Riga, an event marred by violence from anti-gay protesters. Mr Sants’s experiences have made him a firm believer in education as a means of combating hate crime, and he supports Peter Tatchell’s campaign to urge Prince William and Kate Middleton to express support for same-sex marriages.
The Anglican church’s attitude to homosexuality is, he said, “not ideal”. But he added that he attends an Anglican church every Sunday. “There is still lots of pain because people don’t feel completely accepted,” he said. “Although there are lots of wonderful churches like St Martin-in-the-Fields.” Despite some room for improvement, Mr Sants believes London is one of the most enlightened places on Earth in terms of how gay people are treated.
“Homophobia exists all over the world,” he said. “But here in the West End most gays don’t keep quiet. So when we say ‘Oh, how can it be that in Piccadilly Circus someone was attacked just for being gay?’ well, in the East End, or Corby or Derby possibly, someone might be attacked if he would dare hold hands or do something else which we have completely gotten used to doing in Old Compton Street. In London there are, at least, not many places where you would be in danger if you were seen kissing a guy.”
July 19, 2011 – Mother Jones
Inside Latvia’s Gay Rights Battle – A new film documents Eastern Europe’s most contentious battleground for gay rights.
by Kristina Rizga
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.
What’s particularly impressive about Goba’s ambitious investigation into Latvia’s culture wars is his deep desire to show the whole story, rather than neatly package the story in two sides. Goba follows the splintering of different LBGTQ groups in Latvia, and we see the organizers’ mistakes, like not accompanying street parades with broader public forums in a country where homosexuality was a criminal offense until 1992. It takes a lot of guts to make a film like this in Latvia, where many locals are sensitive to how the small country is portrayed abroad. When Goba’s doc became the first Latvian film in two decades to be accepted by the prestigious Berlinale International Film Festival this year, members of parliament lashed out at Goba for using government grants to make the film, and lobbied to cut off future funding for films about "insignificant issues" like gay rights.