At the beginning of June, several thousand people went on a pride march in Rīga to stand for the rights of the LGBT+ community. The pride week was formally uneventful – one person was detained by the municipal police for organizing an unauthorized gathering during the pride march, whereas State Police registered one hateful comment on social media.
The reality outside the pride week is somewhat different. Physical homophobic attacks do occur. At the beginning of May, in Latgale, a man talking to another man attacked him violently upon finding out the conversation partner was in a homosexual relationship.
The victim's name is Līvajs Amareins. Latvian Radio spoke to him a month after the attack, which took place on May 4. Līvajs is a transperson female to male. "I have had a lot of instances where I try to reveal something and the person just stares at me and says it is not normal. It came from men, from women, from the employer, but it stopped mostly around 2017 when I got the hormone [therapy]," said Līvajs.
Līvajs' appearance began to change and matched his identity. "The three of us – me, a friend and my husband – went for a walk in the forest in the evening. And from a lit footpath out came a man and asked, do you have a phone I could use to call. [adding] I won't do anything to the phone," Līvajs quoted.
They gave him a phone and the man made a call and waited for a text back, when he noticed the lockscreen had the friend and his boyfriend on it. The man started asking questions in Russian, and the three men said they were gay. In a moment, the person the stranger had called arrived. "He tried to start a fight. He came at us. I held him back. I realized the situation had escalated too far. I just told my friend to call the police. Hearing that he [stranger] turned against my friend but I stood in the way. He started beating me up," said Līvajs.
Līvajs said he had been disoriented by the first blow. "He managed to punch me about four more times, then shoved me and punched my face, my head. I tried to cover myself up with my hands but it didn't go too well, of course."
After the first blows, Līvajs felt he couldn't hear in one ear. Then the blows stopped and the perpetrators walked away.
"I had a concussion. My nose was bleeding, the lip was split badly. My left eye was swollen shut, I couldn't open it. I could not hear properly with one ear for two weeks. My hearing was checked afterward and thank god it is fine. I still feel the scar inside my lip."
Līvajs is currently abroad for work. "I cannot say I feel safe or am not afraid at all. I want to return, and I will. Also when it comes to court, I will have to return. But I probably won't walk around Daugavpils at night."
The police arrived shortly after the perpetrators had gone. One of them was later detained but not arrested. The investigators started a case on hooliganism in aggravating circumstances. Līvajs' husband who also is a trans male got punched in the face and is the second victim in the case.
"I personally see a correlation that in cities where there are more people who speak Russian and where it's closer to the [Russian] border, maybe there are more Soviet-like opinions and more homophobia. It also depends on what media the person consumes," Līvajs told Latvian Radio.
This is not the only case in Latgale where sexual minority representatives have been attacked. A 20-year-old man from Latgale, who doesn't want to reveal his identity, agreed to an interview with LR.
Kristofers (name changed) discovered his sexual identity as a teenager: "Real problems began back then because I was quite naive at 15. When I had my first relationship I posted a picture with my boyfriend on Instagram. The whole school found out. I thought it was self-explanatory that I had a person who I was going out with, why can't I post a photo? But there were a lot of talks at school," said Kristofers, adding that peers were calling him names while teachers were displaying negative attitude indirectly.
Peers outside of school also found out. "Different stalkings began outside of school, they found out where I studied, where I lived. There were cases when people could come, a whole crowd, and beat me up. [..] I cannot recall a particular event because beating... Sometimes it's stronger, sometimes it's milder," said Kristofers.
He did not turn to the police because he was afraid to reveal his sexual identity. "I lived in a lot of fear that police would not accept it. And I was also afraid that the police would have to tell my grandma and uncle. They didn't know I was gay."
Kristofers had experienced domestic violence and was afraid to tell his family, especially his uncle. "Of course I sometimes had bruises. Quite visible. The nurse at school and my grandma asked what has happened. I just told them I'd fallen or something." Kristofers added he had also started using drugs as a teenager as a result of depression from the public humiliation and beatings.
Now Kristofers is in a relationship with a man, and his family know about it. "The family's attitude is not that great... Careless, if anything." He now encounters reproach and condemnation on the internet. "I don't care anymore. I am now ironic against it all."
Kristofers, like Līvajs, thinks that Latgale's inhabitants' attitude toward LGBT+ people is impacted by Russian media. "One of the main messages of the Russian information space is that gay is bad."
Latgale and LGBT+
A survey conducted by pollster SKDS last autumn shows that 46% of Latvia's general population have a neutral attitude toward LGBT+ whereas 23% condemn it. The condemnation is more prevalent in Latgale and among people who speak Russian in the family.
"If we look at Latgale, there have been differences in other sexual health-related issues. For example, the level of abortions has traditionally been higher than elsewhere in Latvia. The less these issues are talked about, the higher the anxiety. Homosexuality is one of the ways Latvia talks about sexuality as such," said social anthropology and University of Latvia's associate professor Aivita Putniņa.
She also believes there is a connection between the Russian information space and the attitude toward LGBT+. Latvia also still has stereotypes from the Soviet times. Changes are slow. "The attitude changes among the youth, and youth are more tolerant. But it doesn't mean the entire new generation is tolerant," said Putniņa.
Russian citizen Aleksandrs, who agreed to an interview only on condition of anonymity, has been living in Latvia for three years.
"I am a transperson. Documents state I am female." Aleksandrs underwent hormone replacement therapy in Latvia, but he cannot change documents because it is forbidden in Russia.
Aleksandrs moved to Latvia because his partner lives here. He said he would not be living in Russia even if he hadn't moved here. He said Russia is not safe for trans people. Some closest friends understood but his family did not. "It was easier for them to say I was crazy and it was not normal. I remember my mother's words that it's not normal! It's not normal! It's not normal!"
His parents are not speaking to him anymore since in Russia homosexual people are considered enemies to the state. "Also because I am against the war, I support Ukraine – they [parents] think I am an enemy, a traitor. Because I live in Latvia and not Russia, I am not a patriot of Russia," said Aleksandrs.
Kremlin's echo in Latvia
How much does the Kremlin message about sexual minorities resonate in Latvia? "There are a lot of opinions on the Russian propaganda channels, so the thought can come from there," said chair of the board of LGBT+ and ally organization Mozaīka, Kristīne Garina, adding that
"also our, especially nationally-oriented and conservatively-oriented politicians, repeat this propaganda."
Garina has been organizing Rīga Pride for years: "I think anyway that the community is safer than about 10 years ago. Definitely safer than 15 years ago. The situation is improving. [..] The first years there was a lot of threat. Threat they'd beat me to death. All kinds of threats. Not even anonymous, people with names and surnames. I have been to the police and written statements about all these threats. But that subsided a couple of years in."
Anonymous attacks have been encountered also this year. In 2022, Mozaīka identified about 300 entries on social media against sexual minorities, of which about 20 were calls to kill or eliminate homosexual people. The association turned to the police and seven criminal proceedings were launched.
The Latvian Centre for Human Rights has also been researching hate speech on social media. Between 2021 and May this year, the organization has detected 1,918 instances of hate speech. A third of those were directed against LGBT+ community, said the center's director Anhelita Kamenska.
"There is [hate speech] in both Latvian and Russian. But about the Russian content it is sometimes hard to tell whether it's generated in Latvia or it is linked to Russian propaganda and trolls. [..] But I think that we also have enough politicians, social activists and religious organizations who contribute."
The human rights center and Mozaīka agreed that Latvian politicians avoid direct hate speech which is subject to criminal liability. Instead, indirect speeches appear in the parliament.
National Alliance Saeima deputy Aleksandrs Kiršteins said at a meeting last year in December: "The Latvian language dictionary has the word pederasts. Two men who practice homosexuality are pederasts. And then there are gays. What is gay, nobody can tell."
The word pederasts is a slur and does not mean a homosexual but a man in sexual relations with young boys. The National Alliance is one of the three political forces in Latvia's ruling coalition government.
Kiršteins also tried to persuade the parliament that homosexuals live a sexually lavish lifestyle, backing it up with some eye-popping mathematics: "On average each homosexual has ten partners per week. And during his life, it is, as the Americans say, 500 to 800 men, up to several thousand."
MP Viktorija Pleškāne from the opposition For Stability! party said in the same meeting that homosexuality is a fashion trend: "I don't find it acceptable that values are demeaned and subservient to a fashion trend that has come from a different society."
Police: do not stay silent
"In 2021, we have 18 instances and five proceedings. In 2022 – 27 instances and six criminal cases. In the five months of 2023, we have five instances registered and no criminal proceedings," said Inese Ratfeldere, the State Police representative.
Statistics include all registered instances on social hatred provocations. Homophobia is only one of the types of this hatred but it is the most prevalent.
"I told you about the cases which we could find by entering 'hate' into the system. But it is not the absolute number," said Ratfeldere, adding that many are registered as 'conflicts'.
Līvajs Amareins' case does not show up. If someone is beaten up in a hate attack, the case is launched on a different article with aggravating circumstances, so the total number of homophobic attack reports is unknown. Moreover, only some of the victims turn to the police. Ratfeldere said it should not go unreported:
"You must report it. Whether there is content [of a criminal case] or not – please trust the police in assessing this together with the prosecutor."
Two years ago, the Latvian Radio broadcast Atvērtie faili studied why there was no investigation of hate crimes against sexual minorities in Latvia. Nearly all cases were closed before they came to court. Therefore, victims do not report such crimes at all. It was concluded at the time that the police failed to prove the statutory requirement that the offense caused serious harm. This stumbling block remains to this day.
“It has been identified. It has been said. But how can I prove that the material damage has happened in the case at hand? And here at once, I want to share that responsibility. The police, the prosecutor's office, the court – there is already a combination. And the police can't do anything more if, for example, the prosecutor says I can't prosecute in this case because there is no material harm,” Ratfeldere said.
She said that the police are paying increased attention to hate crimes at the moment: "For the last two years, my department has been tasked with updating, developing, and investigating these issues in depth.”
She said she couldn't say there were more attacks registered in Latgale.
Police do not monitor propaganda or disinformation directed against sexual minorities in Latvia's Internet environment. Therefore, Latvian Radio addressed NATO's Stategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga. However, the center has so far not conducted studies on the impact of Russian propaganda in Latvia condemning and disseminating false information about LGBT.
Should they return?
Even if Līvajs Amareins was beaten up, he wants to return and to live in Latvia.
"There is a saying that it's very hard to love a country that doesn't love you. And it is very difficult. And it is very difficult to work in that country and live in that country. But I want to return, buy my own property and work in Latvia. But I won't be able to achieve it, unfortunately," said Līvajs.
While sexual minority rights issues are not sorted out, including the law on civil union, he would not feel safe.
Kristofers also said: "I don't want to leave Latvia, maybe even Latgale. However stupid it may sound, maybe suicidal for some. All that's standing in our way is the integration policy – the basis of all tolerant and inclusive societies."