Liveblog: EuroPride 2015 in Riga (CLOSED)

The Latvian capital is hosting Europe's largest festival of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights and culture. While the festival itself runs June 15-21, the central event is the Pride Parade at 1400 on June 20 in and around Vermanes Park in central Riga.

But the event is not welcomed by all, with self-styled defenders of family values and religious groups set to hold their own counter- demonstration against a public display of gay life.

LSM is there too in order to bring you the sights and sounds from both sides of the railings.

Welcome to LSM's live English-language blog about the events of EuroPride2015 in Riga. A lot of people have been looking forward to this event for a long time - and not just among the participants.

Latvia's first Pride parade took place a decade ago. On that day just 70 participants ran the gauntlet of hundreds of furious and aggressive protesters and there were some very nasty scenes. Ten years on the numbers are likely to be a bit more evenly balanced.

When Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics came out as gay - and proud of it - via Twitter last year, it was a major story. At a stroke he became the first high-profile (or even low-profile) politician to come out in the Baltic states.

He predicted a reaction of "megahysteria". It didn't materialize. there was limited criticism but Latvian society proved a lot more accepting than he - or anyone else - had expected.

That's worth bearing in mind today. The stereotype of Latvians as a mob of pitchfork-wielding maniacs is well wide of the mark, no matter how convenient it might be for certain groups with their own agenda. So let's see what happens.

Incidentally if you are wondering if Rinkevics will be joining other politicians at EuroPride, he won't. In fact he couldn't be further away - in Australia to be precise. His spokesman has told LSM this is purely coincidental and the visit was arranged long ago.

Has he sent a message of support to EuroPride? Not yet. However he has posted a picture of meeting Latvian-Australian Peter Greste along with a promise to work for his full acquittal by Egypt's (pardon the pun) kangaroo court.

 

Right, so welcome again to everyone following this liveblog today. Basically I will be wandering around, trying to capture the atmosphere of the city in the EuroPride parade area and hopefully talking to a few interesting people along the way.

Warning: the blog may not be entirely reverential. I've covered a few Pride events in the Baltic states and they usually throw up plenty of bizarre and surreal experiences. A police chief trying to look authoritative while zooming around on a Segway and a conversation with a massive Freddie Mercury fan who was also a massive homophobe stick in the memory.

Even Friday evening, as large numbers of EuroPride participants started taking in the sights of Riga, it was quite funny to see too-macho British stag parties mixed in with them, blissfully unaware that a lot of people probably assumed they were gay.

On a less happy note, police have warned against possible provocations and asked people to keep their eyes peeled for suspicious packages - so let's hope we have more weird and wonderful things to report than anything else...

It will be interesting to see just how many people turn out. Delegations have been arriving from all over the place: some with the support of Latvia's national airline, airBaltic.

As airBaltic is owned by the state and answerable to the Transport Ministry, I guess that counts as some sort of official endorsement from government!

Now the blog is up and running, it's time for me to head to Riga. So don't expect an update for a while unless I see something particularly gay or anti-gay along the way.

The good news for all is that the sun is coming out, so thunderbolts from the heavens look increasingly unlikely. Back in an hour or so!

Here we are in Riga. Perhaps the unprepared would have been concerned by the sight of armored columns and regular police checkpoints along the way. But fear not, this is not evidence of a police state.

The military machinery belongs to NATO allies on their way home after training exercises and the police are there to deter drink driving as Latvia embarks on five days of traditional Midsummer revels.

In fact there were far more cars leaving Riga than entering it, which suggests if you show up at EuroPride it's because you really want to be there.

Latvian Radio said around 2,000 participants are expected and that the counter-demonstration will be led by self-styled "anti-globalists". It's one of the quirks of Latvian society that far from being leftwing anarchists, the local form of anti-globalists are authoritarian family values types who regard homosexuality as a "sickness" that can be "treated". Ah well, variety is the spice of life!

To get myself in the mood on the journey I listened to Tchaikovsky (gay), David Bowie (used to be bi) and Abba (hetero). I'll save the Judy Garland for the trip home.

I've been pondering the need to provide balanced coverage of this event so I hit upon a plan. On the way to Vermanes park, which will be center of today's action, I called in at the excellent Otra Elpa charity shop of Stabu iela where they have used books in the basement (and a rather nice cafe).

I wanted to buy a copy of the Bible and something like the works of Jean Genet or Jeanette Winterson. I quickly found a lovely little copy of the New Testament but couldn't really find any gay fiction.

However they did have a copy of my own book. So I bought that. If this seems like a gratuitous plug, you will be pleased to hear I actually paid 50% more for this dog-eared, water-stained example than the current retail price of a new copy. It's all for charity, after all.

So all day I will have the Sacred in one pocket of my jacket and the Profane in the other. You can't get more balanced than that!

 

 

I'm in the park where a few hundred people have already gathered. As expected there is a very heavy police presence with extra crash barriers erected all around the perimeter with city police stationed every 20 metres or so.

As you might also expect, participants have all manner of eye-catching costumes. So far my favorite is this wonderfully mustachioed and lederhosened Bavarian gentleman.

Earlier in the week Amnesty International issued a statement criticising the lukewarm support for EuroPride from the Latvian government. She's here in the park so I took the opportunity to get an update.

Lucy Freeman of Amnesty International

    Eager to get the other side's view I go to the railings and take a photo of the handful of demonstrators who are laughing and jeering.

    One of them waves a fist in my face.

    "Why are you doing that?" I ask in Latvian, "Why are you here?"

    He waves his fist again.

    "If I want to take a photo in a public place I'll take a photo in a public place," I say.

    He waves his fist. 

    Charmed, I'm sure!

    Oh well, he had his chance.

    The EuroPride participants form into an orderly line, waving all sorts of flags, and move off for their perambulation around the block. So far all is calm. Let's hope it stays that way.

    I decide to give it one more go with the angry brigade as I exit the park trailing after the parade.

    "What are you phoographing?" a woman screams as I take a photo of placards.

    "I'm a journalist," I say. "I'm photographing your demonstration."

    "Get out of our park!" she replies.

    Er, they really don't seem to have got the hang of this 'public demonstration' thing, with English-language placards that are apparently supposed to remain secret...

    The parade does its lap of the block with everyone smiling and dancing.

    As well as police along the parade, there are police IN the parade.

    In amongst the dancing bodies I find Latvian MP Veiko Spolitis, who recently tried and failed to introduce same sex partnership legislation to the Latvian parliament.

    Here's what he said.

    Veiko Spolitis on EuroPride

      Taking a walk around the perimeter I see a few girls with rainbow flags. A sillver Volkswagen waiting at the lights peeps them, then gives them the finger completely without provocation.

      They return the compliment.

      Helpfully the driver repeats the gesture for my benefit.

      I give him the thumbs up.

      Well everyone's back safely in the park and the party is starting.

      Hopefully that's that... and as my battery is nearly flat I'll log off for a while, hopefully back later with a summary.

      Police tell me three arrests were made for minor public order offences, one of which involved trying to throw eggs. Don't worry though, no eggs were actually harmed! Total number of participants in event and protest combined around 5,000.

      A few of the more committed protesters are still hanging around right next to the statue of Latvia's famously flamboyant and dandyish artist Karlis Padegs. He regards them with ironic disdain.

      Police tell me one of the other arrests was of someone who tried to set fire to a bottle with flammable liquid inside. A Molotov cocktail? Not really. He lit it, then put it on the ground. Maybe he forgot his shashlik grill?

      I warned you something completely surreal would happen at some point, and this must be it.

      As the parade moved off, I trailed it for a while then decided to get some lunch. But just as I was about to enter the cafe, I heard the sound of an accordion.

      Now, I have a strange superstition about accordions. As an occassional accordion-fiddler myself, I have to give a coin to the first accordion player I hear on any given day. Sometimes I have crossed a busy highway to do this.

      So I turned from the door of the cafe and looked for the source of the sound. There on the corner of the street were two men playing music, one of them on the accordion. I fished into my pocket and pulled out a coin.

      But just as I was about to throw it into their pot, I took this strange pair in properly. One was wearing a none-too-subtle 'golliwog' type wig. At their feet was a sort of rough series of hieroglyphs that seemed to indicate either they were operating a mobile public lavatory or that they were somewhat implacably opposed to homosexuality in all its forms.

      Suspecting they might be trying to be both homophobic and racist simultaneously (impressive if true!) I pocketed my money.

      Later I gave it to a girl playing the violin by the Freedom Monument.

      Here is that odd couple, er, I mean that queer pair, er I mean... well, you judge for yourself.

      Well, I'll end the blog here. My basic summing up: the pride people were smiley, the anti-pride people were grumpy. Sorry but there it is.

      Whatever your orientation, and even if you waved your fist at me or gave me the finger I wish you a very happy midsummer festival.

      Priecigus Ligo svetkus!

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