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Riga, Latvia--a view of Old Town & the Daugava River

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August 2006 Email this to a friend
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Gay Latvia at 14
By Thomas Kilduff

Attempting a gay pride march in Latvia means battling city hall and nationalist thugs, as activists found out in July for the second year running. So is all dreary repression in this tiny Baltic nation? Not when you consider Latvia's nearly 50 years under Russia's thumb. Despite difficulties, gay people in Latvia are stretching their limbs and finding their dancing feet-- often at a club that sounds like 'Pervs' and means 'swamp'

The first omen occurred in the gargantuan Frankfurt airport. We saw two gorgeous and dapper Latvian boys, about 19 years old, appearing very businesslike and waiting to board the plane. Their laminated name tags were not touting an affiliation with Master Card or Calvin Klein or even Lufthansa, but rather the Church of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.

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My partner and I were turned both on and off. Turned on because young men representing the Mormon Church always hold themselves as neat, clean, and willing. Turned off because it was a sign that a distasteful American export-- right-wing religion-- was infecting the youth of a former Soviet-bloc. We thought we'd be able to shop Riga in peace, far beyond the culture wars grown so tiresome in America.

From that point on, our vacation became a quest to seek a brave, gay Latvia. How was the small country faring at-- in its most recent period of democratic independence-- 14 years? How did sex play against religion (neither of which were encouraged under 50 years of Soviet communism)? And what about gay culture? Queer activism? Was gay life loud and proud? Or relegated to backrooms and secret codes?

Balticology 101

Latvia is the middle of three Baltic nations (Estonia and Lithuania are its neighbors). Through shared national solidarity, each worked towards independence as the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s. Latvia's first independence was a prosperous 22-year stint between the two world wars. In the early 1940s it suffered occupation by both German and Russian forces, before falling under the Soviet "sphere of influence" for nearly two generations.

Riga, Latvia's capital, lies on the River Daugava, and is an old dandy's dream. (Disclosure: the author is 26 years old but appreciates the finer things in life as any old dandy would). My partner, Eric, whose maternal ancestry stretches generations in Latvia, told me that during the Soviet days the whole of Riga was painted in yellow-- the only color that they had in surplus. I came at a better time. When I first stepped foot in Riga's historic "Old Town," I fell in love with its hues of oranges, creams, browns, and blues.

Founded in 1201, Riga's Old Town is an historically intact medieval district whose great church spires prick the Baltic sky. The mainstay religion here is temperate Lutheranism, with pockets of Anglicanism and Catholicism. As well, the Russian Orthodox Church plays a role for a huge slice of the population. As a tourist, you can stroll the parks and patronize the cafes by day, stopping at any major street corner to purchase flowers to lay at the freedom monument. By night you can attend the stately opera house to catch a performance for a mere eight American dollars.

But it's not all high culture. Besides the textbook romantic tourism, the cobblestone streets teem with solicitations for strip-shows with private lap-dances. Young Russian men prowl their beats wearing sign boards showcasing naked women. Was this always the case? I asked Valters Nollendorfs, who keeps an eye on Latvian culture from his perch at the Museum of Occupation.

"The Soviet regime was rather sexless, even heterosexually speaking," Nollendorfs told me. "Things opened up in the early 1990s. In the first year or two following independence, bookstores were filled with how-to guides and a lot of semi-pornographic books." Prostitution, as far as he knows, is supposed to be restricted to a certain zone (along with the many casinos), but the law seems rarely enforced.

There are two glossy periodicals for tourists in Riga-- Riga this Week and Riga in Your Pocket. In addition to listing cafes and museums, each runs a slew of ads for escort services. For men seeking men, there's only one choice-- an outfit called " Dreamboys." Also listed were two official gay nightclubs, XXL and Purvs (that translates as " swamp"). The selection seemed pitiful for a city of 800,000, but my partner and I just took it as a challenge, and headed into the field for more research.

Native cheer

An aspect of the Baltic character is a tendency to be brutally honest, not timid about expressing opinions. This includes businesspeople who would normally be given a tip.

On our first Friday night out, we decided to tackle the scene at Purvs (Matisa 60/62). We hailed a cab and gave the driver the location. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly until halfway across town.

"Why don't you go to a nice normal club?" our cabdriver queried. He pointed to a pink silhouette on one of the Soviet facades, one of Riga's gazillion female strip joints. He made it seem like having tits rubbed in your face was an act of purity compared to the funny stuff he imagined at our original destination.

"Just please take us to Purvs," my partner said.

The driver muttered something resentful (capitalism can be a hard pill to swallow) and dropped us off at Matisa Iela, the street where Purvs goes bump in the night. We lifted our heads to see a tattered rainbow flag behind a thin pane of glass above an old wooden door.

"This must be it," I said.

We opened the door and walked down a long shady hallway, where we met a man dressed in black who took our coats.

Purvs is a mostly Russian institution (not that there weren't plenty of Latvians, too). Dark Russian electro clash and new wave-- a sort of Slavic Pet Shop Boys-- drilled from the speakers. A handful of young men seemed passed out against the wall, with a few lesbians dressed in black leather getting their groove on. We lasted 15 minutes.

Uneasy commingling

A key feature of Latvian society is the awkward division between the Russians living here-- often born here-- and ethnic Latvians. The tension between these two groups stretches back centuries, but is not as keen for younger people. Because independent Latvia's economy is thriving more than post-Soviet Russia's, many Russian immigrants who could, see no reason to go back to the mother country. Russians are the second biggest ethnic group in their country after Latvians themselves. "In 1989, this Russian national group made up 34.8 percent of the whole population in Latvia," notes the non-profit Latvian Institute-- an increase of four-and-a-half fold compared to the period before World War II.

While we were in Riga, Russian immigrants rallied to protest their "alien" status, which can often be a legal limbo for them between citizen and foreigner. Part of the Latvian nationalism that confronts Russians here follows from fear of the disappearing Latvian language, which has 1,534,844 speakers worldwide-- a little more than one percent of the 145,031,551 who speak Russian (the figures come from www.ethnologue.com ).

But from an old dandy perspective, Latvian and Russian men are both hot, each in their own way. While Latvians may be more gentle-looking and classically handsome, the Russian attraction lies in the way they walk with curled fists, as if ready to beat up any American tourist with a lisp.

Global spectrum

With Purvs crossed off our list, the inevitable next stop was XXL (A. Kalnina 4; www.xxl.lv ), which Eric told me had more of a scene. We paid a cover of three lats and were greeted by Tom of Finland illustrations on one wall, and the spray-painted exhortation to "FUCK ME" on the other. A dark hallway snaked past a labyrinth of backrooms and onto the dance floor. XXL was larger and more upbeat, with people dancing to both Latvian and Russian pop music, as well as the globally unavoidable Whitney Houston. We met the club's owner, Sergie Rimss, who led us around the gay hotel upstairs, complete with Riga's first all-gay bathhouse, named Varaviksne (Latvian for " rainbow").

Rimss says that his international hotel guests have included a smorgasbord of Estonians, Lithuanians, Germans, and Brits. There's a tidy community kitchen decked out in lipstick red and chrome. Hotel guests are granted free access to the club, and at reduced cost to the adjoining bathhouse. The bathhouse itself was warm and stylish with softer Tom of Finland images on the wall, and naked supermen frolicking, Eve-less, in a Garden of Eden.

"The bathhouse has only been open for two weeks, but so far it has been very popular," Rimss says, attributing the success to their ad in Spartacus. "It is seven lats to get in, and four lats for men younger than 25."

I ask him if there is evidence of drug use along with the sex.

"Drugs are not popular here," he said, perhaps predictably. "Riga is like a village life, very quiet." We would soon learn that the "village" metaphor would extend to other less savory aspects of Riga: small- minded intolerance.

Pride before a fall?

On July 19 (just before this issue of The Guide went to press) Riga authorities banned, for the second year running, a request from several gay rights groups to hold a march the upcoming weekend, as part of a series of pride events, from July 19 to 23. The city claimed the marchers' safety couldn't be guaranteed-- a bit rich, activists said, given that Riga city fathers plan to host, and presumably protect, US President Bush and other leaders at a NATO summit later this year. In case the city was inclined to allow the march, anti-gay demonstrators had gathered at city hall every day for days. Organizers vowed to go to court to overturn Riga's diktat.

Déjà vu?

Riga made international headlines last summer, a rarity in this overlooked corner of the Western world. On July 23, 2005, Latvia's first ever gay-pride parade snaked through the streets of Old Town.

Three days earlier, Eriks Skapars, head of the Riga city council, had revoked the permit to march. The grounds were, again, marchers' safety. Organizers went to court and had the city's ruling overturned. If they hadn't won, the activists said they were prepared to defy the city and march anyway.

Riga's first pride march proved tumultuous, with only a few dozen participants facing some 10,000 curious onlookers. Among the latter were a thousand right-wing nationalists and skinheads, who blocked the way. Some threw rocks, eggs, and tomatoes at the gay marchers.

Opposition from politicians and religious figures helped inflame the violence. On national TV, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis called the parade a "mistake," contending Latvia was built on "Christian values." Catholic Cardinal Janis Pujats was also hostile. In a sermon after the march, he declared pink to be worse than red: "In Soviet times we faced atheism, which oppressed religion; now we have an era of sexual atheism," the cardinal said in a service also broadcast on state TV and radio. "This form of atheism is even more infectious and dangerous-- spiritual values disappear in a swamp of sexual irregularity." Swamps seem to be a leading Latvian erotic metaphor.

Amnesty International condemned both the city of Riga and the national government, saying that their push for a ban on the pride march " might encourage a climate of intolerance and hatred, and incite further verbal and physical attacks against gay and lesbian people."

This year promises a repeat. But now the world's eyes are on Riga, and the locals have more help. (To stay posted on what happens, browse to Riga Pride online.

Rabble-rousing optimists

Who were the people behind all this bold organizing? I tracked down the address of the gay youth group, and arrived on foot looking for an interview. Their offices were in an almost hidden office building in a less comely part of town. GLJAG (I won't try to unfurl the Latvian acronym) shares a space with an HIV support group, and the secretary from the latter gave me the card of Imants Kozlovskis, the man I wanted.

A few days later I sat down with 18-year- old Imants and his 26-year-old cohort, Gabriels Andrejs Strautins, GLJAG's chairman and founder.

Imants, I learned, had made the personal political in a very public way: he took his mother onto the "Aina" show-- a touchy-feely talk show that's the Baltic answer to Sally Jesse Raphael-- and proceeded to come-out to his religious, conservative mom live on Latvian television.

"His mother still thinks it's curable," Gabriels says.

We met for the interview at a funky Tex- Mex eatery with the walls covered in yellow newsprint, and a Madonna concert playing on television. The waitress delivered the hugest heap of ice cream ever witnessed. Gabriels then began to inhale the monstrosity between staccato answers in English.

Imants and Gabriels were the architects of Latvia's first gay pride parade, which they had started planning six months before the day of the event.

"There was a lot of screaming, protesting, and placards," Gabriels said. "People are still talking about the parade-- we hear it every day on the TV and radio."

I ask Gabriels about a right-wing party now in Latvia calling for a constitutional ban on same- sex marriage. "The 'Latvia First' party is very populist and quite new, actually." Such a ban, he says, could readily pass.

There's certainly precedent for anti-gay legislation in Latvia. In June 2004, an anti- discrimination bill had been submitted to the Latvian Parliament from the directive of the EU. "However," notes a report from the International Lesbian and Gay Association website, "the parliamentary Human Rights and Public Affairs Commission, which is responsible for the bill, amended it and deleted the ban on sexual orientation discrimination"-- an early sign of the anti-gay refrain that's become a leitmotif in populist politics throughout the former Soviet bloc.

As the ice cream disappeared, we discussed the tension between the Russians and Latvians and if that crosses over into the gay world.

"Yes, of course I date Russians," Gabriels says. "Politicians make these confrontations, but in daily life it doesn't matter." As well as English and Latvian, he speaks Russian. "All three can cover most of where I want to go," he says.

If there is violence at this year's pride parade, Gabriels relates, at least there will be more media and international observers to document what happens-- though as the melee at Moscow's first pride march this past May proves, even prominent foreign guests is no guarantee things won't spiral out of control.

GLJAG, very much a grassroots affair in a new democracy, relies on private donations and grants from the European Commission. But its financial straits are such that even a shared office has become too much, so currently the group is mainly operating out of Gabriels' parents' living-room.

Yet Gabriels is hopeful for the future. There are politicians countering the rabid Latvia First. "Parties, such as 'New Era,' say they are not supporting this aggression against gay people, and that everyone is equal." Latvia's president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, is uncompromising on human rights. "She may take Kofi Annan's position in the UN next year," Gabriels suggests, which would add prestige to progressive voices in Latvia.

Land, peace, & bread

Reviewing our two weeks on the flight back to Boston, we decided that Latvia, for all its growing pains, is probably right where it should be. Democracies are supposed to be laboratories of contradictions. With all its wonderful cafes and flowers and pimps and architecture, Latvia is still finding its way into its own version of a Western mode, after losing 50 years to unsexy Russian communist colonialists. For all the protests over gay pride certain to happen again this year, our impression is that Latvians are more concerned with economic growth and language preservation than sodomy, and that, as Gabriels suggests, tolerance and equality will win here in the end.

Oh, and speaking of sodomy, the one regret we did have was not interviewing those cute Latvian Mormons when we had the chance. Even an old dandy like me can appreciate religion (if it's dressed up nice).

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