Images from Pride events in Europe’s three Baltic nations — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — resemble a war zone. Under clouds of smoke, tanks and riot police charge at small groups of gay and lesbian people peacefully holding rainbow flags.
At the InterPride conference in Montreal, held Oct 10 to 13, Kristine Garina, from Mozaika (Baltic Pride), spoke at a session about the world’s most hostile regions for LGBT people. The Ugandan delegate could not attend because the High Commission of Canada to Kenya denied his visa application.
“Pride is the strongest tool we have to create change,” Garina says. “When you’re in your city surrounded by hate slogans and riot police, solidarity from the international community matters.”
Homosexuality has been legal in all three Baltic countries since the early 1990s, although discrimination and hostility toward queer people is widespread.
That aggression seems to be increasing in Eastern Europe, Russia and other parts of Northern Europe. “In Europe, there is a significant increase in nationalism and religious conservativism leading to violence,” Garina says. “Anti-gay neo-Nazis are considered heroes by some. That’s why the international community must support what we do.”
Every time a pro-gay event is staged, activists risk their lives, she says. “If we stop, who will do this?”
Garina calls the situation in Russia “grave” and urges the international community to continue putting pressure on political leaders. The day after her presentation in Montreal, 67 people were arrested during a pro-gay demonstration in St Petersburg for international Coming Out Day.
Meanwhile, Italian delegates said they face anti-gay Catholic protesters during Rome Pride. Andrea Maccarrone feels the event is a way to fight the Vatican’s homophobia. “For us, Pride is a political march,” he says. “We feel we are directly fighting the pope. That said, it was easier with [Pope] Benedict. People think that Francis is changing the Church from within. That remains to be seen.”
At the InterPride human rights committee meeting, a number of delegates and board members discussed strategies to more effectively bring Pride to hostile cities around the world.
“As a movement we need to collaborate,” says Frank van Dalen, from the Europe-based Pride United organization. “We need to come together as organizations and do more than write letters, make statements and boycott.”
But van Dalen cautions American and Canadian activists calling for direct action on the streets of Sochi during the upcoming Winter Games.
“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “There can’t be any rainbow flags on athletes. We don’t want World War Three. Homosexuality is perceived as Western there. As much as we all want to see protests, people’s lives are at risk.
“I think the message needs to be that we’re not going to destroy Russian culture. We’re going to add colour to it.”