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Latvia's leading LGBT campaigner has high hopes for the future | VIDEO

SAN DIEGO -- A leading LGBT-rights campaigner from Latvia thinks the tiny Baltic nation with a population of 2 million is reaching a tipping point on gay rights.

Kaspars Zālītis, 31, who lives in the capital city of Riga, is an eyewitness to the baby steps occurring in his country, where homosexuality is still frowned upon and where most LGBT Latvians remain “deep in the closet,” he says.

Zālītis recalls the early years of Gay Pride festivities, such as in 2006 when 70 or so LGBT people bravely marched in the Riga Pride Parade under the guard of hundreds of police officers outfitted in riot gear as 3,000 angry agitators hurled human excrement, holy water and rotten tomatoes at them. In following years, authorities put up fences and forced Pride participants into a “zoo” like environment where the homophobes and haters – an unholy alliance of neo-Nazis, right-wingers, ultra-nationalists and Christian fundamentalists -- surrounded them shouting anti-gay slogans and tossing objects into their midst.

By 2012, Zālītis says, the fence came down and the opposition grew less violent. “We didn’t have to walk in the ‘zoo’ anymore,” he said.

That same year, Riga won its bid to host Europride 2015. The international event, featuring artistic and sports activities in addition to the Pride Parade, debuted in London in 1992, and has since been staged in cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna, Madrid, Manchester, Oslo and Hamburg.

Zālītis and other Latvian activists see nothing but positive change coming out of hosting Europride. He noted the positive changes for Poland’s LGBT community after Warsaw hosted Europride in 2010, and the election of a gay politician to the European Union and a transgender politician to Parliament. “We hope it will lead to change in Latvia, too,” he said. “Our message is also that Riga is a very beautiful and a very friendly and welcoming city. And we know the whole world will be watching.”

Also in 2015, Latvia assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union, so that too will draw attention from all across the continent.

“We will make Europride very political,” Zālītis said, noting that grand marshals will be chosen from the U.S., Europe and Latvia. He said organizers are hoping to attract 5,000 people to Riga for the festivities running June 15-21, 2015.

Visiting San Diego and other U.S. cities

When told that San Diego Pride routinely attracts 150,000 to 250,000 people each summer to Hillcrest for the parade, making it the largest civic event in America’s Finest City, Zaliltis looked stunned and jotted down the figures. He was also amazed to hear that San Diego’s Interim Mayor Todd Gloria is openly gay and that Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins is a married lesbian from San Diego.

Zālītis is visiting the U.S. as part of the Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program and this week is in San Diego for a second time as guest of the San Diego Diplomacy Council, which has offices in North Park near San Diego Pride. He had been given a tour of the city and visited Hillcrest, The Center, the beach and downtown. Although he has been to the U.S. six times now and is a world traveler, he still marveled at his visit this week to Trader Joe’s in Hillcrest and what he observed.

“I’m walking through the grocery store and seeing an obviously gay man stocking goods,” he said. “And a lesbian couple holding hands, shopping. This you don’t see in Latvia.”

According to his biography, “Zālītis has been an adviser to the State Secretary of the Secretariat of the Special Assignment Minister for Social Integration. He has also continuously served as a board member of Mozaika, the only functioning gay rights organization in the country, representing the organization in international events around the world, including Amnesty International events, InterPride conferences, and the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM), the largest annual human rights and democracy conference in Europe. His efforts on behalf of the LGBT community have enabled Latvia to make inroads in developing comprehensive hate crimes legislation to protect the rights of all its citizens.”

Gay-rights issues in Latvia

Indeed, Latvia is lagging far behind the U.S. on gay-rights issues. Gay marriage was banned by voters in 2005. Although gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, they often face harassment and isolation if they are out.

Latvia has only two gay establishments in the entire country, both in Riga. One is the “heterosexual friendly” club called Golden and the other is more of a social club with a sauna. Both are raided on occasion by police to make sure that all permits are in order, patrons have proper papers or identification, and that laws are not being violated. It’s the type of harassment that many gay clubs in the U.S. faced decades ago before the Stonewall Riots.

“It always seems to happen when I’m there,” Zālītis said, laughing.

Latvia doesn’t have a single gay media source and has only one website that provides LGBT information. Zālītis says the Internet is not censored but his organization teaches closeted gay people, especially minors, how to wipe out their browser history to prevent parents or authorities from finding out that they are gay.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia gained its independence in 1991 and turned its back on Russia and joined the European Union and NATO. In 1992, Latvia did away with the Soviet-era law that criminalized gay sex and considered homosexuality a mental illness.

With Russia looming large on the horizon as Latvia’s eastern neighbor, and with a sizable Russian-heritage minority population, Zālītis said he is wary of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law and watching closely the efforts of two known homophobes who are trying to collect 30,000 signatures needed to start up a referendum campaign that would seek a similar anti-gay law in Latvia. He said the two men have a full year, ending this November, to qualify for the next stage in the referendum process.

“We’re already thinking strategy,” he said in case the men succeed. Zālītis said like many other countries, Latvia has its Far Right politicians and they hold two cabinet minister posts and eight out of the 100 seats in the unicameral Parliament. “They are generally against LGBT rights, gender equality, abortion, ethnic integration and immigrants,” he said.

Protecting the rights of LGBT Latvians

Zālītis said he came out at age 16 and is openly gay, making him one of the most visible LGBT figures in Latvia. He and his colleages work closely with government officials and police agencies to make sure that LGBT rights are not being violated.

He gives high praise to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her groundbreaking United Nations speech in support of global gay rights. He said the U.S. State Department followed her lead, and the U.S. Embassy in Latvia has been “wonderful” in lending support to Riga’s gay community. American diplomats to Latvia and neighboring Estonia even marched in the Riga Pride Parade last year along with several Latvian politicians – in a historical first.

Clinton even visited Latvia, and invited him to her news conference, seated him in the front row, and chose him to ask her a question about LGBT rights.

The march toward equality is slow and steady, but many LGBT Latvians are not happy with the pace of progress. Zālītis says, with sadness, that he notices a migration to gay-friendly European cities like London.

His priorities in the immediate future are on producing a successful Europride 2015, working on LGBT elderly issues (until 1992, Latvia sent homosexual men to prison and lesbians to mental hospitals, and many of them are traumatized and silent about their ordeals), and the rights of transgender, bisexual and asexual Latvians.

Furthermore, he is working on international issues involving the security and safety of LGBT people living in former Soviet nations, where they face rampant violence and discrimination.

An ominous prediction

With the Sochi 2014 Olympics beginning Friday, and the world's focus turning to Russia and many people just now learning about its "gay propaganda" law, Zālītis makes a prediction from his vantage point as an LGBT campaigner in former Soviet countries.

Zālītis thinks Russia will play nice during the Olympics, then get even with any person or group casting a bad light on the Putin regime.

"You just watch," he said, "we will see a re-inforcement of the law after the Olympics. ... Human-rights groups will be prosecuted after the Olympics, after the world stops paying attention to Russia."

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Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.