Thursday

17th Oct 2019

Opinion

It's time for a Latvian discussion on gay rights

  • 'Eastern Europe does not have a great reputation when it comes to minority rights in general' (Photo: Micahel)

An unusual sight appears to anyone browsing Latvian media outlets in the last couple of days: All major publications and news sites are full of stories touching on the theme of homosexuality and gay rights.

Eastern Europe does not have a great reputation when it comes to minority rights in general, and ethnic or linguistic minorities in particular.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

The Russian-speaking minority issues, due to their importance for Latvia’s relationship with Russia, have always remained in the spotlight. However, the rights of sexual minorities remain an often overlooked subject.

One can only speculate that this might be due to the taboo surrounding public discussions of sexuality.

I've heard people joking that “there was no sex in the USSR” – sexuality was not deemed an appropriate topic for the public domain, and remains so.

This has largely remained the case, with very few exceptions.

A big step but not yet a fundamental change

However, Last week, Edgars Rinkevics, the foreign minister, made it a public issue when he became the first politician in the history of Latvia to come out.

The move represented a major step forward for Latvian gay rights, but fundamental societal changes still need to take place.

What the announcement does represent is a great opportunity to start a proper debate to both examine and challenge the attitudes and prejudices held by the Latvian population.

More importantly, Rinkevics’ call for new legislation governing the relationships between partners will require Latvians to examine what “traditional family values” mean for a modern EU member state.

A state which is about to hold the EU presidency and which has always claimed to have a European identity.

LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi-, trans-, and intersex) rights advocates face difficult challenges in Latvia.

First of all, people often confuse homosexuality with paedophilia.

Secondly, political parties have used the anti-LGBTI sentiment of the general population for their own political benefit – to gain more votes in elections.

The main government party, Vienotiba, actively promotes its image as a defender of “traditional family values”.

Latvia is also one of the few countries with a constitutional amendment stating that “marriage is the legal union between a man and a woman”. This means no legal rights for same-sex couples.

Moreover, the situation for the LGBTI community has been getting worse.

In October the Latvian parliament voted with an overwhelming majority to limit LGBTI sex education in schools to traditional marriage, thus excluding the LGBTI topic altogether.

With no education at school level, children will grow up with no understanding of the LGBTI community. This also allows for prejudices to flourish and to become further entrenched.

Rinkevics’ announcement presents a unique opportunity for the supporters of LGBTI rights and for the country itself to have a proper discussion on the matter.

Time for discussion

The discussion needs to start first of all at family dinner tables, in cafes, in NGO offices and in government meetings.

That Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves tweeted that Rinkevics is brave to say he is gay indicates the societal pressures around the issue.

Last but not least, it is up to other prominent Latvians who back LGBTI rights to show their support – without this the momentum might be lost.

It is time for Latvia to show whether it truly wants to embrace its European identity - and set an example to other Eastern European countries.

Or, whether it is comfortable with an anti-LGBTI attitude that has more in common with Russian anti-gay politics.

In light of Latvia's wish for European support and its concerns over the Russian conflict with Ukraine, this is no small matter.

Linda Zeilina is special adviser at Re-Define, an international think tank

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Luxembourg PM marries gay partner

Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel put himself in the history books on Friday by becoming the first EU government leader to marry someone of the same sex.

Polish election: analysing why PiS won

Support for democracy was particularly low in Poland with only 19 percent consistently supporting democracy - only Hungary and Bulgaria scored lower.

Threat to Unesco park mars Montenegro's EU bid

The site contains Europe's second largest natural pasture and hundreds of local families depend on it, but part of it has been slated to become a military training ground.

New Dutch terror bill must not target aid workers

A controversial counterterrorism bill could end up criminalising aid workers in the Netherlands if they enter conflict hotspots when assisting the world's most vulnerable people.

Let girls own the future

While our politics is dominated by old and bullying alpha males and the negativity they have injected into our times, there is at least one day of hope - and it is through unleashing the power of young girls.

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Column

The benefits of being unpopular

Paradoxically, the lack of popularity may be part of the strength of the European project. Citizens may not be super-enthusiastic about the EU, but when emotions run too high in politics, hotheads may take over.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture
  2. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  3. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  4. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  6. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  10. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  12. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  2. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  3. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  8. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  9. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  12. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us