Thursday

23rd May 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.

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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.

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