Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Pride and Shame in Latvia

I used to march in Gay Pride Parades. I have vivid memories burned into my flesh of those first few times, some forty years ago, when I walked with a mixture of fear and elation, when I looked nervously at the hate-filled faces on the sidelines and tried to focus on the smiling faces on the sidelines instead. Of fighting back tears when straight friends got into the parade and walked with me.

How things have changed. I don’t march any more. And it’s not just my age and my tired feet. America’s pride marches used to be victory celebrations. Now they’re mostly just parties. And I find myself mumbling, “You kids go ahead. Enjoy. I’m going to sit this one out.”

What a rush of memories comes when I see there are places on the planet where those pride parades are only now beginning to form, and where “pride” still has fresh new significance.

We talk now, whenever the topic comes up, of a sea change in attitudes. The sexual shame and repression which authoritarian Christians and others still mistake for morality is still in the air, but authoritarianism is on the skids of late. People are laughing at Michele Bachmann’s ignorance, despite the media effort to rile us up with the fear she might be a serious political figure. The Irish Prime Minister, in one of the most catholic places on earth, has described the Vatican as “a culture of dysfunction, disconnection, elitism, and narcissism.” And then there’s New York. Just the sound of “New York” brings a smile to my face.

How easy it is to become complacent. If bad things aren’t happening to us, they aren’t happening. One risks being a bore. With all those gay folk getting married in New York, with Focus on the Family’s bark getting fainter by the day, with the announcement yesterday that Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell will end officially on September 20, you do feel like a bore sometimes in pressing gay rights as an issue.

But it is, and it’s clearly going to be a long time before the fat lady sings. Some group known as New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms has filed a suit to overturn the New York decision. And A UCLA law school report just out claims a third of gays and lesbians are still closeted at work. There’s still work to do.

What prompted this particular reflection, though, was something going on outside the United States. There is a new documentary from Latvia about to be shown at gay film festivals in Philadelphia and New York. It has the awkward title, Homo@lv. It shows the courage of people only now daring to go into the street and declare a right to be. And facing openly and publicly a vicious thuggish homophobia. That they are showing courage is an understatement. As late as 2010, three quarters of the Latvian populace is still outspokenly homophobic, and not only do the marchers appear to be without police protection, the “good Christian folk” of Latvia appear to be running interference for the thugs. It’s an old old story. “If you didn’t act like that, they wouldn’t want to beat you up.”

We are focused at the moment on the tragedy in Oslo, the work of a cold and calculating paranoid schizophrenic. Much of the discourse revolves around such things as the foolishness of the early assumption this was an Islamic terrorist and the need to avoid the trap of allowing the pendulum to swing to the other extreme. And just because Anders Breivik is mentally deranged doesn’t mean he doesn’t represent a common fear of the other.

The mobs of homophobes in the streets of Riga say more about the sickness within than a lone killer can. They are the storm troopers of a cultural force that rises out of fear of the other. (The –phobia in homophobia is not a mistake, as is often claimed). The fear comes out in less overtly violent ways in Marcus Bachmann’s gay aversion therapy, in the church’s insistence that homosexuality is “disordered”, in the news that one third of American gay workers are in the closet. But it is a fear all the same. One that would go away if they turned the lights on.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a difference between a thug and a lady who smiles and tells you she loves you when she wants to save your soul. One requires the help of the police; the other requires greater vigilance and the willingness to engage to expose the falsehoods. They are not the same thing, exactly.

But there is a common thread. You can see it in the Latvian chant, “Pride brings shame on Latvia.” “Pride” has been twisted by the mob into a bad word. Latvian gay folk chose the English word clearly to tie their movement to efforts in English-speaking countries, but you can be sure the crowd knows what it means. “We don’t want no stinkin’ pride.” How like the way socialist (one concerned with “the least of these, my brethern”), liberal (one focused on freedom and openness) and progressive (one seeking to make things better) have been turned into words to be spat out, words to describe the “other”, the “not-us”, those who would tear down the family and Western Civilization.

Watch the video and tell me what you see, besides the obvious fact that the world is getting smaller. An effort at long last to bring dignity to the lives of gays and lesbians in Eastern Europe? Or a reminder that this long Wagnerian opera is only in its first act?

Have a look at the trailer.

Lesbiešu un geju tiesības ir cilvēktiesības!


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