From shame to pride.

Pride season is upon us. But what is Pride? It is so many things!

Pride is protest. Pride is celebration. It is defiance, rebellion, revolution. It is a manifestation of one of our basic human rights – the freedom of assembly. Pride can be a city-wide festival, a march, or an underground gathering concealed from eyes of the authorities. Pride is diversity, beauty, love. It can last hours, days, a month, or be over in a matter of minutes. In some places it is not only state-sanctioned, but heralded. In others – banned -, and its organizers - persecuted.

There are as many stories and experiences of Pride, as there are of each of us. And that makes this year’s World Pride theme - “Millions of Moments of Pride” – just wonderful, and inevitably makes me think back to the key moments of Pride in my life.

It was the summer of 2006. I was 19. The first “Friendship Days” and second Pride ‘march’ were being organized in Riga, Latvia (I use the term ‘march’ loosely, as a march was banned that year, instead an event was organized in a hotel conference room, which we did, symbolically, march around). But the key moment for me that year was at a rainbow service held at the Anglican Church.

The service was beautiful, and incredibly moving, even (or especially) for someone as non-religious as me, but it was disrupted by the arrival of protesters, whose consequent actions resulted in us being locked inside the church, with the backdrop of the noise from beyond the walls, and the corresponding dread and fear it brought with it. In retrospect, it probably made the service all the more powerful.

When the service ended we were told that leaving through the front was not possible, we had to try and leave unnoticed through the back.

I was one of the first to emerge onto the street, with my then 3-year-old brother, in my arms. I vividly remember the moment I turned, and I saw them. Three or four large men with shaved heads, running right at us. I saw them drawing near, but I couldn’t move. My dad had to push me, or pull me out of the way. As I was physically being moved from my spot, I saw two of them throw something at the priests, yelling: “you garbage, get out of Latvia”, and the third throwing something but missing his target, the contents of the bag splattering across the red brick wall of the church. And I realized what it was – they were throwing bags of shit, literally.

As media, and the police began to appear, and what had just happened started to sink in, I started crying and shaking uncontrollably, my brother still in my arms. I had never been so scared in my life. Nor have I since.

I was so confused about where this hate came from. None of it made any sense. The very strong anti-pride movement, called NoPride, professed to be protecting family values. But since when were hate and violence family values? Politicians and religious leaders claimed LGBTIQ people were promoting sex, but it was the NoPride protesters who wore t-shirts depicting stick figures engaged in anal sex, while the Friendship Days events talked of love. “Children have to be protected from this horror”, they said – but which children gained more horrific experiences, the ones outside of the events, being taught to throw bags of shit at fellow human beings, or those inside, surrounded by a rainbow of diverse people, singing, smiling, talking about love and diversity?

I felt so ashamed of my country that day.

12 years later. Last summer. In Latvia’s centenary year, the Pride march was preceded by a hundred days of Pride events across the entire city. In parks, universities, cultural centers, in the streets. There are so many beautiful moments from that Pride. I remember Vērmanes park, the gathering place for the Pride march, was packed full of people decked out in rainbow attire. Teenagers with or without their parents, families with young children, people with dogs, even a cat, no concealed faces. Political parties, civil society organizations and businesses had stalls in the center of the park. Young people were competing to get hold of the big rainbow flag as we prepared to leave for the march through the center of the city, including, symbolically, Freedom street.

I saw maybe 2 or 3 protesters, and thousands of people standing along the route of the march, smiling, singing, waving along. The best moment of all was back in the Pride Park, at the end of the march. The organizers came on stage, and, with an audible tremble in their voices, said “guess how many we were today?... 8000!” And they both started to cry. And so did I.

12 years prior a march had been banned. A couple of hundred, mainly foreign, people gathered in a hotel conference room, many of them showered with bags of shit in the day’s preceding events, while the police did nothing to scatter unsanctioned, violent protesters. Who would have thought that just over a decade later 8000 people (in a country of less than 2 million) would be marching in the Pride march, with political parties competing to profess their dedication to the human rights of LGBTIQ people, with elderly people waving and smiling from their windows? I certainly didn’t.

In this moment of Pride, I felt overwhelmed. I felt hopeful. And so incredibly proud. Proud of the movement, of our perseverance, our bravery. Proud of the society, for being open to change. Proud of those who may not like that LGBTIQ people exist, but who chose to stay at home that day. These moments of Pride sparked and signified change, respectively, and they remind me of the incredible progress the LGBTIQ movement is able to achieve in a small amount of time.