Maybe I can proofread the website?
September 30, 2007 12:13 PM   Subscribe

What is the best way for me - a gay man living in a country where I don't speak much of the language and where gay people are relatively repressed - to promote greater rights for gay people here?

I'm an English teacher in Riga, the capital of Latvia in eastern Europe. While there's a gay rights organization here called Mozaika that I'd like to work with if they'll have me, I worry that the language barrier will be a big issue, not just in the office but at public events as well, especially dealing with police, protesters, and the like.

A larger problem is that, as far as I've come to understand in my month or so here, Latvia is one of the least progressive places in Europe with regards to gay rights. I worry that playing a public role or being present in the media as an English-language resource for interviews or for other media generation would inform my students and/or their parents of my sexuality and perhaps bring negative consequences to me or my allies and colleagues at the language school I work at, anything from lower class attendance to being beat up on the street.

I realize that the threat of violence may sound a little far-fetched to those of you in more progressive regions of the world, but a look at this anti-gay Latvian website, No Pride, pretty well lays out the thesis that at least some section of the population here believes that gay people, especially gay men like myself, are out to "convert" straight people - especially kids and teens - to being gay, through things like pedophilia; check out this poll on their website. Again, back home in California, these arguments don't really hold any water, but homosexuality was only decriminalized here in 1992 and there are some pretty powerful forces at work against gay people here; gay marriage has already been banned.

So then, what can I do? I don't think I want a public role at all, but I want to help my brothers and sisters here feel a little more liberated. I don't have a lot of money, but I do have time, and I'm a hell of a proofreader. I don't want to be ruled by fear, but I'd prefer to remain safe.

My e-mail's in the profile if you'd rather respond that way.
posted by mdonley to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My suggestion is for you to learn to speak the local language well - that way, you'll be able to understand both gay and straight Latvians better. I think it will be very difficult for you to pursue your goals, or for locals to take you seriously, if you don't even speak the language.
posted by pravit at 12:15 PM on September 30, 2007

Be careful. Google armenia gay matthew.
I spend time in Armenia, which is less progressive than Latvia. I say don't rock the boat, be supportive of friends
posted by k8t at 12:28 PM on September 30, 2007

Response by poster: OP here. I'm trying to learn Russian and Latvian (Riga is basically bilingual) as fast as I can while teaching English full-time. Also, I think EU accession in 2004 has helped people here become a lot more exposed to "foreign" ideas in ways that haven't happened in places like Russia and the other former Soviet republics, so the risk of violence, while more present than it is at home, is probably not as bad as what happened in Moscow this year, because so far, the police have protected gay rights demonstrators.
posted by mdonley at 12:42 PM on September 30, 2007

I wrote matthew but meant josh.
posted by k8t at 12:57 PM on September 30, 2007

Well, I wouldn't start by expecting miracles.

Especially if you're only there temporarily, you shouldn't think of this as your fight and that bringing Latvia to Western European standards of acceptance may take decades.

That doesn't mean you can't work with Mozaika, but you should think more in terms of solidarity and morale-boosting. You can be a conduit for them to Western organizations. Being a front-line protester may neither be your style nor even necessarily helpful because it can make them appear to be under "foreign influence" (a grave concern during the Soviet era and probably one still causing undue suspicion).

So, yes, proofread the website. Help them write up "the situation in Latvia" for Western gay news sites, and send out Western-style press releases. See what you can do to get people noticing or even visiting them.
posted by dhartung at 12:58 PM on September 30, 2007

"foreign" ideas

This is a concept that you should be aware of. I can't speak of Latvia specifically, but it's clear that in a lot of eastern Europe, there's this mistaken idea that homosexuality is the result of foreign influence. If that is the case in Latvia, I hate to say it, but you probably won't be much help.

In any case, learn the language first so you can at least get a truer lay of the land.
posted by Reggie Digest at 1:00 PM on September 30, 2007

Why would they care what you think? Honestly. You're a foreigner in their country, and you have different cultural views. I think this will come off as well as any attempt to change a foreign culture.
posted by smackfu at 1:25 PM on September 30, 2007

Your fluent English may be very useful to these organizations, if you can help them liaise with international organizations. I used to work with a refugee determination division, and we got Eastern European claimants who often brought support materials from local NGOs that were written in broken English. What about tutoring at-risk people in English so they can immigrate more easily? Or contacting English-language NGOs to see if they need a monitor in the area?

I agree that you should try to pick up Latvian, but I think your English would be helpful.

As far as danger, I would think it's a matter of not being the central spokesperson, so as to avoid being seen as a "perverting foreign influence" or something. While you might be in some danger, it'd be easier for a hostile government to deport you than kill you. Absolutely register with your local embassy and carry the contact info of a god, English speaking criminal lawyer, just in case.
posted by sarahkeebs at 1:35 PM on September 30, 2007

I realize that the threat of violence may sound a little far-fetched to those of you in more progressive regions of the world...

For additonal perspective on the situation in Latvia ---
Latvia “fails” democracy test after gay pride violence.

Riga Gay Pride: “A Sad, Sad Day. Society Is Sick”
posted by ericb at 3:16 PM on September 30, 2007

I think the motivation to avoid having your teeth kicked in by skinheads is probably more pertinent than promoting a very abstract principle that Latvia isn't even ready for yet.
posted by Mr_Crazyhorse at 4:26 PM on September 30, 2007

Response by poster: OP again. Thanks for all the responses so far, especially sarahkeebs and dhartung. I ask responders to remember that I'm not asking whether or not I should try to work for change here; I've already decided that I will. I'm looking more for advice on what sorts of things I can do to forward the cause - within an organization totally run by Latvians - that make use of the skills I have.

I'll be here at least a year, very possibly more than that, so I do feel invested in the rights of my fellow community members. There is definitely growing support for gay people here, especially in Riga, but it's a long, hard battle, and I'm willing to do what I can to make life easier for people who'll be coming out in five or ten years' time.

A little more digging turned up this blog from Amnesty International about Riga's 2007 Pride event for some more perspective that might help people give suggestions.

Thanks again!
posted by mdonley at 4:58 PM on September 30, 2007

Can you track down one or more of these "foreign guests" - who are likely to be English-speaking - and see what they think?

(By the way, the site looks horrible in Firefox. I'd think that in addition to proofreading, they could use some design assistance.)
posted by desjardins at 6:47 PM on September 30, 2007

They almost certainly know about the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission and the International Lesbian and Gay Association, but even if they do, your English skills may help them get better information, build relationships with people at those organizations, etc.

I think the best thing you can do is ask them what they most need/want you to do.
posted by rtha at 7:11 PM on September 30, 2007

Mdonley, how about blogging on life in Eastern Europe as a gay American? I love reading reports from expats who entertain me while I pick up a little culture. (Here's a great example.) If you can make readers aware of Latvian attitudes, perhaps those in a position to make a difference will take notice.
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:14 PM on September 30, 2007

I'd say be subversive and give information to those who seek you out; please keep yourself safe.
posted by brujita at 11:10 PM on September 30, 2007

You seem to be under the mistaken impression that most Latvians are deeply homophobic. They aren’t. But I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, given that you’re attempting to understand Latvia’s debate on gay rights while relying on English language materials and sites such as But to generalize that even a sizeable segment of Latvians think that gay men want to spread homosexuality to children because 71% of the respondents of noprides’s readers do is insulting. You might agree that visitors to Nopride will most likely already be stridently homophobic to start out with, so it’s a rather self-selecting group of responders and not what I’d call a scientific or reliable poll.

Admittedly, gay rights in the Baltics aren’t quite up to California standards yet, but then again, the United States as a whole isn’t up to California’s level of progressiveness either (and not even all of California is … try some of the less affluent, agricultural areas beyond the major metropolitan centers and you’ll see how far we have to go). Riga is very cosmopolitan and there’s a lively gay community, albeit a rather small one. But on the whole, Riga is probably more tolerant than the average American city of comparable size, and the rest of Latvia is pretty much like the Midwest. Not particularly enlightened, but in general, they care a lot less about homosexuality vs. heterosexuality than most of the US’s interior states. The culture is fairly conservative, as is anywhere else that you find a large amount of agriculture, but unlike the United States, Latvia’s modern history has never been marked but much fervent religiosity. They like their pagan traditions, and Christianity in the region has always been moderate Luthernism cooexisting with Catholism in the Eastern part, and Eastern Orthodox as well. During the Soviet times, of course, the whole of the USSR was officially atheist, and it was illegal to even perform a baptism. Post-break-up, a lot of American evangelical Christian churches and Mormons sent missionaries over to save the souls of the irreligious masses, but on the whole, Latvia is pretty post-modern with regard to religion.

What they do have, however, is a problem with a smallish but very vocal and nasty population of skinheads. It’s a trend that mirrors the resurgence of ultra-reactionary and nationalist groups in Russia, as a great deal of them are ethnically Russian and have strong ties to that country. Like with any other population that feel disenfranchised, they lash out at any of society’s segments deemed the “other.” Gays, Jews, and especially foreigners… they hate them all. I think it’s even worse if you’re black, as the USSR had a very insidious tradition of racism, and there have been some assaults on South Asians that I recall reading about. Horrifying, but the same as in the rest of Europe, and sadly a step up than what you’ll find currently in Russia.

Also, I think the anti-gay conflict is as much about the divide between Latvians and the ethnic Russian minority, and between rich vs poor as it is about homophobia. The Latvian homophobes tend to be either a small contingent of reChristianized evangelicals who were post-break-up converts, or conservative older people at odds with the modern, market-economy Latvia. Democratization and privatization was generally great for most Latvians and Russians, but it left a lot of the older population behind. Retirees or older workers who had spent their entire lives under socialism and whose pensions were tied to that era suddenly found themselves living in abject poverty, unable to buy any of the new luxuries flooding in, after a lifetime of laboring. And then there are ethnic Russians who were first class citizens under socialism, who had received preferential treatment, especially if they were military, and suddenly found themselves in a Latvian Republic. A lot of them were born and lived in all their lives in Latvia but don’t speak a word of Latvian because they never had to learn it, and now they can’t get citizenship without demonstrating a certain level of proficiency. It’s not much of a problem for the younger generations as they studied Latvian and usually English and German in school, but for the older generations, it’s huge and an insult to their sense of pride. These people labored under a certain set of rules, they were promised something that now will never be granted and they’ve been marginalized and left behind. They want a return to the stability and simplicity of the USSR. So they march to demand that Russian be made the official state language, and some protest against the idea of two men holding hands. Human nature is the same everywhere, and it’s a dynamic that’s not specific to Latvia or even the former Eastern Europe.

I think the Latvian character also lends itself to unfair accusations of national homophobia. The stereotypes are that Estonians are cold and standoffish like the Fins, Lithuanians are effusive and warm, and Latvians are somewhere in between. I think it’s a pretty accurate reflection of national character (although while Lithuanians may be friendlier, they are a bit more conservative with regard to their attitude towards homosexuality given the influence of Catholicism). Latvians tend to be somewhat private, slightly standoffish in public and with strangers, but extremely kind and warm once they get to know you. Also, and I think this is critical; they really don’t like people making a fuss over themselves.

There a joke in Latvia, “what’s the favorite lunch of a Latvian?” to which the answer is “another Latvian.” This speaks to a latent competitiveness, but also a somewhat critical nature, and groups that draw a lot of attention to themselves are usually the subject of criticism. So while it’s obviously unfair to conflate gay people with self-promoting attention-whores, I suspect that they find gay pride marches somewhat distasteful (as a lot of people in the US still do, look at Boston’s St. Patrick day parade). They want to live their lives in private, and they can’t understand why everyone else just doesn’t want to do the same.

I’m Latvian and Russian with a large family there, and I predict that as you learn more Latvian and Russian, you’ll pick up on the fact that most of your students don’t care about your sexual orientation, and no one else will either if you’re generally discreet. Essentially, just like you’d expect in most of the U.S. So, certainly volunteer your editing skills, and while you may not single handily bring about the introduction of gay marriage, at least you might meet some cool people. And while I’m not sure why you’d expect so much personal media exposure or anticipate fielding many requests for interviews, asking how you can help out and getting involved in a good cause will no doubt be rewarding. However, starting out with the attitude that you’re there to liberate your brothers and sisters from a society marked by violent thugs and antediluvian thinking will probably just insult and alienate a lot of the people around you, even those you wish to help. Latvians are modern Europeans, but they are modern in a way that’s a little different from you and me and most other Americans.
posted by buka at 11:25 PM on September 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: As a follow-up, the organization wants me to not only do whatever proofreading work they might have, but be an active member of the organization and come to all the social things too, as the vast majority of the group's board members speak English. All it took was an e-mail!
posted by mdonley at 1:33 AM on October 26, 2007

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