Monday, July 29, 2013

Baltic Pride and Prejudice

This last Saturday, July 27th, was the Baltic Pride Parade here in Vilnius organized by the Lithuanian Gay League (LGL). The parade was to bring together people from all three of the Baltic countries - Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia - to celebrate the LGBT community and to stand for equal rights for all. 

I was very excited to march in this parade, as someone who fully supports the LGBT movement and as an American who believes in human rights for all people. I have had much experience with Pride Parades, however this one I knew would be different. The sentiments are not as progressive as in my own country, and I knew that the threat of some sort of public disorder was quite real. Regardless, I prepared myself all week, meeting the LGBT community here and getting to know them personally. I attended Stuart Milk's roundtable and placard making session, and assisted the all-girl pop-rock band, BETTY, since Wednesday. I felt empowered, ready, hopeful! And if I could say one thing, its that despite the hatred seen on Saturday, I still felt that way all day and long after it. 

Clad in my brightest colors, I walked down to the Gedimino Avenue where the parade was to be held. As I walked there, rainbow flag in hand, I saw the police get more and more dense as I made my way down the hill. At one point I even saw them stop several young women to check their purses for, what I can only assume, would be eggs, weapons, and other devices meant to be launched. Although they found nothing, my stomach began to tighten as nerves creeped upwards. After a short search, I found BETTY, Stuart Milk, and the other Embassy personnel who came to show their support, to march, and to promote the message of love and tolerance. We even had some members from the American Embassies in Riga and Prague there to share in the day's events. Before the parade began, I took a moment to survey the area and felt the full force of celebration. Everywhere I turned there were rainbows, peace signs, smiles, whistles, just so much color! We lined up, ready to take on the day, no matter what should happen. 

As we began to march, eggs were thrown. I could see that the person who threw them was immediately apprehended by the police. From that moment forward, however, nothing else was thrown at us... other than the occassional offensive hand gesture. Many people had signs that were insulting, but what was more uplifting was that there were also people on the sidelines who clapped, gave a thumbs-up, and cheered! People had makeshift signs of approval and support. This only brought a smile, and an occassional tear, to my face as we marched on. 

When we arrived at the square that was our final destination, things got somewhat scarey. It is at this moment that I must pause to give praise to the police. From beginning to end, they walked on either side of the marchers, pushing back those who were lunging in anger, apprehending those who were commiting acts of hooliganism, and just simply being fully aware for us. When we reached the square, the counter-protesters surrounded us, blocking all exits. One group came running towards us, only to find themselves surrounded by yellow-vested police who held arms and pushed back the group away from the marchers. They were amazing and deserve many thanks and much praise!
We stood, peacefully, brightly colored, elaborately festive in our message of tolerance and love. Arial views of the parade will show the rainbow of marchers followed by the darkness of counter-protestors--a true account of what really happened that day. Those who marched with Pride were bright, sunny on the inside and out, spreading a message that encompasses only love, and empowering those whose rights are not yet fully recognized. Those who protested this message were dark, sad, angry, and honestly just had a horrible day. 

We listened to speeches, including one by an MP, music by BETTY, and an inspirational message from Stuart Milk before leaving through the back of the park safely. As an American, as an LGBT supporter, and as a woman, I could not have been more proud of myself and all those who I was with that day in moving Lithuania forward to recognizing human rights for all citizens. We still have a lot of work to do in the US, but there is a whole world out there where things are so much more difficult, and challenging, and even tragic. I am proud of LGL, I am proud of those who marched, and I am proud of Lithuania for taking the steps they did this last week and for the strides I know they will continue to make. 

Lygybė Dabar!