The Baltic roots of gay rights activism

It looks like I’m off to Riga again this year to support the Pride march. This year it’s Baltic Pride, all three Baltic countries coming together. Last year, and previous years, it was just Riga Pride. I was there last year and saw hatred in the face of many behind the protective police lines.

Many of those who came out to condemn the Pride march were ethnic Russians and conservative Christian Latvians. One of their major bones of contention is how, in their eyes, the Western European agenda of liberalism and acceptance of homosexuality is being forced on them. This is an issue that has united two communities who have often been in conflict in the post-Soviet era.

There is a major irony in this and it revolves around one very important figure — a Russian Jew who scandalised American society at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th.The infamous anarchist and trouble-maker, “Red” Emma Goldman, was born in Kovno – now Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas.

Emma Goldman blazed across the United States from 1885 to 1919, challenging virtually every idea mainstream society held dear. Preaching anarchism, often supporting violence, distributing birth control, proposing and practicing free love and, for many, most scandalous of all – standing up for the rights of people to love who they liked.

Emma Goldman was enraged and inflamed by the prosecution of Oscar Wilde in 1895. In her biography, “Living My Life”, she writes of a conversation she had with Dr. Eugene Schmidt in Paris, 1900, after she had missed an opportunity to meet Wilde. She described how she had “pleaded his case against the miserable hypocrites who had sent him to his doom.”

When the doctor challenged her, question how she, “a mere youngster”, could have dared “come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America?”, she responded:

“Nonsense! No daring is required to protest against a great injustice”

Goldman faced down challenges from within the anarchist movement over her speeches about homosexuality. She wrote:

“Censorship came from some of my own comrades because I was treating such ‘unnatural’ themes as homosexuality. Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued.”

She let nothing stand in her way and, writing about people she met on a speaking tour in 1915:

“The men and women who used to come to see me after my lectures on homosexuality, and who confided to me their anguish and their isolation, were often of finer grain than those who had cast them out.”

She writes of one woman who regarded her revulsion to men as an affliction:

“She had never met anyone, she told me, who suffered from a similar affliction, nor had she ever read books dealing with the subject. My lecture had set her free; I had given her back her self-respect.”

Emma Goldman revolutionised left-wing politics by forcing her anarchist comrades to accept that politics were also personal and that all forms of persecution and oppression were wrong. Her profile in the US was so high at the time that she was able to bring the issues of sexual equality of all kinds to a larger audience than most could.

Her influence was strongly felt in the 1960s when sexual liberation and equality came back on the agenda in the United States and elsewhere.

The ultimate irony, however, is how “puritan America” responded to this woman from Lithuania. The Immigration Act of October 16, 1918, made specific reference to anarchists and the dangerous ideas of anarchism being imported from abroad. It was used to deport Goldman and many of her comrades back to Russia.

In other words, Emma Goldman was kicked out of the US for trying to push a radical agenda of social liberation and gay rights on a conservative Christian society – radical ideas that had their roots in Eastern Europe.

Ideas of freedom and liberation have no geography. Gay rights were not a Russian or a Lithuanian idea in 1909 and they are not a Western European idea 100 years later. Those who violently reject the LGBT community in the Baltics are expressing the same hostility Emma Goldman met in the US 100 years ago.


Author: Donnacha DeLong

Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Donnacha DeLong is an NUJ activist, journalist and online communications consultant with more than 20 years' professional experience.

4 thoughts on “The Baltic roots of gay rights activism”

  1. It’s a real shame that some people are ignorant enough to feel hate towards someone just for being gay, but at the same time I think some gay rights activism deserves censure.

    It depends on how its manifested. Just like 99% of people in anti-war protests behave appropriately, the same applies to gay rights marches. Unfortunately you always get the extremists who go OTT by violating public order / decency laws.

    Marching for the rights of homosexuals is fine. But using such marches as an excuse for acting lewd in public is not ok. That’s where much of the criticism stems from.

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