A fight I might never win
Katrīna Rudzīte is a poet. She has published two poetry collections: Saulesizplūdums (Blur of the Sun) and Ērti pārnēsājami spārni (Comfortably Portable Wings, 2020). She writes essays and articles about literature, culture, feminism and other social issues. She also performs as a comedian together with Women's stand-up. In her creative work Rudzīte explores relations to the body, queer sexuality and how to live with an illness. Rudzīte’s point of departure is that all forms of inequality in society are interrelated and stems for unjust power structures.
I have recently moved, but for about a year I lived on the corner of the Avotu and Lāčplēša Streets. On Avotu Street, between Lāčplēša and Marijas Streets, there are several bridal salons, and in their windows you can see wedding dresses of different calibers and tastes. Last autumn and winter, my girlfriend and I regularly passed by these windows when we were walking each other home or just taking a stroll. Sometimes K. would stop in front of a shop window and ask if I would like to wear a particular dress. Usually, none of them met my aesthetic standards and I answered in the negative. A white dress and a veil are not my dream outfit, and at my wedding, if it ever came, I would want to dress differently from the classical notions of a bride’s wardrobe. I like bright colours and I can imagine myself in a green or pink dress with flowers. I would definitely do without the veil.
But a wedding dress is not just a fancy outfit to wear to a party or to pose in for beautiful photographs that are then posted on social networks. Putting it in a huge shop window is not just another attempt by capitalism to make us believe that something very important is missing from our lives, and that the way to fill that gap is to buy new, glamorous things. In the wider cultural context, the white, luxurious dress is a symbol. For happiness. For love. For the promise of a future family. It is also a symbol of what is currently inaccessible to me and many thousands more in Latvia’s LGBTQIA+ community – the status of a state-recognized and protected family. In a way, you could say that the white dress has become a symbol of patriarchal power. A symbol of exclusion and inequality.
When the news of her death and the circumstances of what happened came out, I thought a lot about how it might feel to report to the police that you have received death threats and to know that the police will not help you.
I have never faced direct physical violence because of my sexuality. Moreover, I am aware that – compared with quite a few other countries on the world map – the situation in Latvia is much better. I certainly appreciate that my risk of being beaten up in the street because I have joined hands with my partner is relatively low, although there have been such cases in Latvia. I am also glad that it is relatively unlikely that I will be murdered as an LGBTQIA+ activist, as was the fate of Yelena Grigoryeva in St Petersburg in 2019. When the news of her death and the circumstances of what happened came out, I thought a lot about how it might feel to report to the police that you have received death threats and to know that the police will not help you. I feel grateful that I cannot be imprisoned in a re-education camp, as I would be in Chechnya, for example, or sentenced to death, as I would be in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and 10 other countries.
But let us be honest, this is a rather low bar for the quality of life.
Especially since homophobia is not the only form of social and political inequality that affects my life. I am visually impaired, so I inevitably face serious forms of discrimination and institutional violence in my daily life, because the Latvian society is unfortunately still very non-inclusive when it comes to human rights related to illness and disability.
Moreover, it is not the case that homophobically motivated violent attacks do not take place in Latvia. A few months ago, in Daugavpils, in a city park, Līvajas Amareins was beaten up; his attacker made no secret of the fact that he had hit Amareins because he was gay, but the police did not recognize this as a hate crime against a particular social group, and the criminal proceedings were soon discontinued. In the fall of 2020, an aggressive attack on cultural researcher Denis Khanov took place, and again the police found no homophobic motives and dropped the case. In the spring of 2021, Normunds Kindzulis, a 29-year-old man who had for a long time received homophobic threats – and had contacted the police, which had failed to react – was burnt to death in the stairwell of his house in Tukums. The official police report claimed that it was a suicide, but I – along with other people in the queer community – seriously doubt this, because police work in Latvia in cases of homophobic crime does not inspire confidence.
These are high-profile cases that have received a lot of media attention. However, there is no reason to doubt that homophobic attacks are more frequent in Latvia than displayed in the media. We simply do not hear about them because not all victims are prepared to report them to the media. Moreover, the publicity given to these cases raises concerns that the police do not take events of this nature seriously and they are unable to respond appropriately, which in turn suggests that victims of homophobic attacks do not always feel safe to go to the police.
However, homophobia in the Latvian society is mainly manifested through legal and institutional discrimination, the maintenance of stigmatizing and stereotypical assumptions in public space, or by the complete silence concerning LGBTQIA+ issues in everyday life, culture, and politics. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls this institutional behaviour ‘symbolic violence’. You simply get erased from cultural and social discourses. Nobody talks or writes about you, and if they do, it is mostly in a hostile or prejudiced way.
The manifestations of homophobia that hurt me the most now are not related to a certain type of internet commentator who calls members of the LGBTQIA+ community various degrading terms. What hurts and angers me the most are statements by supposedly intelligent people, often also acquaintances, such as “I am no homophobe, but... you do understand that issues related to the family are emotionally charged and sensitive, they require time and various compromises”. What the hell does emotionally charged and sensitive mean? What does my partnership or that of other same-sex couples take away from so-called traditional families? What exactly? In addition, is it bad form to continually refer to the definition of the family in the wording of an article of the Constitution – drafted by a homophobic populists almost a century after the original Constitution came into force – to justify discrimination against same-sex families, with the sole aim of preventing same-sex marriage from ever being introduced in this country?
I am saddened and concerned by a recent situation – during a poetry-writing class for young authors – in which I asked them to write a poem on a political topic. Several authors’ works portrayed trans-rights as a dangerous ideology. I worry that young people are writing such texts, claiming that this is simply their opinion. Sometimes I think that maybe I exaggerate the significance of such events, because over the years I have accumulated a baggage of very painful experiences of exclusion and discrimination – and so I am oversensitive. However, it seems to me that homophobia and transphobia, like sexism, ableism, or racism, should not be considered to be mere opinions.
Society’s attempts to deny or question your identity are incredibly painful and have lasting emotional and social consequences.
Perhaps, on the contrary, the targeting of a vulnerable social group should be treated with particular sensitivity. Society’s attempts to deny or question your identity are incredibly painful and have lasting emotional and social consequences. Moreover, political repression, radicalization and, ultimately, being beaten up in a city park because one’s sexuality or gender does not conform to heteronormativity standards are not phenomena that start suddenly and unexpectedly. There is obviously a gradual path towards the escalation, which can start with the uncritical acceptance of seemingly innocent prejudices and derogatory remarks. In my experience and observation, we as a society are very insensitive to the inherent potential of words for both inclusion and healing, as well as for immense destruction.
It will come as no surprise that a tradition of queer literature has not yet emerged in Latvia. There are very few authors who address LGBTQIA+ themes in their poetry and prose. The best known ones are Kārlis Vērdiņš, Ilze Jansone, Elīna Kokareviča, and Ausma Perons. Yet, when I was growing up (I was born in 1991), there were no books written in Latvian with queer protagonists. I remember that when I was about 11 years old, I accidentally found the British writer Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion in the library. At the time I read this postmodern novel mainly as a fragile, magic-tinged love story, as a fairy tale or as poetry; with an implicit but very important message about something inside me that I had only vaguely guessed at before.
Only in the last few years have I begun to reflect very consciously and purposefully on my own sexuality and the social and political experiences it entails in my poems. Likewise, I have been exploring the experience of illness/disability. One might ask, if I miss a representation of my experiences in Latvian literature, then why am I not representing them myself? That is a very good question.
Sometimes I feel something like regret that I didn’t start writing about these topics earlier, or more clearly and overtly. But I am aware that getting to where it is possible to write about it is a slow and difficult process. Blaming yourself for not doing more sooner is just another trap of patriarchal capitalism trying to scare you and stop you. It is very difficult to start talking in an almost complete silence or in a room full of lies and half-truths. Homophobia, unfortunately, does not only take the form of outward aggression or silence; it is also largely internalized and turns into a difficult-to-identify self-censorship; for example, when writing the poems for my first collection, I changed the gender of the poem’s addressee or characters in places, reckoning at the time that the poem, at its deepest core, was about quite broad and universal themes. Why should I limit its potential audience? I wonder how often heterosexual authors change the gender pronouns in their poems to make the poem more accessible to a wider audience.
Another insistent assumption that this self-censorship created was the conviction: “my poems are real, good literature, not some dubious method of self-therapy or social work.”
But why shouldn’t my poems be about specific and very concrete aspects of the human experience, my experience, and still be good, high-quality literature? Furthermore, even if they have therapeutic and socio-political dimensions, what would be bad or questionable about that? I can formulate these questions now that I have been writing poetry more or less seriously for some 15 years.
The inherent magic of poetry allows me to gradually create a space that does not yet exist in physical reality, never has existed and perhaps never will. At the same time, it serves as a refuge and an instrument of change, making it possible to imagine that the world could be different.
If my partner and I decided at some point that we wanted to get married, we would probably figure out how to work it out. However, the Latvian problem is highlighted in the phrase “would figure out how to work it out” – as if it were a challenging puzzle or an obstacle in some endless endurance test. It is absolutely exhausting. I recently listened to an interview with a woman who had moved to Brussels with her partner; when asked whether she would consider returning to Latvia, she said that it was unlikely, because although both women have no doubt that they will manage somehow, they want to live in a country that respects and values them. Not in a country that – if European law says so – just accepts them with gritted teeth. I understand what she is saying. I am very tired of being confronted on a daily basis with countless symbolic, political and practical messages that imply that I am something less than other people in this country. That my love is not celebrated and important. That my welfare – that of the queer community and other socially marginalized groups – is not a major priority for policy-making. I am also tired of the fact that it is often not on the agenda at all.
There is a very precise word in English that describes what populists and homophobes are doing in the Latvian society: gaslighting.
In less than a month I will be 32 years old, and I am tired of hearing that my human rights are a sensitive issue that worries or embarrasses someone. There is a very precise word in English that describes what populists and homophobes are doing in the Latvian society: gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to distort reality. This is often done by the perpetrator playing the role of the victim, even though nothing is being taken away from that person, or is done to that person. This is achieved by instilling fear and guilt in others.
The activist, writer, and artist Johanna Hedva has said in an interview that we are a minority and will never defeat the patriarchal capitalist machine, but that does not mean that our work and efforts are useless. The realization that you cannot win simply changes the strategy with which you resist, the attitude with which you live. I think very much like Hedva. I certainly do not exclude the possibility of positive political change in Latvia, but I do not think it is very likely, and it is certainly not a given or “just a matter of time and hard work”. What I have to say to populists and homophobes is: I see what you are doing and why, which is my strength. As is what I experience and create in this language, in this body and in this sensibility.