It was a great honour for me to represent Scotland at the Baltic Pride Festival, which took place in Vilnius, the beautiful capital of Lithuania, earlier this month.
My first engagement was to take part in an International Human Rights Conference. I joined a panel discussion with politicians from across Europe on the role member states can play in ensuring the EU continues to drive forward progress on LGBTI equality.
I took the opportunity to share Scotland’s own journey – our recent progressive steps in areas like education and legislative reform – and I set out the importance the Scottish Government places on collective European action in areas like equalities. I also made the point Scotland wants to remain a part of the EU and to work cooperatively with our European neighbours.
The day flew by and I heard speakers who made me realise what a strong position Scotland is in when it comes to LGBTI equality but, also reminded me there’s more to do to ensure that all LGBTI people in Scotland enjoy their rights in full.
What was clear was the huge amount of good work being led by activists and allies across European countries, and that there is scope to further develop links in this area.
After the conference, we went to an opening reception at the residence of the Norwegian Ambassador. This was an opportunity to make some new friends including the impressive Senator David Norris who had delivered a powerful oratory to delegates earlier in the day. David has been an absolute champion for progress in the Republic of Ireland, and it was a joy and an education to spend time with him.
The following evening, I attended the Pride Voices Gala in the Russian Drama Theatre of Lithuania where we heard important personal testimony from key figures. Jeanette Solstad Remø, formerly a submarine captain and now an activist, spoke movingly of her journey as a trans women in Norway and her work to effect positive change. Marija Golubeva, a deputy secretary in the Parliament of Latvia, gave an excellent speech on the challenges she has faced as an openly gay parliamentarian. And Lord Michael Cashman, the former MEP and actor (of Eastenders first gay kiss fame) made some powerful remarks about the importance of solidarity in these difficult times – with a shout out to Scotland’s distinctive approach, not just in terms of LGBTI equality but because of our clear and consistent articulation of the importance of European solidarity.
The march itself was special. I gathered that Baltic Pride has faced many challenges. Just over 10 years ago, a brave group of some 250 activists marched through Vilnius. Despite a huge police presence, they were confronted by a much larger number of people spouting hostility and bigotry. That must have taken much courage, and the sum of their efforts were on display during this year’s March for Equality. Some 10,000 people, many of them young and proud, marched through the sun-baked central streets of Vilnius, with men, women and children lined up to witness the spectacle and responding with warmth and welcome. What a signal of positive change. It was a truly inspirational event and a real testament to the work done by organisations like the Lithuanian Gay League over the past decade.
After such a fantastic festival, it can be easy to become a bit complacent, but a conversation I had at the closing event in Vilnius’s Pride House later that evening highlighted the immense challenges which LGBTI people continue to experience around the world.
I had the privilege of speaking to Giorgi Tabagari who is leading work to organise the first ever Pride event in Georgia’s capital, Tblisi. Sadly, the event is facing serious threats from far right groups and prevarication on the part of the authorities who have indicated they won’t step in to protect marchers from violence. I’m in awe of the bravery of Giorgi and his colleagues as they seek to advance the rights and equality of LGBTI Georgians, and I very much hope that Tblisi Pride will go ahead and act as a catalyst for progress.
So, in Scotland it’s clear that whilst we are well respected internationally for our stance and approach on LGBTI rights, we can go further. That’s why we are committed to embedding inclusion across our curriculum. And it’s why we have made a commitment to bring our laws on gender recognition into line with international best practice, seeking to reduce barriers to trans people who wish to live in their true gender.
Baltic Pride served as an important reminder that the world is watching. So we need to send a clear message – LGBTI rights and equality are not up for debate. If there is to be a discussion, it should be about how we can learn from each other, show empathy, and create a world where everyone can enjoy access to their rights and the fundamental human dignity to which they are entitled.