Monday, July 7, 2008

Budapest Pride 2008

It has taken me a day to recover from the experience of being a part of the 13th Annual Budapest Pride. The local authorities as well as the Norwegian Embassy advised against participating in the annual event due to extreme risk of harm to the participants by the neo-Nazi assailants. As I sit in a small Internet cafe in Vienna, I recount Budapest Pride March this past Saturday, July 5th, 2008.

With just a few hours sleep, I awoke early to have breakfast with the 20 European Delegates participating in the Mr. Gay Europe Competition. Breakfast conversation was much lighter than the previous day but there still was a strong current of uncertainty to our own security regardless of participating in the parade or not. We had learned that the neo-Nazi hate web site has posted the delegations pictures on the site so their people could single them out in the upcoming attacks. I had very little appetite as I am still on edge. I made the decision not to allow fear to hold me prisoner but to harness this energy and stand up against intimidation.

I get myself organized and muster up the courage to head to the staging ground of the Parade at Deak Square. I arrived early 11AM (the march starts at 4PM) and already the police are getting organized and fencing to protect the route is already in place. There appears to be this calmness at Deak Square and it is business as usual. This alone, makes me feel a whole lot better. I wonder if the authorities were winding us up in hopes to deter people coming out, so they would have less people they needed to protect? I speak to a few people and they only seem to know that there is some "kind of protest march" happening later this afternoon. It appears it is no big deal. Again, I feel a bit better and not so terrified. I head back to the Ramada to meet my film crew and set up the first of our interviews for "Beyond Gay - The Politics of Pride" I now have a couple locations I want to film at and feeling good.

It is now 2PM and the film crew arrives. I learn that it is unlikely that they will stay with me during the Parade. They are still very afraid even with the extra security - word on the street is eggs (which is legal to through in Budapest) are rumored to be filled with acid. This is a huge concern! We start our interviews. I have the opportunity to interview Morten, President of Mr. Gay Europe, in front of the Holocaust Museum and we reflect on the last couple days and of what is anticipated to happen later today. The interview is quite somber - Morten fights back the tears. This is quite emotional.

We wrap our shooting near the Ramada and now time to head to Deak Square. The film crew pack us into a mini van and we scream down the side streets weaving in and out of traffic. I bring James, editor of G-scene in the UK with us. It is now 3PM and more people are collecting and the energy is building. We jump right into it and start interviewing random people. A Human Rights Researcher from New York, a straight older couple from Toronto, Amnesty International, a couple people from Budapest. It is now 3,30PM and we are told we need to get within the "cage area" as the gates will close at 3,50PM and we will be locked in. My film crew leaves me - I am alone. Inside the secured area and the document crew are on the other side of the fence. I panic just for a second as my mind drifts back to yesterday and seeing the images from the Holocaust Museum. Be strong I tell myself - I find James from the UK standing strong and determined next to me, as well as some other people I had interviewed earlier that day. I remind myself do not be intimidated, be strong and believe. I do a final on camera interview from within the cage as the camera crew pans back. The gates are opening and the Parade begins. No turning back - here we go.

Budapest Human Rights March Begins - Budapest Pride by the Numbers
1,500,000 €uros - Cost to secure Parade
10,000 Armed Police
3,000 neo-Nazi Protesters
thousands of liters of water - from water cannons to push back demonstrators
900 Marchers - 750 participants, 150 Press to cover the events and share with the world
45 arrests / detained protesters
36+ Dozen Rotten Eggs
20kg of rotten fruit & vegetables
8 reported injuries
7 Petro Bombs
4 Military Helicopters continually circling the city
2 Parade Floats
1 Hell of an Experience to remind you how fortunate we have the freedom to celebrate and embrace our diversity. A reminder that our fight is not over until all humans have equal rights.

The Experience
Marching towards Hero's Square within a caged route where there were not just one fence on either side but two fences! The police had in effect created a wall similar to the Berlin Wall where there was a "no man's land" between us the Marchers and the spectators / demonstrators. On the left side of us was a convoy of armoured trucks to act as a shield and to the right an army of police in riot gear. We feel safe and the march appears to be going well. 5 minutes into the march our first assault of eggs - you can feel the tension increase. Suddenly the stench of rotten eggs is sometimes over powering. We march on. 10 minutes into the march the first of several petro bombs land within the marchers - terror strikes for a split second, the police quickly move in and secure the route. We continue on. The sounds of the neo-Nazi protesters start their eerie chant and suddenly there is a shower of eggs, fruit, and rocks. We quickly move past the intersection and take cover. We move into a safe zone and regroup. 30 minutes into the march and we come to a dead stop. The police hold us here for about 40 minutes as they clear protesters ahead of us. Intelligence indicated the protesters had a shower of cobble stones planned for the marchers. The police used water cannons and tear gas to clear a safe route for us. Soon the marchers could feel for ourselves the effect of the tear gas and pepper spray - it is truly an unreal experience. I stand next to my "body guard" James as we both gasp for air and our eyes sting. Is this really happening? Suddenly another bomb is launched towards us.

We continue on getting closer to our destination of Hero's Square. Suddenly the situation gets worst, the police stop us again. The parade route falls back to plan "B" - we are re-routed through a secondary street. We continue on. Fire Crackers and Flares are shot towards us. Emergency vehicles race pass us. Suddenly one of the marchers attacks - he is identified as a neo-Nazi that somehow got past security at the start of the parade. The Flares must have been his signal. I duck behind James and just miss getting targeted with eggs - but a tomato manages to hit me. My adrenalin goes into overdrive. The police swoop in and suddenly a secondary wall surround the police and protestor as the media takes photos. It is a frenzy.

We are now just a few hundred meters away from our destination. We are stopped again, there are too many protesters ahead for the police to keep us safe. We are re-routed once again through a posh residential streets. I highly doubt this was part of the game route as our two floats narrowly squeeze down these streets and as we march by we set off car alarms of the cars that are parked on the streets. It feels so peaceful, as our music sings out, residence come to their front doors to see what is happening. You can well image the surprise on their faces as they see thousand of armed police escorting 900 marchers with rainbows. We are lead into a huge forested pen near the Square. We can see the protesters in the distance. They now see us - they come racing towards us. We are trapped! There is no escape route we now have to rely on the police to protect us. The air gets thick of Tear Gas the marchers race into the forest like deer with a pack of wolves closing in on them. For the first time on the march James and I are really terrified for our lives - there is no escape. What are we going to do? The police continue to push back the protesters with water, pepper spray and tear gas. We can see they are systematically clearing sections of the city making safe zones. James and I see our escape. We take control of our own fate and leave the secured area.

I cover my pride shirt as to not draw attention to myself as we slip into the crowd and make our way back to Deak Square. We are now safely away from the action forever changed as to what pride means. I am proud that I was able to march with our fellow Hungarians and the international press and supporters. We finally arrive back to the hotel and the MGE delegation do not have to ask how it went... they could tell by my face, I was alive and energized. Exhausted but thankful. I am a witness to the events that I can speak first hand and share with others to apply pressure to governments to continue to protect the rights of all humans.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Budapest Pride & Mr Gay Europe 12 hr count down

My heart is bounding and feels like it is going to break through my rib cage at any moment. My veins are bubbling with adrenalin and my fingers quiver at my keyboard. I sit in my hotel room at the Ramada Budapest as I try and collect my thoughts from the past couple days.

I was invited to be an International Judge to represent North America in the 2008 Mr. Gay Europe Competition as 20 young men from all across Europe compete for the title and honor to be the 2008/09 Gay Ambassador of this continent. I was excited to have this opportunity in helping choose that Ambassador who will take charge and lead his community in the year to come. I was excited to go to Eastern Europe and one of the gayest welcoming Eastern European cities – Budapest. I was also thrilled to learn that we, Mr. Gay Europe, would be marching in the 13th annual gay pride parade to celebrate how far we have come in winning more equality and breaking down the negative stereo types. This is how I felt a mere three days ago (July 1st – Canada Day).

July 2nd had my first meeting with the organizers of Mr. Gay Europe – Tore & Morten both from Norway. They welcomed me with open arms and were very excited to see me. I arrived late in the afternoon – six hours late as my initial flight in the morning was cancelled due to Lufthansa Airlines doing a rotating strike. I saw in their faces that they were stressed, but only thought it was because I was not on my intended flight and their driver could not locate me. I later learned that my delayed flight was the least of their concern.

July 3rd I write an email to my dear friend Ken who has just recently come back from Moscow Pride. A Pride that was “intense” and knew that he would be able to understand what I was about to say. I wrote, “Just have to tell you.... I am totally freaked out about the parade this coming weekend. We had an unexpected visit by the Ambassador of Norway (Mr. Gay Europe is a registered company in Norway) and they are very concerned about our participation in the parade and are advising us not to participate. It sounds like it could be really bad. The film crews I have been in touch with are starting to have second thoughts as well. It is quite emotional. Everyone is freaked out. I do not think I was really prepared for this battle!”

I have to stop as my eyes start to well up with tears. I am having such crazy emotions. I am not an emotional person. I cannot believe my eyes are tearing and my nose is running like Shannon Falls in the spring. I went on to say, “To put it into context.... we are advised to wear full body armor and helmets and have umbrellas to keep the eggs and other shit off of us. This is totally insane. The Ambassador asked me what will happen to Mr. Gay Canada or GayWhistler if I get seriously hurt. How will that serve my local community? Is this the battle you want to wage at this time - or is there another battle you can prepare for? Such heavy thoughts.” I send off the email and go to bed… my body tweaking with nervous energy like I have never experienced before.

July 4th (today) with just a few hours sleep I spring awake and prepare to meet the 20 delegates of Mr. Gay Europe. The organizers want me to share the trailer of “Beyond Gay – the Politics of Pride” so they can have a better understanding of what Saturday’s parade may look like. We all enjoy breakfast together and then I play the video – the room grows silent as the delegation watches intently. Some of the delegates feel sick to their stomachs as they had no idea that places like Belarus and Moscow have it so bad. It was a fascinating experience to see these young men come alive and get clarity as to why they have assembled here in Budapest, to be Mr. Gay Europe takes on a clearly meaning for many of them. There is a plethora of emotions of wanting to march and stand by their Hungarian brothers & sisters to support and be strong in solidarity with them and at the same time terrified – real terror of what will happen. I leave the delegation and head off to the next venue and have a Judges meeting on today’s interview rounds. An hour later we welcome the delegates for 5 minute interviews and many were still reeling from the video that had just seen. The competition has changed.

I have some down time and take in the Holocaust Museum – what was I thinking?! As I walked through the facility I kept thinking it is so easy to replace the word “Jew” for “Gay” – is this really happening? I head down to one of the Budapest Public Baths to try and regroup in the energizing mineral baths.

At 6PM I meet with Tore, Executive Producer of MGE and he informs me that the film crew has pulled out as they are fearful of Saturday’s event. Intelligence is suggesting that there will be over 3,000 anti-gay protestors ready to “crush and destroy the fags.” Desire Dubounet, a local Trans Celebrity sends a message to Adam the local producer of the event and they are mobilizing their own body guards to help protect us in addition to the already 400 police officers assigned to protect Mr. Gay Europe, plus another 1,000 armed forces to protect the parade. The local group sees the importance of documenting these events and sharing with the world in hopes that this will some how make a difference and stop these fascists. If it is not the Gays then who is next? The film project is back on.

6.35PM Tore gets a call from Interpol to reconfirm their earlier conversation that the MGE Grand Finale at Coca Cabana is a legitimate target. The local Budapest police are unable to confirm if they will have enough resources to keep the delegation and guests safe. The situation is way more volatile and dangerous than we had anticipated. The local producers have been spending all afternoon making new plans and at 7.40PM the organizers make the difficult decision and cancel the Grand Finale at Coca Cabana. Instead we will have to post it to a new secret location and will have to be very careful on how the information is shared. The organizers inform the group – the thunder of everyone’s hearts pounding against their rib cages was deafening. What is supposed to be an exciting and fun event has turned extremely serious. The intelligence MGE has been able to gather indicate that this could be more than just violent, but could in reality get deadly. The local news reports on the parade route but refer to it as the anticipated “battle ground – a blood bath.” We are told to walk in groups and never walk the same route twice when coming and going from the nearby venues. The stress-o-meter is well into the red line by now. Walking back to the hotel with some of the delegates the conversation is very somber, tears are streaming from our faces – the war has begun. Pride has taken on a new meaning for all of us. We cannot be complacent, we cannot sit ideal, we must be strong, we must be determined and we must act smart. We are 12 hours away from what will be no doubt a life altering event – we already are feeling the effects.

Yours in Pride,
Dean Nelson – Director, Vancouver Pride; Executive Director Mr. Gay Canada, ED- GayWhistler
Budapest, Hungary
July 4, 2008