Gay rights a tall order in ex-communist bloc

Gay rights a tall order in ex-communist bloc

9th December 2009, Comments 0 comments

For Eastern Europe’s LGBT community, even staging public gatherings can still be an impossible task.

Twenty years on from the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe's homosexuals say they still face a tough struggle for equal rights, plus the kind of verbal abuse and violence rarely seen in the West anymore.

The picture is similar from the Baltic to the Balkans, campaigners say, with homosexuality remaining taboo despite the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships that were banned by communist regimes.

"Homophobia is taking a new turn,” said Vladimir Simonko, head of the Gay League in the Baltic state of Lithuania. “It's becoming institutionalized."

Lithuania has been spotlighted over controversial legislation voted in by its conservative-dominated parliament in July, which is due to come into force in March 2010 unless President Dalia Grybauskaite manages to overturn it.

This new law bars the public dissemination of information deemed favourable to homosexuality on the grounds that it could harm the mental health and physical, intellectual and moral development of minors.

"When lawmakers adopt homophobic laws, nobody can be certain that groups of people who hate us won't take that as a green light to move against us," said Simonko.

Same-sex relations were decriminalised in Lithuania in 1993 -- two years after the country won independence from the crumbling Soviet Union, which banned homosexuality.

Bans and bashing

But opposition to gay rights remains entrenched in Lithuania, where the vast majority of the population of 3.3 million is Roman Catholic. Polls show that most Lithuanians consider homosexuality a perversion.

In 2007 and 2008, local authorities banned EU-sponsored anti-discrimination events -- Lithuania joined the bloc in 2004 -- and they have also repeatedly barred local campaigners from holding public gatherings.

The equally Catholic Poland, meanwhile, was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights after Gay Pride parades were banned in Warsaw in 2004 and 2005 by the then-mayor, Lech Kaczynski, who is now the country's president.

Copyright 2009
Vladimir Simonko, Lithuanian Gay League

In Lithuania's Baltic neighbour Latvia, campaigners have felt the physical wrath of their opponents.

Latvia's first Gay Pride, in 2005 in the capital Riga, was marked by rowdy protests.

The city banned the 2006 edition but trouble broke out after campaigners from Latvia and abroad gathering for a conference were blockaded by ultra-nationalist and religious demonstrators, who hurled abuse, eggs, excrement and holy water at them.

The 2007, 2008 and 2009 parades passed off peacefully when a heavy police presence kept protesters away.

Hate speech

Trouble has also marked Gay Pride events elsewhere in the region.

Organisers called off September's planned edition in the Serbian capital Belgrade after officials’ warnings of a high risk of violence. The city's first parade, in 2001, was marred by an assault by ultra-nationalists, skinheads and football hooligans.

The head of Serbia's Gay-Straight Alliance, Boris Milicevic, said the Orthodox church, which takes a hard line against homosexuality, "has a major influence on public opinion."

But he underscored there is a broader factor at play.

"Homophobic language exists but it's not the only problem,” he said. “Hate-speech is considered legitimate in Serbia's political discourse. And homophobia is just one form of hate-speech."

In Russia, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is known for open homophobia. He has dubbed gays as "Satanic" and claimed that homosexuality is a Western "weapon of mass destruction" against Russia.

He has also regularly banned Gay Pride events. Unauthorised gatherings in Moscow were attacked in 2006 and 2007. Police did little to stop protesters wading into the crowd.

Lagging laws

On the legal front, the region also lags behind Western Europe.

In 2006, Latvia barred formal recognition of same-sex relationships by amending its constitution to stipulate that marriage is "a union between a man and a woman."

Surveys in Poland, meanwhile, show two-thirds opposition to any form of legal union between gays.

Polish gay and left wing parties sympathizers wave UE flags as they participate in a Gay Parade in Warsaw

The Czech Republic is a notable exception: since 2006 it has allowed formal registration of gay relationships. More than 800 couples have taken the step.

A report by a European Union watchdog last year found that only 18 of the bloc's 27 member states afforded equal rights for gays and lesbians in the areas of employment, housing, social aid and access to services.

The holdouts were primarily in Eastern Europe.

Given the climate of antipathy, gay politicians and other public figures in the region rarely follow their Western counterparts in coming out of the closet.

Gabor Szetey, the first openly gay Hungarian politician, was among those attacked by counter-demonstrators during a 2008 Gay Pride parade in Budapest.

Marielle Vitureau/AFP/Expatica

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