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Crucible of hate
All across eastern Europe, gay people are demanding equality. But in Russia, Poland and Latvia, their growing confidence is being met with violent resistance from nationalist and religious groups. What lies behind this hysteria? Phoebe A Greenwood reports
Phoebe A Greenwood
Friday June 1, 2007
It is Gay Pride season in Europe, with marches in Poland and Russia. In Latvia, the capital, Riga, is hosting four days of lectures, classical concerts, parties and film screenings, but the big draw will be the final parade through the Vermane Garden on June 3. Organisers are hoping for a turnout of around 400, maybe more if the weather is as sunny as last year. It's hard to know. What they can expect with some certainty is that neofascist and ultra-religious counterdemonstrators will outnumber their marchers by at least two to one. The police presence will be greater still. As one activist put it, "It'll be less of a Pride parade than a human rights fight."
Whether the sun shines or not, the atmosphere will be stormy. The hope is that Ivars Godmanis, Latvia's new minister of the interior, generally considered a pragmatic man, will prevent a repeat of last year's event, a human rights and PR disaster. The march had been banned as a risk to security. The Latvian prime minister, Aigars Kalvitis, said he could not condone "a parade of sexual minorities", even though such a ban was an infringement of the right to freedom of assembly to which Latvia had signed up when it joined the EU on May 1 2004.
As a compromise, Riga Pride organisers held a private indoor rally at the Berg hotel, following an Anglican church service. The church was surrounded by a group of religious extremists, old women and skinheads. "We tried to leave by the back door but they had put guards there. We tried to move through them but groups of people started to run at us shouting, 'You deserve to die,' and 'Leave our land.' They were carrying bags, which could have had anything in them," remembers Jolanta Chianovica, a half-French, half-Latvian activist.
The bags were full of human excrement, which was hurled at the mostly female congregation. Meanwhile, more counterdemonstrators had swarmed to the Berg hotel, where they were refusing to let Pride supporters in or out. "I saw two girls trying to leave and people spat in their faces directly in front of the police but they did nothing. When they saw the police weren't interfering to stop the violence, they felt they could do whatever they liked. That was really frightening," says Chianovica.
The new mayor of Riga has approved this year's march, but gay and lesbian activists are steeling themselves. Latvia is typical among eastern European countries where, increasingly, being gay is seen as an act of political aggression. Rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are denied on vague grounds of "promoting homosexuality" or posing a risk to security. Homophobia has become a touchstone issue for politicians seeking to divert attention from economic frustration. Homosexuality may be decriminalised in these countries, but only on condition that it stays out of sight. Aside from a small number of activists who are openly gay, homosexual people in most of eastern Europe are invisible. In Poland, where an anti-European party was elected just two years after the country gained membership to the EU, the rise in homophobia is tangled up with a surge in nationalism. In Latvia, activists claim they frequently hear that homosexuality didn't exist in the country before it became part of Europe.
In Britain, homophobia still exists, but there are laws to protect gay and lesbian citizens from it. There is no such legislation to protect sexual minorities from discrimination in Latvia and Poland, or Russia and Moldova, which are members of the Council of Europe, where Prides have been banned. In Belarus and Serbia, no one has even suggested a Pride. Romania introduced anti-discrimination law in 2000, but last year hundreds of protesters turned out to pelt the Bucharest Pride parade with eggs, bottles and stones. Both the European Parliament and the Council of Europe have voiced concern about the rise in homophobic violence in eastern Europe during recent debates, flagging Poland as a particular trouble spot. But their power appears to be limited. The promotion of homophobic legislation and use of hate speech by politicians in these countries continues unabated, a two-fingered salute to the notions of integration and acceptance represented by Europe.
On May 19, 5,000 people marched in Warsaw Pride. The following day, Roman Giertych, who is deputy prime minister and minister for education, joined 800 supporters of family values in a countermarch, to oppose "revolting pederasts". In Moscow last Sunday, gay activists were punched, kicked and pelted with eggs by a mob - some holding crucifixes - as they tried to hand a petition signed by 40 MEPs to the mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, in protest at his ban on a Pride parade. Riot police stood by as thugs chanting "death to homosexuals" attacked veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell, Right Said Fred singer Richard Fairbrass and Russian pop duo Tatu, then moved in to arrest 31 of the pro-gay protesters.
Riga's 2006 Pride ban had a EU precedent in Warsaw in 2005, a ban which, the European court of human rights recently ruled, violated three articles of the convention on human rights. Lech Kaczynski, the Warsaw mayor who refused that application, is now the president of Poland and intends to appeal against the court's decision. The Moldovan supreme court ruled that the decision of Chisinau authorities to ban the 2006 march was illegal, but Vasile Ursu, the mayor, banned the 2007 Pride anyway. In Moldova in April, a group of lesbian and gay supporters protested against the Pride ban in a picket outside Chisinau city hall. They also tried to lay flowers at a statue commemorating victims of repression, but police blocked their access to the monument, filmed the mostly foreign protesters and noted the number plates of their cars. Rightwing extremists threw eggs.
"Their idea is that gays and lesbians, by laying flowers at the monument, make it dirty," says the event organiser, Maxim Anmeghichen. The Moldovan police made no arrests but detained a driver working for the activists on no particular charge. Maxim reasons, "He's a Moldovan driver, and they probably thought, 'We'll show our protest this way.' "
Last year in Latvia, police said they could not step in to protect the gay rights rally because they had not been given authorisation from the mayor to do so. Counterprotesters, who were to all intents and purposes engaged in an illegal protest, gathered freely to chant, throw holy water and excrement. The police detained 14 people for acts of violence.
Igors Maslakovs was among the anti-gay protesters. Describing himself as a businessman, Maslakovs stopped work last year to devote his time to founding and running Latvia's "No Pride" organisation. The No Pride logo shows two male stick figures having sex with a red line through the middle. The group website, which was built using Maslakovs' money, announces its purpose: "To fight against the opinion that homosexual lifestyle is proper and even recommended, which is enforced on Latvian society by [the] EU."
Maslakovs' account of last year's Pride event differs only marginally from those of the supporters: "It wasn't human excrement, it was chicken shit." He claims it was aimed at the two Anglican pastors who led the morning service and that they got what they deserved.
Maslakovs' views on homosexuality, he says, are Christian beliefs. He has particular affinity with the New Generation Church, an evangelical organisation with a swelling international congregation of mostly Russian speakers. The group now has 108 churches in 15 countries, including Argentina, Israel and America. It is headed by Aleksey Ledyaev, a publicity-savvy pastor with close ties to the Christian right in America. In February, Pastor Ledyaev attended a breakfast at the White House hosted by President Bush. "He's a very good man, a very powerful man. He has many connections with parliament and worldwide connections to the USA and Russia. He agrees with me," says Maslakovs.
Pastor Ledyaev declined an interview, writing instead: "I believe that Christians and their traditional values are discriminated against today, and not the gays and lesbians." In his sermons, he has been more explicit, saying of homosexuals: "God will bring evil upon them! God will drive them out and they will fall!" Many of the counterprotesters at last year's Pride wore "I Love the New Generation" T-shirts.
Homophobia has a strong ballast in Latvia's Christian leaders. Early this May, the Archbishop of Riga urged Christians to take to the streets and oppose the Pride march. "If there are 1,000 sexually crazy people acting foolishly, then the people's march in Riga should have at least 40,000 or 50,000. That proportion would give the government enough reason to leave sexual perversion outside the law."
Maris Sants, the Anglican pastor for whom the bags of chicken excrement were intended, has had first-hand experience of this church's response to perceived perversion. He became a celebrated champion of gay rights in Latvia when, two years ago, he was excommunicated from the Lutheran church by the Archbishop of Latvia on a charge of "promoting homosexuality".
"I had been preaching against xenophobia and promoting tolerance, not homosexuality," he says. "I was told of my excommunication via email. It wasn't a surprise. The atmosphere in the church was very closed, more like a totalitarian sect. They are against women's rights and are only open to Latvian-speaking people. I know a blind pastor who is suing the church. They're not allowing him to serve because he is blind. The Old Testament says a pastor in many ways needs to be perfect, a model, so that can't include people with special needs."
In many former communist states where religion was suppressed for decades, the church has developed considerable influence. One ideology has been replaced by another. The current human rights commissioner for the Latvian parliament, Janis Smits, was previously a Lutheran pastor. He was mayor of Riga when Pride was banned and is a representative for the ultra-nationalistic First party. In September 2006, he addressed Latvia's parliament, the Saeima, on the issue of gay rights. "I invite all Christians who are here ... if you vote for the legalisation of homosexuality, then, please, go to church and openly repent for what you have done, because it will no longer be possible to halt this plague that you have let loose in our society."
Such inflammatory speech is frequently heard in the Saeima, as it is in parliaments across eastern Europe. In Poland, the anti-European far-right coalition has been in government for the past two years. "We joke that this government is more Catholic than the Pope," says Tomasz Szypula, secretary general of Poland's Campaign Against Homophobia. But the reality is not so funny. Roman Giertych has proposed a bill banning the promotion of homosexuality in schools and universities.
The European Parliament has expressed its concern about this legislation, and in April voted to send a fact-finding delegation to Poland. What the EU hopes to achieve through this investigation is unclear. Even less clear is what Giertych means by the "promotion of homosexuality". It is a phrase Szypula has written asking him to clarify. So far he has failed to do so.
Giertych's father, MEP Maciej Giertych, is less reticent. He explains that the issue of gay rights in Poland is not one of human rights but morality. "By promoting, I mean spreading literature or inviting homosexuals to talk to children about the glories of homosexuality. Private sexual lives should remain private, whether they are decent lives or homosexual, adulterous, promiscuous, lesbian lives. They should keep to themselves rather than promote themselves, especially in schools."
In Szypula's opinion, the Polish gay community learned to hide under communist rule and is continuing to hide in the new democracy. "Many people say, 'I can't show my sexuality outside because it would become political.' But when you go to work and your colleagues start talking about their children or wives, you see it is not political to say you are gay, it's just who you are," he says.
Police do not record the motives for violent assault in Poland. The Campaign Against Homophobia, however, has questioned more than 1,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Poles and found that over the past two years, half of those questioned had suffered psychological violence and, of the 18% who had been physically assaulted, half were attacked more than three times. Of those who were physically attacked, 85% said they were too scared to report the crime to the police.
Aside from physical risks, the psychological battery that gay rights activists expect in return for visibility takes its toll. Szypula describes the first time he was hit by an egg: "It may be just an egg, but it hurts like hell, and worse than that is the humiliation. You have egg on you, on your clothes. Though, unfortunately, you can get used to anything."
London MEP Jean Lambert, who spearheaded the campaign to launch an investigation into Poland's homophobic school legislation, says the EU could be more proactive in protecting the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens but is limited by what it can actually do.
"People listen to their peers, and for the Polish government, that is other governments. If there is a special relationship anywhere in the EU, aside from France and Germany, it's between Britain and Poland. British ministers need to actively explain why they have gone even further than the European Union requires to protect the legal rights of gay and lesbian people."
After his involvement in last year's Riga Pride, during which he made several TV appearances, Maris Sants was attacked six times in the street. He has since distanced himself from activism, preferring to concentrate instead on the book he is writing about homosexuality and Christianity in Latvia. It keeps him indoors. "I felt burnt out. After four years of being open, I now feel it's time that I stepped back from the movement," he says.
Szypula knows many activists who have resigned in order to reclaim their anonymity and their lives, and he understands why: "I don't want to be a full-time gay my whole life either. But we have to survive this government. We need to build structures in our community so when this government falls, we'll be ready. These are big words I'm saying now but I have to really believe in them. Otherwise, when I look at the situation and see it only getting worse, I just feel hopeless".
Homosexuality and the law
How attitudes vary across eastern Europe
Belarus Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1994. No legislation barring discrimination in employment. Age of consent 16 for all relationships. No laws on homophobic crime. Widespread homophobic prejudice, stigma-tisation and acts of violence against gay people. Russian Orthodox Church considers homosexuality a "grave sin".
Bulgaria Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1968. Discrimination in employment banned in 2003. Age of consent 14 for all relationships. Some inheritance rights for same-sex couples. Gradual change in previously conservative public attitudes to homosexuality.
Latvia Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1992. Discrimination in employment banned in 2006. Age of consent 14 for all relationships. Same-sex marriages banned. Homophobia widespread.
Lithuania Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1993. Discrimination in employment banned in 2004 as a condition of joining the EU. Age of consent 14 for all relationships. Open opposition to gay rights on the political right.
Moldova Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1995. No legislation barring discrimination in employment. Age of consent 16 for all relationships. Homophobia rife, verbal attacks on gay people routine, and physical attacks not uncommon.
Poland Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1932. Discrimination in employment banned in 2003. Age of consent 15 for all relationships. Government proposing legislation that would allow teachers to be dismissed for promoting "homosexual culture". Public attitudes very anti-gay.
Romania Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1996. Discrimination in employment banned in 2000. Age of consent 15 for all relationships. Gays allowed to serve in armed forces. Intolerance widespread, but government is recognised as making significant progress in redressing inequalities and homophobia.
Russia Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1993. No legislation barring discrimination in employment. Age of consent 16 for all relationships. Intolerance and homophobia widespread; Russian Orthodox Church condemnatory; support for such rights as gay marriage very low.
Serbia Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1994. No legislation barring discrimination in employment. Age of consent 14 for all relationships. Discrimination and homophobia widespread, and public opinion very hostile. Homosexuals banned in armed forces (though this law is only loosely applied) and constitution bars any recognition of same-sex unions.
Slovakia Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1961. Discrimination in employment banned in 2004, though critics of the legislation consider it flawed. Age of consent 15 for all relationships. Tolerance gradually increasing, especially in the capital, Bratislava.
Slovenia Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1977. Discrimination in employment banned in 1998. Age of consent 15 for all relationships. Civil unions for same-sex couples legalised in 2006. Active lesbian and gay movement, no discrimination against gays in armed forces, and public attitudes far more tolerant than further east (though still below EU averages).
Ukraine Homosexual acts decriminalised in 1991. No legislation barring discrimination in employment. Age of consent 16 for all relationships. Gays not allowed to serve in armed forces. Homophobia rife outside Kiev.
· Sources: Avert.org; Diskriminace; LGBT rights on Wikipedia