Gay rights in Russia and Eastern Europe
Bans on pride parades inspire brave resistance
Janet Sutherland
volume 28
issue 4
August 2007

June 2007. Romanian police arrest a young woman from a group that challenged a far right protest against a gay rights march in Bucharest. Photo credit: Vadim Ghirda / AP

In late May, rightwing thugs viciously attacked courageous lesbian/gay pride organizers who rallied outside Moscow's city hall. Participants were attempting to deliver a petition of reconsideration to Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who banned a proposed pride march, labeling it a "Satanic" event.

Among those beaten and arrested were members of the sponsoring organization GayRussia, deputies of foreign parliaments, and international activists, including Australian-born journalist and queer liberationist Peter Tatchell. Tatchell later commented, "Gay people are the target and symbol. But it is freedom of expression itself, and the right to dissent, that is being quashed."

While police stood watching, neo-Nazis, nationalist extremists, and Russian Orthodox fundamentalists punched and kicked the demonstrators, even as they were being interviewed by international press. Their attackers went free.

This travesty is particularly appalling considering that the Russian Revolution lifted legal bans against homosexuality in 1922 and declared consensual human relations off-limits to government interference. Homophobia was restored as part of Stalin's tyrannical backlash. But today's level of deadly antigay hysteria reflects the increasingly nationalist and militaristic face of resurgent capitalism in Eastern Europe's former workers states.

A repeated pattern. Last year in Latvia, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis banned public pride events, so organizers opted for an indoor venue in the city of Riga. The predominantly female gathering was surrounded by religious extremists and nationalists, who shouted abuse and threw eggs and excrement at them. This year, the European Union's intervention allowed a public rally in early June, but police looked on as rightwingers hurled paint bombs and firecrackers.

In Poland, under the aegis of a Catholic and chauvinist-led government, both homophobia and anti-Semitism are rife. Twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, president and prime minister respectively, are proposing legislation that would outlaw any discussion of homosexuality or safe sex practices in schools and discharge queer teachers automatically.

Moldova, a former Soviet republic bordering Ukraine, also suffers from government-sponsored intolerance. This year's application to hold a pride march in the capital, Chisinau, was denied by city officials despite a supreme court ruling that last year's ban was illegal. As an alternative, members of GenderDoc-M attempted to lay flowers at a monument to victims of repression, but were stopped by police who claimed that permits were required to leave flowers! The courageous activists protested their silencing by standing at the entrance to the city hall with their mouths taped shut with rainbow stickers.

Most of these countries decriminalized homosexuality in the 1990s as the USSR dissolved, and some passed bans on employment discrimination against queers. But as these countries abandoned their nationalized economies and entered the neoliberal marketplace, unemployment increased, along with financial instability and ever-sharper class divisions. The age-old game of scapegoating the most vulnerable has been a prime method of the new capitalist governments for diverting the have-nots from anger from the new super-rich and their gangster and priestly allies.

Sanctified bigotry. Prior to Moscow's attempted pride march in 2006, Muslim leader Talgat Tajuddin called for gays to be "thrashed." Principle Russian Rabbi Berl Lazar said the action "would be a blow for morality." And the Russian Orthodox Church said a queer mobilization would exert a "sinful influence."

This year, the Archbishop of Riga urged Christians to take to the streets to oppose the pride rally and "sexual perversion." Queer oppression in Latvia has another serious booster, businessman and antigay campaigner Igors Maslakovs, who considers it his mission to erase gays from society. Maslakovs maintains close ties to the New Generation Church, a Russian-speaking sect with affiliates in 15 countries, headed by Aleksey Ledyaev. Ledyaev was recently welcomed to the White House by George W. Bush.

U.S. religious fundamentalists are looking to the east as a source of converts on the common ground of homophobia. These bigots converged on Warsaw in mid-May for the World Congress of Families (specified as "natural" families). Attendees included Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, the Heritage Foundation, and the Discovery Institute (promoters of Intelligent Design). The Congress, which was organized by the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and was addressed by Poland's deputy prime minister, Roman Giertych, a leader in League of Polish Families, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey brought greetings from Washington, DC. The anti-queer message was echoed by Poland's prime minister and by Mormon law professor Lynn Wardle from Brigham Young University. Speakers condemned both same-sex marriage and abortion.

For a rainbow front against reaction. It is heartening to see international support being offered by the queer movement from Toronto to Berlin. Eastern Europe's unsinkable lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people are a frontline of opposition to a rising fascist movement that is also targeting national minorities, Jews, Rroma (gypsies), and immigrants.

To succeed, queer militants in Eastern Europe need to forge alliances with other oppressed groups, and anti-fascists and other activists must reciprocate. These connections are being built. In December 2005, for example, 20 gay activists carrying rainbow flags marched openly in a Moscow anti-fascist march and received appreciative support from the 1,000 other protesters.

And while GayRussia criticized the absence of major Russian human rights organizations from its 2006 and 2007 actions, it thanked the Green Alternative movement and Russian Radicals for their participation. A Russian Trotskyist organization, Socialist Resistance, is calling on other left groups to support gay rights and on the gay movement to "break out of isolation by taking part in the wider movement in defense of democracy and social-economic rights."

The defiant leadership of queers in the battle against the brownshirts is an inspiration to all who say "Never Again!" to the forces of repression.