Flying the flag: Why Pride is still relevant

With prejudice rife across Europe, Peter Tatchell believes there is a need to return to Pride's human-rights focus.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"Arrested. Shortest march I've ever been on," wrote gay rights activist Peter Tatchell on his Twitter page following a parade in Moscow last month. But this was neither a surprise nor a disappointment, he says.

The reason it was predictable was because the parade had been banned by the city's mayor who said it would "destroy morals". "Moscow has never had gay parades and never will," said Sergei Tsoi, a spokesman for the mayor, Yury Luzhkov, who has previously described homosexuality as "satanic". Little wonder, then, that when the march went ahead on the day of the Eurovision Song Contest (an event renowned for its campness and yet hosted by the homophobic Russian capital), many of those involved – including Tatchell – were seized by police.

As for his description of the event as a success, Tatchell, explains: "Several people were arrested for simply speaking to the media, and nearly all those detained – including myself – were arrested with excessive force. The result of such heavy-handed policing was a PR disaster for the Russian and Moscow authorities, ensuring that Eurovision 2009 will be forever associated with police brutality, government homophobia and the suppression of a peaceful protest."

By stopping the gay parade, concludes Tatchell, the mayor provoked massive media coverage of the fight against homophobia in Russia. Indeed, the Russian media was full of reports about gay issues in the following days, hugely increasing public awareness and understanding of gay people. "We have a very long way to go, but gradually we are winning hearts and minds, especially among younger Russians," says Tatchell.

Although homosexuality is technically legal across Europe, the situation for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) people remains a problem throughout the European Union, particularly (although not exclusively) in eastern countries.

According to one recent report from the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, the attitudes of many politicians towards LGBT issues are especially worrying, with Pride marches having been met with bans or administrative impediments in countries including Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, while in some member states, public authorities have not been willing to ensure the safety of participants in LGBT demonstrations from attacks by counter-demonstrators. When you consider that in 2006, anti-gay protesters threw human faeces at those taking part in Riga Pride – and that marchers in Poland and Serbia have been subjected to such extreme homophobic violence from neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and orthodox fundamentalists, that they have been too afraid to repeat a gay parade – this is no small matter.

The report also found that in six member states – Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy and Malta – calls for the rights of LGBT people have invariably been met with negative responses from some politicians and representatives of religious institutions or groups. Social attitudes among the public in many EU countries aren't much better, with the Fundamental Rights Agency finding that while the overwhelming majority of Dutch people – 82 per cent – as well as strong majorities in Sweden (71 per cent) and Denmark (69 per cent) are in favour of same-sex marriage, this drops to 14 per cent in Cyprus, 12 per cent in Latvia and 11 per cent in Romania. And while in the Netherlands 91 per cent of the population feels comfortable with having a homosexual as a neighbour, in Romania only 36 per cent are of the same opinion.

Across Europe, refugees seeking asylum from prosecution in countries beyond the EU because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are often not believed or rejected, even if in the country from which they fled homosexuality is a crime. And young LGBT people in a number of EU member states report being repeatedly affected by hate crimes and bullying. One Polish woman in the report says: "A group of young people from my town have harassed me many times to 'persuade' me that there is no place for lesbians here. They've assaulted me verbally and physically. Once, I was beaten too. They threatened they would rape me to show how good it is to be with a man, because I need a man."

Andrew Gilliver, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Foundation, isn't surprised that many LGBT people, particularly from eastern Europe, are coming to live in the UK. "Recognition of same-sex partnerships is sparse, and same-sex marriage is illegal in all of eastern Europe," he says.

In many countries, LGBT people routinely face discrimination and attacks, while anyone famous and openly gay is essentially outcast. Boris Moiseyev, one of Russia's few "out" singers, often has his concerts cancelled, and at one point a monk lay down at the entrance to a hall where he was playing in an attempt to prevent people watching his show.

Gilliver believes the UK – which is among the most progressive of all EU countries in terms of LGBT rights – must play a part in addressing such issues. "In reality, however, when the International Gay and Lesbian Association asked all prospective MEP candidates before the election to sign a 10-point pledge relating to LGBT issues, not one Conservative UK candidate did so. This really worries us as an organisation, because if MEPs are not committed to protecting the rights of all people in Europe, they're not doing their job. It's not as if ILGA isn't a respected organisation."

To become part of the EU, countries are expected to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights legislation, which does not allow discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identification. In theory, then, EU membership should have a significant effect on LGBT rights. But, says John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's researcher on discrimination in Europe, some countries appear to be willing to breach these provisions.

Meanwhile, EU law itself is much weaker on LGBT issues. "It only really covers the prohibition of discrimination against LGBT people in employment and not in other areas, although there is a suggestion of extending this protection to other areas," he explains. But given that Stonewall, the charity, says it is becoming increasingly concerned that some new member states aren't even complying with their obligation to protect LGBT people at work, it would appear that this law isn't strong enough to stop homophobic attitudes at the top either.

In recognition of the fact that problems facing LGBT people across Europe are a human rights issue – and that, in many ways, they are getting worse rather than better – Amnesty International has become increasingly involved in trying to bring about change.

Dalhuisen explains: "A short while ago, one might have been able to say there have been improvements, but events in the last year have dampened that enthusiasm. A very specific example is the Gay Pride event planned in Riga last month. Whereas last year, the planning was approved by ministerial authorities more or less without incident, this year a number of municipal councillors voted to ban the event.

"Although this ban was subsequently overturned, what this highlights is the opposition of some – and often the majority of – politicians in some countries to LGBT rights. Also significant is the absence of voices coming out in support of LGBT people – the media and intelligentsia, for example. They are silent – cowed by the weight of deeply entrenched conservative views in these countries."

Another example of a country taking a step backwards is Lithuania, where there are plans to introduce a law to prohibit the discussion of homosexuality in schools. The proposed law is similar to the Section 28 law in Britain that for years hampered the ability of teachers to discuss sexuality or help gay students. Dalhuisen adds that even in countries including the Czech Republic and Hungary – widely considered to be improving their human rights record – LGBT marches are still met with violence.

Dalhuisen believes one of the key reasons for many eastern European countries failing to move forward is the rise of nationalism. "Particularly in the Balkan and Baltic countries, there is a sense of homosexuality attacking not just family values but the very state and the people. In Riga, for example, you'll often see signs from counter-protesters saying: 'More gays, less Latvians'. There is this correlation between homosexual lifestyles and declining birth rates. It's absurd, but has strong popular appeal and one that politicians play to their advantage."

Peter Tatchell agrees, adding that the revival of the orthodox church in some former communist states is also responsible for homophobic attitudes. But he is more optimistic than Dalhuisen: "The most homophobic countries are undoubtedly Belarus and Russia, but even there public attitudes are changing slowly, largely as a result of the publicity around the four attempts to hold gay parades in Moscow since 2006."

He also believes progress has been made in countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary. "Nearly all anti-gay laws have been abolished in the Czech Republic. That doesn't mean to say public attitudes are wholly supportive, but broadly speaking there is a good measure of acceptance of gay and lesbian people."

In many ways, we shouldn't be surprised by the strength of homophobic attitudes in some ex-communist countries, says Tatchell. "During the communist era, homosexuality was heavily repressed," he explains. On the other hand, he points to the irony that, under communism, some of the Soviet bloc states were more progressive in legal terms than some in western Europe. "For example, East Germany decriminalised male homosexuality before West Germany, and Poland had an equal age of consent of 15 in the communist era."

Tatchell believes that, for further progress, Pride events must both keep happening and focus on rights issues . "I helped organise the first ever Pride in Britain in 1972. Yes, it was fun and we had a party in the park afterwards. But the message was overwhelmingly a political one – the demand for an end to homophobic discrimination. But since then, Pride parades in Britain have become progressively depoliticised and commercialised, and the human-rights focus of the early pioneers have been squeezed out. Last year, for example, I used the event to condemn the president of Iran [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] over his endorsement of the death penalty for same-sex relationships. But when I looked around I hardly saw a single other person or organisation making any claim for equality for human rights. I think it's important to do that – not only because in Britain we still have a number of very serious inequalities to address, but because other countries need our support too."

Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, points out Pride events are a human right in themselves. "The rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental in a democratic society and belong to all people," he says. "A demonstration may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims expressed, but this cannot be a reason to ban a peaceful gathering. If the authorities have grounds to fear for the security of the demonstrators, they should provide protection or, at least, suggest alternative venues."

Even Britain is not immune from those in power who are unsupportive of such parades. The newly elected mayor of Doncaster, Peter Davies, has threatened to cut funding to the town's Gay Pride event as part of his pledge to fight political correctness. "My policy on gays and lesbians is very simple," he says. "I don't think councils should be spending money on them parading through town advertising their sexuality."

It is a sad fact, says Hammarberg, that discrimination against individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is still so widespread on our continent, and it is high time people stopped being victimised in their daily lives and even more urgent that politicians stop fuelling the prejudice that legitimises such discrimination.