Eastern block on equality

As Pride parades sparkle into life across Europe, a clash of cultures is growing between east and west over gay rights. Stephen Castle reports

Now on his way to a posting in Montreal, Glaubitz absolved the Estonian government of any responsibility, saying it had behaved in an exemplary fashion. But, he added, Estonian "society is far from ready for two men, particularly if one of them is black".

The episode has come to symbolise a growing clash of cultures between east and west over the issue of gay rights. The Netherlands is one of Europe's most tolerant nations, a country in which gay rights are taken for granted by most of the population and where gay marriages have been allowed since 2001. So popular was the maverick gay politician, Pim Fortuyn, that his murder traumatised the nation.

But, though eight former Communist nations of Eastern Europe are now part of the EU, they have hardly adopted the same standards as the Dutch towards gay rights.

The iron curtain may have been torn down but a new, less visible barrier divides the continent on this touchstone social issue. In the west a host of nations have put in place arrangements for gay marriages or civil partnerships. In the east the tide is a more reactionary one, fuelled by conservative church leaders and populist politicians.

As long ago as 1989 Danes could register same-sex partners in an arrangement that gave them the same rights as married couples. Norway, Sweden and Iceland all enacted similar legislation in 1996, and Finland followed suit six years later.

Belgium legalised gay marriages in 2003 as did Spain in June 2005, despite fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. Gay married couples can also adopt children.

Germany has allowed same-sex couples to register for "life partnerships" since 2001 and, in 1999 introduced a civil contract called the Pacs, which gives some rights to cohabiting couples, regardless of sex.

Meanwhile, in Britain, legislation came into force in December 2005 giving gay and lesbian couples in registered partnerships similar rights to married couples. This covers areas such as pensions, property, social security and housing.

True, the situation in western Europe is far from perfect and homophobia is hardly confined to the east. A report for 2005 from the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights notes that Austria and Italy provide no legal means for same-sex partners to register their relationship (though that charge is made against six of the eight ex-Communist nations).

It adds a general criticism that "prejudices continue to exist among a large section of the population towards homosexual, bisexual or transsexual persons. Member states cannot remain passive in the face of this situation." Greece is identified as one country where there may have been "persistent discrimination towards certain persons on the ground of their sexual orientation." The government in Athens has been urged to combat discrimination and to mount an active publicity campaign to try to stamp out homophobia.

Even in Sweden, a country normally regarded as one of the most civilised and liberal in Europe, there is a worrying trend because statistics released for 2005 on hate crimes show a rise in the number of attacks on homosexuals.

Even in countries which have legalised gay marriage or civil ceremonies, there are sometimes legal loose ends. In Spain, for example, full protection may be denied if one of the two partners is foreign.

By the same token there are some former-Communist countries which stand out as being progressive. The Czech Republic has recently legalised same-sex partnerships after a long battle in Parliament. An even better demonstration of popular sentiment was the fact that the winner of the Czech Republic's version of the Big Brother reality TV show was openly gay.

But the momentum in the east is emphatically in the other direction. Lawmakers in Latvia recently defied the EU by refusing to introduce a law banning discrimination at work on sexual orientation grounds.

Agreeing to introduce such a law on employment discrimination was a condition for Latvia's accession to the EU, but MPs refused to implement it in full after a parliamentary debate where homosexuality was described as a sin. Latvia recently made constitutional changes to prevent same-sex marriages, and the first Gay Pride march in Latvia, which took place last summer, was marred by angry protests.

In its report, the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights is damning about the "regrettable events" in Latvia last year. It says it "wishes to express its deepest concerns about the homophobic statements which were made when the Parliament in Latvia decided, on 26 October 2005, to amend the Constitution in order to define marriage as the union between a man and a women, in order to block attempts by any future parliamentary majority to open up marriage to single-sex couples."

Elsewhere the political rhetoric is alarming gay rights campaigners. Zsolt Semjen, the leader of Hungary's Christian Democratic People's party, declared in the recent election campaign: "We have had enough of the deviance."

The climate in Russia - outside the reach of EU legislation - is uncompromising. At a recent gay rights march in Moscow, some of those taking part found themselves under attack from thugs.

But Poland is probably now the main battleground for gay rights in Europe. It is inside the EU and its citizens are entitled to the protection of European law.

Samuel Nowak, member of the board of Culture for Tolerance Foundation in Krakow, says: "In Poland, in some circles being openly gay is something to be ashamed of. The Polish gay movement is weak and it can be difficult to come out."

Three years ago, when campaigners launched a high-profile campaign, the mayor of Krakow burned their posters. Key politicians in the right-wing coalition government - including the president and prime minister - have opposed gay rights.

In his previous job as mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski, who is now Poland's president, banned gay pride marches. This year, because of mounting international pressure, one took place. Michael Cashman the Labour MEP, who attended the event in Warsaw, described it as "frightening and inspiring" at the same time. He added: "There were skinheads on some street corners in gangs of 30 or 40, some of whom tried to infiltrate the march. There were some taunts but that was from a tiny minority. It was so heavily policed that there was an undercurrent of imminent violence. But at one point, I looked up and I could see an old woman, who must have been about 80, on her balcony clapping and waving."

Cashman blames politicians for the climate of intimidation. He argues: "Statements referring to homosexuals as paedophiles or referring to the event as a 'gay porno march' incites and licences thugs to take action."

Undoubtedly, gay rights have been a recurring political issue in eastern Europe. The Polish Minister of Education, Roman Giertych, recently dismissed the director of the country's In-Service Teachers' Training Centre in a row over the use of the book Compass: A Manual on Human Rights Education with Young People.

An MP for the ultra-Catholic League of Polish Families (LPR) Deputy Wojciech Wierzejski, accused gays rights organisations of "spreading deviant attitudes among young people" and "ties to quasi-criminal and paedophile circles". Miroslaw Orzechowskiego, the deputy education minister, described an international project addressing homosexuality, financially supported by the European Commission Youth Programme, as a "depravation of young people".

The tone is set by those at the top of the tree. The Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, was reported as saying in October 2005 that homosexuality was "unnatural" and that, if a person "tries to infect others with their homosexuality, then the state must intervene in this violation of freedom". More recently he said that he "did not want homosexuals to teach in public schools" and that he "would not want a gay cabinet member in your government". During his successful presidential campaign, Kaczynski, argued bluntly that "public promotion of homosexuality will not be allowed".

What has prompted this harsh attitude in the east? In Poland many point to the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church and populist media outlets such as Radio Maryja, which is renowned for stigmatising gays and lesbians.

This theory may help explain why the Czech Republic is such an exception to the rule and has a much more liberal stance on gay rights. The church has a much looser grip than in Poland.

Katerina Safarikova, of the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny, argues: "We are one of the least religious nations in eastern Europe. We are a homogenous nation where the vast majority do not attend church. In Poland the fall of Communism cemented the place of the church which had a role in dismantling the system. In the Czech Republic that role was taken by intellectuals."

Communist Poland was closed to international influence, its dogma anything but liberal. "Communism was very prurient, it never recognised gay rights," says one Polish official. "Nowadays in politics and economics there is very little choice on offer between the parties. That means that you can define yourself on social issues: whether your are in favour of abortion or gay rights, for example."

And, while the transition from Communism to capitalism has transformed the lives of many, it has also left large areas of social deprivation. Poland, like several other East European nations has high unemployment, especially among young people.

Cashman argues: "The excuse is religion or traditional values but what kind of religion or traditional values preach discrimination and hatred?

"It is partly to do with the huge influence of the Vatican in some of the new member states. But, equally, where there is high unemployment and social deprivation, extremist politicians will always seek to scapegoat someone."

Nowak agrees, adding: "The Catholic Church is very influential and, within it, there is no discussion. They say we are perverts and that is the end of the discussion. But the politicians have also found, in recent years, that they can build up a position by using homophobia. That explains why it happens."

How long will it be until Europe's new divisions are destroyed, and Polish gays enjoy the same rights as those in the Netherlands? "Maybe 10 or 15 years," says Nowak. "I can't be sure. But it will happen."

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