[Originally published here as part of WITNESS‘s collaboration with Global Voices Online]

The latest twist in the long-running saga of anti-gay violence and state oppression took place yesterday in Moscow, as an appeals court upheld the earlier lower court ruling to ban Moscow’s Gay Pride March in May 2006. The gay rights activists who brought the case will now attempt to challenge the ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, and they say they expect to win.

As GVO’s Eastern and Central Europe Editor Veronica Khokhlova reported in May 2006, Moscow’s Mayor, Yuri Luzhov, banned the Moscow Gay Pride march from taking place. The religious leaders of Moscow met – on the one issue they could agree – to back his decision and called for violence against anyone who tried to marcha call that was unfortunately heeded.

Just as sites like YouTube can be used as a dissemination tool for less savoury content, they can also be used as a tool for solidarity and support, and potentially as evidence. In the case of anti-gay violence, users have tried to upload their own footage (as with the videos in this post), and, where first-hand footage is not available, they have uploaded clips from their local TV news.

And that solidarity and support may well be needed. Human Rights First, a US-based organisation, released a report earlier this year citing an increase both in rhetoric and in hate-crimes of a homophobic or racist nature in Russia (PDF) over the past year. But it’s not just Russia where this is a trend. Since the accession of 8 Eastern European countries to the EU in May 2004, the spotlight has come to rest increasingly on the rise in official, or state, homophobia across Eastern Europe.

The most high-profile manifestation of this is how governments handle Gay Pride marches – which are now held all over the world – in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT organisations march to commemorate LGBT rights, and to celebrate LGBT pride.

You might remember accounts of Latvia’s Riga Pride in July. Here’s a reminder from Latvian blogger and journalist Juris Kaza.

Now, Veronica, Aleks of AllAboutLatvia.com and this eyewitness give compelling, horrifying reports, alongside the photographic evidence, but seeing the footage above brings home the kind of opposition that campaigners for gay rights face. The anti-gay pressure group No Pride involved in the Riga protests received both tacit and open support from politicians and religious leaders, and in such a climate, if its modus operandi is taken up as quickly as its logo by groups in other Eastern European countries, the prospects of further violent confrontation are high.

The role of religious groups in reinforcing the climate of intolerance is often pivotal.  The pastor who officiated at the Riga church service picketed by No Pride was “excommunicated” by the Latvian Evangelical Church’s hierarchy. In recent weeks, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia has even gone beyond Russia’s borders to condemn Jerusalem’s planned gay pride – postponed again, now from Rosh Hashanah this Thursday, to November 10th – as a “scandalous blasphemy”.

Political populism isn’t just confined to attacking or banning Pride marches. One Latvian political party is reported to have prepare draft amendments to legislation, making it illegal to publish article featuring gays or lesbians talking about their lives or gay rights. Although the proposed legislation was rejected (it contravenes Latvian and international law), that it was proposed at all shows that there is populist ground to be won through demonstrating official homophobia.

That’s certainly the case in Poland, where twin brothers, President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, of the ruling Law and Justice party, head a coalition that includes the League of Polish Families, a right-wing party with a history of anti-semitism and homophobia. One of the vice-presidents of the league, Wojciech Wierzejski said, in advance of Warsaw Pride 06, “if the deviants will start demonstrating, they need to be bashed with a thick club”, leading to official condemnation from the European Parliament, and a row that has rumbled on even till now – with Lech Kaczynski telling Associated Press on Monday, in New York for the UN’s General Assembly, that his views on gays had been misunderstood.

Eastern Europe seems to be the most prominent battleground at the moment, with a religious, conservative political climate, little history of a public gay culture, and pressure coming from the EC to respect gay rights.

Nonetheless, the majority of countries worldwide remain deeply resistant to advances in gay rights, or even actively hostile. Here are just a few recent examples: Cameroon, Ghana, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Mauritius, Mexico, Nepal, Philippines, South Africa, Turkey, Uganda, USA, Zanzibar.

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