By Tom Unterrainer
The past few weeks have seen courageous actions by gay communities in Russia, Latvia and Poland. For the second year running their efforts to celebrate gay identity and organise a movement that will fight for gay rights have been met with violent opposition from the state, religious and far-right groups — more often a combination of all three.
On Sunday 27 May, protesters from GayRussia (a gay-rights group) and international supporters used the fourteenth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality to deliver a petition to Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov — who had previously described gays as “satanic” — demanding the right to hold Russia’s first Pride event. Peter Tatchell, Mario Cappato (an Italian MEP) and Nikolai Alexeyev from GayRussia were amongst those arrested by Moscow police after being attacked by counter-protesters.
The world’s media captured footage of Tatchell being punched to the ground whilst armed police stood by. The attacker was allowed to return to the assembled crowd of orthodox extremists and nationalists who continued their chants of “Moscow is not Sodom” and “no to pederasty”, whilst Tatchell and others were bundled into police vehicles.
Latvia’s Pride event, which took place over the weekend of 2-3 June, proceeded more peacefully, but not without incident. When activists attempted to stage an event last year, Aigars Kalvitis – the Latvian Prime Minister — proscribed public demonstrations claiming that he would not allow “a parade of sexual minorities”.
The organisers of Riga Pride opted for an indoor rally, but that too faced enormous opposition. The event was surrounded by religious extremists and nationalists who threw eggs, excrement and abuse at those attending. Police were accused of ignoring the violence. In reaction (after pressure from the European Union), this year’s public Pride event was heavily policed (the police outnumbered both those on the demonstration and those opposing them). Despite police numbers, paint bombs and fire crackers were thrown into the crowd.
With the election of an anti-European, Catholic nationalist party in Poland, levels of homophobia have increased. The “Law and Justice” party, headed by twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynsci — the President and Prime Minister respectively — won a run-off vote in 2005. “Law and Justice” came to power on an agenda claiming to reject rapid free-market reforms and favouring a return to “traditional Catholic values”. The party rules in an unstable coalition with the organisations “Self Defence” (Samoobrana) and the “League of Polish Families”.
In many ways, the political picture in Poland presents an explanatory model for some of the forces driving homophobia — and other prejudices — in the rest of Eastern Europe.
After the collapse of the Stalinist regime, Poland underwent an accelerated integration into the European and world economies. With this neo-liberal restructuring came high levels of unemployment and economic instability. During this period Lech Walesa and other leaders of “Solidarity” — a trade union based movement which fought against the Stalinist government in the 1980s — were in government. “Solidarity” not only accepted but embraced the new economy. As with Russia — where corporate gangsterism and corruption are now a norm — Poland’s economy was opened up to mass exploitation.
Those who had participated in the “Solidarity” movement and then brought about the downfall of Stalinism — a large section of the Polish working class — must have hoped for better. With the palpable failure of the Walesa government, Polish workers looked elsewhere, first to other mainstream reformist parties and then to new political formations.
Over 80% of the Polish population is Catholic and, despite there being no formal link between church and state, Catholic leaders play a significant political role. Those now in Government and their political partners are the political expression of some deep nationalistic and reactionary religious ideas. Although homosexual acts were decriminalised from 1932, public attitudes are very anti-gay.
As part of their efforts to “clean up” Poland, “Law and Justice” have resurrected and promoted both anti-semitic and homophobic ideas. The Kaczynsci brothers are currently proposing legislation that would allow teachers who “promote homosexuality” to be dismissed. In so doing they have opened up a space where extreme nationalists, neo-fascists and reactionary religious elements wield some power. These elements are keen to exploit and perpetuate bigotry.
You can see a similar pattern in Latvia and Russia. Although homosexuality was not officially a criminal offence in many parts of the ex-Stalinist bloc, anti-gay sentiment was and remains widespread. Homosexuality remained illegal in Latvia until 1992 and in Russia until 1993.
The main organiser of anti-Pride demonstrations in Latvia, a group calling itself “No Pride”, is closely associated with the evangelical Christian ‘New Generation Church’. This group has sympathisers across the world and has links with fundamentalist Christians in the US. They maintain a sophisticated web presence and produce leaflets, stickers and t-shirts sporting their logo (two male stick figures in a sexual position with a big red cross through the middle!).
In Russia, a disgusting mix of right-wing Russian Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish clerics along with neo-fascist groups have come together in their homophobic campaign. These people — highly organised, ideological and with sufficient ‘raw material’ to be a significant physical threat and political force – should not be underestimated. Their attacks on Pride events are the clearest expression of their political intentions and capabilities.
Homophobia remains an ever present and in some cases growing prejudice in Britain – in schools, workplaces and on the street — and murderous attacks are not uncommon, but the gay community in this country faces no immediate, organised threat. Whilst many on the British religious and political right will denounce the people taking part in gay Pride events this year, it’s unlikely that direct physical threats will be made against those attending. Lesbians and gays are no longer a hidden, marginalised section of the population. A certain version of homosexuality — a “comfortable”, stereotyped version in many cases — enjoys a hitherto unrealised level of representation and acceptance in the media and general conscience.
Although this situation presents a challenge to those of us not satisfied with a substitute for real liberation, for many gay men, lesbians and bisexuals things have never been better. The relative freedoms enjoyed in this country stand in stark contrast to the situation in much of Eastern Europe.
As Pride-goers in London enjoy the relatively safe, commercialised space that Pride has now become, gay rights protesters in Latvia, Poland and Russia face a very different prospect. Rather than simply pity — or worse still, ignore – the situation faced by gays, lesbians and bisexuals in Eastern Europe and elsewhere we should find ways to make practical solidarity with groups like GayRussia and similar organisations.
There will be sessions on gay liberation at the Workers’ Liberty summer school “Ideas for Freedom”, which runs from June 30th to July 1st where we’ll discuss some of the possibilities for such work.