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Europe

Hurdles Still High for Gays in Eastern Europe

Gays and lesbians in western Europe enjoy legal rights and levels of tolerance that would have been almost unthinkable 15 years ago. But in eastern Europe, hostility and discrimination against homosexuals still run deep.

Gay pride demo in Moscow, 2007

Carrying the torch for gay rights in Russia can be risky

Gay pride festivals dot the summer calendar all across Europe -- from Berlin to Eskilstuna, Sweden, from London to Zaragoza, Spain. These days, the events raise few eyebrows and families often bring their children along to admire men in stiletto heels and boas, or in almost nothing at all.

This weekend, 17,000 people are expected in Stockholm for EuroPride 2008, 10 days of film screenings, exhibitions and seminars and parties. About 100,000 are expected to take part in a parade on Sunday, Aug. 3.

But just a few hours' plane ride to the east of the Swedish capital, the situation is very different.

In May, Moscow's city government tried to ban a planned gay pride march for the third year in a row. The city's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, had once referred to gay rights marches as "satanic."

Volker Beck after being attacked by nationalists in Moscow

Volker Beck after being attacked by nationalists in Moscow

The year before, activists gathered outside Moscow City Hall to protest the government march ban. They were pelted by eggs and assaulted by orthodox Christian and neo-Nazi groups while Moscow police harassed and arrested peaceful demonstrators, including German parliamentarian Volker Beck, who had traveled to Moscow to lend his support and was attacked.

"The difference (between eastern and western Europe) for gay people is sometimes a really depressing experience," said Tomasz Szypula, secretary of the Campaign Against Homophobia, a Polish organization that works for legal and social equality for gays and lesbians.

"Young Polish people travel a lot and they go to places like Spain, where gays can get married and they are no different under the law than other people," he said. "And they come back home and ask 'why can't it be like that here?'"

Lagging in acceptance

While homosexual acts have been decriminalized across eastern Europe, broad societal acceptance of same-sex relationships is often still a long way off. Same-sex marriage is not legal anywhere in eastern Europe; three countries there have instituted constitutional bans. Only Hungary and the Czech Republic have passed legislation giving legal recognition to same-sex couples.

While in the Netherlands, 82 percent of adults favor allowing same-sex marriage, the approval ratings drop off precipitously as one moves east across a map of the European Union, according to a 2006 survey by the European Commission. In Slovakia, it is 19 percent, Poland, 17 percent and at the bottom of the list is Romania, where just 11 percent favor allowing same-sex unions.

Catholic bishops

The Catholic Church in Poland has been a stumbling block for that country's gay rights movement

The reason for that are varied, say observers. In Poland, the strength of the Catholic Church, which frowns on homosexuality, plays a large role in slowing legal progress and acceptance for gays and lesbians.

"Poles are still believers, unlike in many other countries, which makes conservative forces here stronger," said Szypula. "There is no sexual education in schools because of the church, so young people know little about homosexuality besides what they hear on Sunday or on the street."

Countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic did not have strong churches, and among the former Warsaw Pact nations, they had a slightly more western orientation. Therefore, acceptance levels of homosexuality are higher then in places such as Lithuania and Latvia, which were more firmly in the Russian sphere of influence, according to Juris Lavrikovs, communications manager for the Europe chapter of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

"Political elite in countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic have made it very clear, they oriented toward the west, toward the EU," he said, speaking on the phone from EuroPride in Stockholm. "Poland and Latvia are still finding their identities."

Slowly but surely

gay rights parade in Warsaw

Some 5,000 people took part in a gay rights parade in Warsaw in May

Lavrikovs is quick to say while the reports of pride parade bans, hate speech by politicians and homophobic assaults on the streets make headlines, progress is being made, and should not be overlooked.

These nations' joining the EU has already had a measurable affect on attitudes towards gay and lesbians, he said. One EU directive also prevents discrimination in the workplace according to sexual orientation across the bloc.

"By being part of EU, they signed up to a community of values," Lavrikovs said. "EU membership and the new openness help the cause of equality."

He points to the proposed "horizontal directive" currently under debate in Brussels, which would provide protection against discrimination in access to goods and services on the basis of gender and race, disability, age, sexual orientation and religion. That would be a milestone for gays and lesbians in the EU, and send a strong anti-discrimination message to national governments and European citizens. The proposal is controversial in many countries the road to passage promises to be long.

But he, for one, is optimistic that eastern Europe will one day be on a par with western Europe vis-a-vis gay and lesbian rights. Even though, acceptance is anything but total even in the relatively liberal west.

Police block anti-gay demonstrators in Riga, Latvia in 2006

Police block anti-gay demonstrators in Latvia

Three protestant Lutheran churches in Stockholm have been vandalized because of the Church's participation in the gay and lesbian festival the city is hosting. A male gay couple was also stabbed and robbed in the Swedish capital in what police described Monday as a hate crime.

Still, the atmosphere in Sweden and other western European countries is generally much better than in the west, but Lavrikovs said one has to keep things in perspective, especially since eastern Europe did not experience many of the social developments that happened in western Europe for half a century.

"So a lot of things there are happening very fast, including lots of clashes which are quite disturbing," he said. "Society hasn't quite caught up yet, but things are developing."

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