There is a gale of reaction against lesbian and gay rights blowing across eastern Europe that should be of concern to anyone who is committed to a Europe of openness and inclusion.
There have been attacks on the rights of gays and lesbians, with violence at or bans on, lesbian and gay pride events last year in Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Russia, Moldova and Romania. These attacks have been led by right wing and Christian forces and given credibility at some of the highest political levels. The prime minister of Poland has asserted that: “the affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization,” the president of Poland that, “if that kind of approach to sexual life were to be promoted on a grand scale, the human race would disappear” and the mayor of Moscow has stated that homosexuality is “satanic”.
The strong and public stance of the mayors of Paris, Berlin and London at the conference of the mayors of the four largest European cities on Wednesday against bans on lesbian and gay pride marches – and our explicit disagreement with the mayor of Moscow on this matter – indicates the importance of international co- operation to build alliances. The stance taken by Berlin, London and Paris was widely reported in the Russian media – aiding the struggle for gay and lesbian rights in Russia.
It is important that a fight back against this is mounted with clear declarations that such bans and statements are unacceptable. I note that the Russian government has recently stated that blanket bans on gay pride marches are not correct – all citizens have the right to peaceful demonstration and it is the responsibility of the police to take reasonable steps to protect citizens from violence. This must not remain mere words but must be implemented in practice by explicitly accepting the right of gay men and lesbians to stage gay pride and other peaceful demonstrations.
The concerted attack on gay and lesbian rights in a series of east European countries is fed by diverse currents. In Moscow, the Russian Orthodox church, the chief rabbi and the Grand Mufti all supported the ban on the gay pride march with the main role, due to its great weight in society, being played by the Orthodox church.
Some, such as Peter Tatchell in his comments on last year’s ban on the Gay Pride march in Moscow, have presented this reactionary attack as instigated by the Muslim leader the Grand Mufti and supported by the chief rabbi with the Orthodox church responding to this.
But, given the relatively weak influence of Islam in Moscow and eastern European society, such an emphasis is frankly wrong. In reality, it is mainstream Christian religious leaders and secular politicians who have taken the lead in attacking lesbian and gay rights. In this, it is quite true to say that they have also been supported by figures like the Grand Mufti and chief rabbi in Moscow but these by themselves are quite insufficient in power to drive such campaigns. In his most recent statement emphasising the central role of such forces as the Orthodox Church and ultra- nationalists in Eastern Europe Peter Tatchell accepts this reality – which is welcome.
This will be a long and hard struggle. Rainbownetwork.com reported of last year’s lesbian and gay pride in Tallinn, Estonia “At last weekend’s gay pride march around 15 people were injured after being attacked by groups of skinheads with sticks and stones while celebrating the country’s third gay pride event.” Lesbian and gay Londoners raised this issue with my office and we issued a statement in support of the pride event and opposing its harassment. This was met by the Tory chair of the London assembly, Brian Coleman, complaining that this meant I cared “more about Estonian Gay Pride than he does about Londoners.” The reality is that even in our own continent, where it might have been believed homophobia had been defeated, forces of reaction are stirring.
This reactionary wave has to be opposed on its own terms. It is a European problem, not one imported by “alien,” “un-European” or “jihadist” elements. It arises from and is led by traditional right wing European forces. Similarly in the United States it is the Christian right that continues to lead the fight against lesbian and gay equality – as the comments of televangelist Jerry Falwell quoted in the Guardian Diary today and blaming September 11 on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays” confirm.
The events in eastern Europe dispel Islamophobic rhetoric that it is Islam per se that threatens gay and lesbian rights. Regrettably, the positions of the fundamentalist wing of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious organisations are all reactionary on gay and lesbian rights and all equally to be opposed.
Ken Livingstone is mayor of London