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Homo Exodus

A deathly silence: Droves of Eastern European gays and lesbians are fleeing discrimination and persecution.
Never before has the European Union seen one of its prime ministers publicly denounce a homosexual parade. “It is unacceptable for sexual minorities to organise such a march in the heart of Riga,” stated Aigars Kalvitis, Latvian prime minister, in July, 2005. His comments were directed at the planned Gay Pride Parade and many groups chose to stand behind the politician. Juris Lavrikovs, Latvian gay activist, relates the situation: “Before the demonstration, a hysterical campaign took place from the direction of those antagonistic toward gays, directed by the Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant churches as well as ultra-national right-wing organisations.” The march was banned by the city council; Finally, a judge overturned decision, allowing it to take place.

“As we made our way, thousands of people started chanting homophobic slogans and lifted placards reading such things as ‘The homos are fucking our country’ or ‘Your rights stop there, where my arse begins!’, ’A march of shame!’,” remembers Lavrikovs. The counter-demonstrators had put themselves in the way of the march, formed a human chain, or sat down in the middle of the street, in other words, did everything to stop the demonstration. As the police did nothing to protect the marchers, the parade was dissolved quickly. “They threw eggs and tomatoes at us and even used tear gas. Eventually, we were forced to flee into a church,” so Lavrikovs. At least none of the demonstrators were severely injured.

More serious was the end of a homosexual demonstration in Russia in May, 2006. The government hadn’t sanctioned the demonstration and thus violated international agreements. When the organisers took the streets anyway, they attracted the attention—and hate— of thousands of nationalists. “Moscow is not Sodom!” or “Homos out of Russia!” were two of many slogans and at the harmless end of the scale. Boris, a security agent, was quoted saying “One should simply kill off the gays.” While the police tried to push the hordes of skinheads back, a small group managed to break through the lines and attacked the demonstrators. Two of the injured were German Green Party MeP Volker Beck and Pierre Serne, a militant environmentalist. Both had travelled to Russia to support the local gay movement.

The situation in Latvia and in Russia are no exception in Eastern Europe. A majority of the Belarusian population present hostile views towards the growing movement for homosexual rights: “47 percent of Belarusians would like to see homosexuals put into prison,” says Svyatoslav Sementov, active member of the Vstrecha organisation. He deduced the statistic from a study by the Belarusian League for the Equality of the Sexes.

Organised religion has not helped alleviate the situation in Eastern Europe. Pope Benedict XVI had, in his time as cardinal, publicly expressed views opposed to homosexuality. “The legal structures beneficial to the creation of homosexual cohabitation are contrary to good reason.” He called on Catholic parliamentarians to openly make their opposition to such laws known. Today’s pope sees homosexuality as an “anomaly”: a ‘sin’ that ‘violates rules of chastity.’

The Catholic church’s radical position regarding homosexual practices has found large following in Poland’s political elite. Polish politicians have even turned the heat up a few notches when it comes to homophobic statements and policies. “If one person tries to infect another with homosexuality, the state must intervene and take measures to prevent this attack on personal freedom.” – Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, former prime minister.

2006 saw a high official of the Education Ministry suspended from his duties for distributing ‘Compass,’ a pamphlet printed by the European Council intended to sensitise youths to the problem of discrimination. His successor, Teresa Lecka, lost no time in positioning herself: “Homosexuality is not in accordance with human nature [...]. We will not tolerate this indecent behaviour in our schools. The aim of a school must be to differentiate between good and evil, between the beautiful and the ugly [...]. The school must explain that homosexual practices invariably lead to drama, emotional emptiness, and degeneration.”

In the run up to an ‘Equality Parade’ in Warsaw, Polish parliamentarian Wojciech Wierzejski called for physical violence against gays and lesbians: “If the perverts are so keen on marching, we should beat them up with clubs.” According to Amnesty International, a march near Poznan led to a confrontation between militant supporters of the homosexual movement and the neo-fascist Allpolish Youth ‘Mlodziez Wszechpolska,’ the official youth organisation of the governing party Liga Polskich Rozdin. Some members of the Allpolish Youth called for the extermination of gays and lesbians. Shouts could be heard, calling for ‘gas the gays’ or ‘we’ll do the same to you as Hitler did to the Jews.’

Considering the hostility emanating from society, Eastern European gays face high hurdles if they choose to live their sexuality. Statistics elicited by the ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) as to the percentage of gays and lesbians in the ten new member states of the European Union make clear that up to 50 percent emigrate. The effects of discrimination can be felt in the family, at school, at work, in the military, but also in hospitals or in church. More than 40 percent have experienced bullying and more than one in five have been the victims of physical violence. 25 percent of homosexuals in Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia stated that, after reporting violence to the local police, these refused to cooperate.

In the majority of Eastern European states, violence against homosexuals is not the exception. Homophobia is rooted deeply in the institutions of police and army. An ILGA report quotes a young Romanian: “During my military service, I was raped by three of my officers [...]. After they were done introducing me to ‘the pleasures to serve,’ they obviously decided to teach me a lesson in sex as well.”

Whoever is now giving Eastern Europe a disapproving look should remember that times in which public expressions of homophobia were common in Western Europe more recently than one would like to think. In 1960, a representative of the government in French parliament, Paul Mirguet, held a clearly homophobic speech: “I think it’s pointless to hold long discussions, as you are all aware of the scourge called homosexuality, a scourge we must protect our children from.” Around that time, the parliament voted to introduce a new category in criminal law: “scandalisation in the form of an unnatural act with a person of the same sex.”

“Until the end of the 1970s, the media and the public silenced this topic to death,” remembers anaesthetist Jean-Michel Bonnet, who comes from a small, French provincial town. He has joined 46 percent of French homosexuals and moved to Paris. Bonnet, in his mid fifties, joins his compatriots on the high end of the income scale. “If I wouldn’t have been gay, I’d probably still be living in the country,” he muses. “Homosexuality used to be a totally taboo topic.” Only at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s some interest groups – notably the Emergency Committee against the Suppression of Homosexuals – started garnering public interest for the movement. “When I moved to Paris from the country, we lived like the first Christians, with special codes and meeting points. Our bars all had tinted windowpanes.”

Over the course of the last two decades, everything has started moving. From the decriminalisation in 1982 to the solidarity pact in 1999, the situation for homosexuals in Paris has continually improved. “In the meanwhile, Paris has the Marais-quarter and a gay mayor. There is a noticeable feeling of normalcy in the air, which is very comforting for me. But one must remain watchful. A minority is always a minority. And one just needs to look what is happening in religion’s name to understand that this situation is not a given,” so Bonnet.

Even if homosexuality is increasingly accepted by family and friends, life is still not easy for gays and lesbians. Young French homosexuals between the ages of 16 and 39 are 13 times likelier to commit suicide than heterosexuals in that age group. The French homosexual movement is pushing for an improvement in the legal status of homosexual couples. Areas such as marriage, adoption, taxes, inheritance, and policies concerning the uniting of families: many sources of discrimination still exist. “The next big step would be an equal legal status. The fact that I’m gay is a private matter, like religion or eating habits.”

Bonnet confirms that, in his daily routine, he no longer feels discriminated against. He wishes that homosexuals from the former Eastern Block could soon say the same. He is hopeful, though: “Eastern European countries are just discovering their many facets, be it in religious or sexual matters. If you travel to Prague these days, you see many positive changes. One doesn’t have the feeling it’s all that different from Paris anymore.” The Parisian wants the fight in the name of homosexuality in Eastern Europe to continue in joint campaigns: “Get involved! Unite! Exchange ideas! Travel to the West! And, most importantly: Europe provides a chance - so go ahead and take it!”

Author: Etienne Deshoulières

Photo: Joab Nist

Translation: Adam Chrambach

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