For the second year in a row, gay activists in Moscow have tried to hold a parade to mark the anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia. This choice of date was rich with irony: the outcome was a powerful reminder that decriminalization does not equal tolerance. Once again, as in 2006, the parade was banned by the city authorities, and the people who attempted to protest the ban found themselves on the receiving end of brutality both from a gay-bashing mob and from the police. Alas, this ugly incident is all too typical of the treatment of gays in many post-Communist countries.
The events surrounding the protest in Moscow were a particularly stark example of state-sponsored bigotry. At a Kremlin event in January, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov railed against "unprecedented pressure to sanction the gay parade, which can only be described as satanic," and vowed never to permit such a parade in the future. (For good measure, he added that same-sex marriage and sex education in Western countries were "a deadly moral poison for children.")
On May 27, the day of the planned parade, a group of fewer than 100 Russian activists, accompanied by several European parliamentarians and other foreign supporters such as British journalist Peter Tatchell and pop singer Richard Fairbass, rallied to present Luzhkov with a petition asking for the ban to be lifted. None of the protesters were able to get to City Hall. About 30 were arrested, and the police and special riot forces mostly looked on with indifference as skinheads and other thugs beat the demonstrators and militant Christian grandmas pelted them with eggs. Three of the attackers, including a man who punched Tatchell, were reportedly arrested; mostly, however, the police "protected" the gay activists and their supporters by hauling them away.
Sympathy for the protesters seemed scarce. A 19-year-old Russian college student I met on an Internet forum wrote to me that she was nonplussed by Western condemnation of police actions: "The gay parades are forbidden in Russia and to make them without a permission sounds strange and stupid. No wonder that [the police] have to arrest the members." This logic may tell us more about attitudes toward civil liberties than attitudes toward gays in Putin's Russia; but the young woman's specific comments about gays were telling as well. "You see, the gay prides in Russia don't work not because of government but because of people," she wrote. "The majority of citizens truly despise gays. … I have no idea what will happen if parades become a usual thing in Russia. In that situation gays will be all dead because normal people will just kill them." Ironically, she then added that she couldn't understand what the gays wanted anyway: after all, Russia now has "lots of gay clubs where they can be safe and enjoy their culture."
Such attitudes are fairly typical. Indeed, quite a few Russian gays opposed the push for the parade, fearful of popular backlash. (One self-identified lesbian posted a foul-mouthed rant in her online diary blasting "the fucking faggots" who antagonize the public by insisting on "waving their dicks in people's faces.") An April 2005 poll of 1,600 Russians found that only 14 percent "definitely" supported a law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while another 28 percent were "somewhat" in favor of such a ban. Moreover, over 43 percent said that same-sex relations between consenting adults should be prosecuted while only 37 percent opposed such prosecutions.
Russia is not the only post-Communist country with a gay problem. In Poland, authorities have recently undertaken an initiative to outlaw all discussion of homosexuality in schools, and a high-level official in charge of children's rights, Ewa Sowinska, followed in the footsteps of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell by expressing concern about the sexuality of purse-carrying purple Teletubby Tinky Winky and its possible effects on young viewers.
A few days before his personal experience with homophobia in Moscow, Tatchell wrote about the problem of anti-gay bigotry in Eastern Europe on the blog of the British newspaper, The Guardian. "With the demise of communism," Tatchell noted, "religious fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism are filling the void. Homophobia is the hallmark of these reactionary movements."
But this argument is not entirely accurate. Far from being a new phenomenon in the former Soviet bloc, homophobia was also a hallmark of communist regimes. In the Soviet Union, male homosexuality was punishable by up to eight years of imprisonment; while sodomy laws in American states required proof of specific sexual act, a gay man in Soviet Russia could be jailed if his neighbors testified that he had no female company and frequent male visitors who stayed overnight. Castro's Cuba has been notorious for its persecution of gays.
Why this intolerance in societies where traditional religion with its condemnation of homosexuality held no sway? The reasons are varied. Communist regimes have associated homosexuality with Western bourgeois decadence and individualism, a selfish pursuit of pleasure rather than reproductive service to the collective. It is also likely that the totalitarian suppression of civil society simply froze in place many cultural prejudices that were challenged and reexamined in free societies.
In today's Russia and Poland, conservative religious forces capitalize easily on these prejudices left from an atheistic past. In Russia, resurgent political authoritarianism plays a part as well. As one gay man wrote bitterly in the diary of the Moscow lesbian who lambasted the protest: "The power structure has no use for queers—any vertical power structure. Because they don't fit in and they keep breaking the rules."
Cathy Young is a contributing editor of reason.