An iron fist in a pink velvet glove

The EU authorities are using accusations of homophobia as another stick with which to beat ‘backward’ Poles and Russians.

Emily Hill

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Topics Politics

On Sunday, Peter Tatchell, the prominent British-based gay rights campaigner, was attacked and arrested in Moscow.

Tatchell and a group of high-profile European activists – including German MP Volker Beck, Italian MEP Marco Cappato and, er, Richard Fairbrass of pop band Right Said Fred – were trying to hand a petition to the mayor of Moscow, which requested permission to hold a Gay Pride march through the city. The police, however, ‘allowed gangs of neo-Nazis to infiltrate [the] group’, says Tatchell: ‘They started attacking people in an absolutely shocking way. The police stood and watched while people punched me, knocked me to the ground and then kicked me. Eventually the police arrested me and let my neo-Nazi assailants walk free.’ It was, Tatchell concluded, ‘the second worst beating of my life’ – the first being his assault at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s bodyguards in Brussels in 2001 (1).

The Moscow authorities’ suppression of the Gay Pride parade is an outrageous assault on freedom of association and the right to protest. And no person should ever be attacked on the basis of his or her sexuality. However, there is also something troubling in Peter Tatchell’s and his European compatriots’ lecturing of Russians and Eastern Europeans about their backward, gay-hating ways. Western activists, frequently backed up by EU officials, now hector Easterners for being unenlightened and not gay-friendly enough. It is true that in Russia, where homosexuality was decriminalised 14 years ago, gays do not enjoy the same ability to express themselves publicly as do gays in Western Europe. But it is highly unlikely that Westerners arriving to lecture Russians about gay rights will do anything to help gay people in that country. On the contrary, it might even set back the cause of gay liberation in Russia and elsewhere in the East.

Before he went to Russia, Tatchell outlined precisely what he expected to find there. In the countries of the ex-Soviet bloc, he wrote on the Guardian website, ‘unreconstructed puritan communists have joined forces with ultra-nationalists, neo-Nazis and religious fundamentalists to orchestrate a homophobic backlash against the claims of their lesbian and gay citizens for equal rights and non-discrimination’. That sounds pretty awful – and yet Tatchell seems to believe that holding Gay Pride parades can help to put paid to this rather tyrannical-sounding state of affairs. He argues that staging Gay Pride gatherings in the former Soviet-ruled nations is significant, not only for gays, but for all Easterners. ‘The significance of the struggle to stage Moscow Gay Pride extends beyond the lesbian and gay community. While it shows the fragile, precarious state of gay human rights in President Putin’s Russia, it also signifies the flawed nature of post-communist governance.’ Thus, says Tatchell, Gay Pride activists can be seen as fighting back against the oppression of gays and also Eastern backwardness in general. (2)

Yet the idea that the pinnacle of gay rights is a Gay Pride march is bizarre. It also projects a very stereotyped picture of gay people. There are hundreds of thousands of gay people in Britain, for example, and most of them have no interest in going on Gay Pride parades. Some gay rights activists seem to have abandoned the argument that gay people should be treated normally and equally, like any other person in society, in favour of pushing the idea that gay people must be ‘out and proud’ on the streets – that is, they should be seen as different. The activists who went to Russia were not really campaigning against the illegality of being gay (homosexuality is no longer illegal there). Rather they were effectively campaigning for the right to be camp in the streets: to wear spandex and glitter and to grind to the sounds of Kylie, to have an attack of the vapours over Eurovision-style choreography in a Muscovite bar.

Of course, if any person wants to do that kind of thing, he or she should be free to do so without the threat of physical harassment. Yet some gay rights activists from London and Paris and Berlin seem to be trying to impose their own views of the gay life on to very different societies. Go to Moscow (as I have done) and you will notice that the people who wear very bright clothes are generally not Russian; it’s just not their style. It is one thing to offer solidarity to gay groups in Russia and elsewhere who are demanding equality – it is quite another thing to bring over shallow Gay Pride ideas, which have their origins in San Francisco and London, and to argue that those who do not accept them are somehow morally suspect.

Behind the fuss over the Moscow Gay Pride parade there lies a more worrying phenomenon. Increasingly, EU ministers and gay rights activists are giving credence to a new European divide based on the politics of sexuality. Western Europe is seen as being enlightened because it treats gay people well, while Eastern Europe is publicly denounced and ridiculed because it is judged to treat gay people badly. So for Tatchell, the suppression of Gay Pride parades speaks to a broader backwardness in the East. He says that Russia, Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova are failing to ‘move towards modernity, tolerance, progress and human rights’, as evidenced by their ‘unreconstructed’ view of homosexuals. This is about more than handing a letter to one reactionary mayor in Moscow – it is about indicting entire swathes of Europe for failing to be European enough.

Officialdom is getting behind the campaign to label large parts of Eastern Europe as homophobic. On 26 April, the EU parliament issued a resolution condemning homophobia, ‘notably in Poland’. If you listened to the debate that led to the passing of this resolution, you would think that the EU parliament was setting out to prevent a new Holocaust. Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament Socialist Group, said of homophobia in the East: ‘What had caused the European catastrophes of the First as well as the Second World War, but above all, the catastrophes of fascism and Stalinism too? Hatred of minorities, a racist feeling of superiority, the exclusion of people who did not conform, the disabled, those of different sexual orientation, people who could be stigmatised as enemies, in order to channel general discontent and direct it on to scapegoats, those who came from somewhere else, who took our jobs. I do not want to repeat all that here, you already know it.’ Here, the East is seen as being on a slippery slope to a fascistic past; it is the old prejudice about Easterners being politically volatile revisited in gay-friendly lingo.

Of course, the Polish parliament’s proposed bill to ban the discussion of homosexuality in Polish schools, if it passes, will be a violation of free speech. And the investigation by the Polish authorities into whether the children’s TV show Teletubbies is too gay for children (due to its inclusion of a handbag-carrying ‘boy’ Teletubbie, Tinky Winky) is ridiculous. But these measures hardly justify talk of a toxic hatred in the East that might lead to a new Holocaust. What really seems to lie behind the concern about Polish attitudes to homosexuality is concern about Poland in general – about whether it is civilised enough to be part of the EU, and about whether it can be trusted. As the website of the European Parliament Socialist Group admits, ‘[The] parliamentary debate on homophobia in Europe is expected to provide many MEPs with a further opportunity to condemn the Polish government’s actions’. This looks like Pole-bashing dressed in the cool, bright clothes of Gay Pride demands.

One Polish MEP, Urszula Krupa, expressed her concern about how the ‘good name of Poles’ is being ‘tarnished’ as the European press continues ‘accusing them of xenophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia simply because the majority of my compatriots believe in God and uphold traditional values’ (3). We’ve had the prejudice that says Eastern Europeans are thieves, gangsters, beggars; now we have a new prejudice that says Eastern Europeans are not tolerant enough.

These days Western fears about Eastern Europe are everywhere – from rumours of human trafficking to middle-class horror stories about botched bathroom refits to tabloid outrage at Eastern block-voting in the Eurovision song contest (as Terry Wogan claimed, ‘We may have won the Cold War, but we lost Eurovision’). Whatever the intentions of the gay rights activists who went to Moscow at the weekend, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that European governments and much of the European media are drawn to the idea that Easterners are homophobic because it gives them yet another stick with which to beat our Eastern neighbours. This could actually have a dire impact on gay communities in the East. The implication is that they should align themselves with enlightened activists from Western Europe rather than making the case for equality amongst their own communities. This treats gays in the East as lost children who need to be looked after by Westerners, and it can only cause further divisions within Eastern societies: when gays in Poland, Russia and elsewhere are encouraged to side with enlightened Westerners against their own ‘unreconstructed’ and ‘extreme’ countrymen, then they run the risk of feeling even more like outsiders in their own countries.

The best thing would be to stop lecturing Eastern Europeans about their alleged moral inferiorities, and let gay communities there find their own ways to win the argument for equality and fair treatment – just as gays in the West have done.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill criticised the trend to diagnose speech as sickness and reviewed a sermon on Brokeback mountain. Tessa Mayes explored the new morality of ‘outing’. Nathalie Rothschild attended a queer rally. Maria Grasso thought censorship was so gay. Or read more at: spiked issue Liberties.

(1) It was the second worst beating of my life. Luke Harding, Comment is Free

(2) The Pride of Eastern Europe, Peter Tatchell, Comment is Free

(3) See Increase in racist and homophobic violence in Europe (debate), European Parliament website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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