Friday, September 27, 2013

LGBT Intolerance in Russia and Eastern Europe: Legacy of State Socialism?

by Caroline M. Wisler

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Dr. Cynthia Buckley’s presentation, “The Rainbow Curtain: LGBT Intolerance in Eastern Europe and Eurasia” is timely considering Russia’s recent legislative attack on gay rights. Russia’s actions contrast starkly to the steps Western European countries and the US are taking toward ensuring equality for same sex couples. While the US has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June of this year, Russia’s new policies allow for the arrest of those suspected of being gay, lesbian or a supporter of those groups. This law applies to both Russian citizens and foreign visitors, a cause for concern with the Winter Olympics scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia in less than six months. During this time, athletes and visitors representing countries
from around the globe and who may identify as a member of these targeted groups could be subject to this discrimination. Other related laws include the criminalization of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships to minors” and a more recent bill proposing the legal removal of children from gay and lesbian homes. While “nontraditional sexual relationships” in this case is defined as any sexual activity that does not result in procreation, it has been made clear that this applies to same sex couples, rather than heterosexual couples who are unable to have children due to sterility or for those heterosexual couples that are no longer able to have children due to age. Other questions in regard to this statement are sure to arise considering, for example, the use of contraceptives in a country with a rapid rise in HIV/AIDS cases since the early 1990s.

Although the legislation described pertains to Russia, this intolerance, according to Dr. Buckley, applies more generally to Eastern Europe where she attributes it to the common history and inheritance of state socialism and the very strong taboos and societal norms mediating sex. As a result of my frequent travels in the region, I can attest to the pervasive intolerance and discrimination that is often encountered within everyday conversation, regardless of how one may identify. Buckley’s comparison of data reflecting responses on the question of equality for same-sex couples from post-communist Eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) to the countries of Western Europe reflect the strong division between these regions on this human rights issue. ILGA-Europe’s Rainbow Map, “reflecting the national legal and policy human situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people in Europe” published in May of this year appears to corroborate this relationship. While these countries may be forging a common path as member states of the European Union, if Dr. Buckley is correct, their lack of shared recent history during much of the 20th century is to blame for their perspective on equality, particularly when concerned with same sex relationships. As Western European countries move ahead to ensure equal rights and recognition to same sex couples, will the presence of a so-called “Rainbow Curtain” grow increasingly perceptible?
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A demonstration against the Gay Pride Parade in Moscow in 2010.  Rather than acknowledge the issue of human rights, rhetoric against equality for same-sex couples reference attacks on religious identity and a concern for Russian children, as illustrated by these protestors. The arguments surrounding children are often linked to declines in Russian birthrate and falling population numbers since the break up of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Buckley suggests that by thinking sociologically about the origins and trends of intolerance, the understanding of current trends and their projection into the future may be improved. In this case, there is reason to be hopeful. The US and Western European countries have changed dramatically on the issue of LGBT tolerance in recent decades, partially due to the expanding roles of youth and greater interaction amongst diverse groups as well as increased access to education and information through online sources. Eastern Europe and Russia, likewise, are not immune to the impact of these influential factors. The first Pride Parade in the city center of Vilnius, Lithuania took place in July, despite efforts to diminish its visibility. This and other events may be good indicators of progress. It may be that the anti-gay legislation institutionalizing discrimination in Russia quickly becomes a thing of the past and Eastern European EU member states will pass laws ensuring the equality outlined in the legally binding EU Charter of Human Rights. Despite such legislative changes, while there are individuals and groups who actively fight against such equality - whether from governmental positions or out on the streets committing violent acts against minority groups - there is much work that still remains on both sides of the so-called Rainbow Curtain for promoting and institutionalizing human rights.


Caroline Wisler is a third year doctoral student in the Department of Landscape Architecture and a 2013-2014 European Union Center FLAS Fellow. She earned a BA in Archaeology and Religious Studies from Hamilton College and MA degrees in Landscape Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Bristol and UNC, Chapel Hill, respectively. 

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