In that part of our world called “western” – more a political than a geographical expression – discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities is declining. Liberal democratic states are recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry and are liberating sexual relationships from standard assumptions about reproductive bliss.
The battle, though, is still joined. There may be more acceptance than rejection in the third millennium, but women and ethnic minorities won their battles against discrimination faster than the LGBT community has – in large part because of the venomous mockery and even violence directed at same-sex relationships.
In India, homosexuality is still criminalized, though its Supreme Court, bombarded with petitions, has reluctantly announced reconsideration. China has decriminalized gay activity, but Beijing doesn’t protect LGBT communities from discrimination. In some parts of China, homosexuality is regarded as a deviancy, and thus a mental illness, to be treated.
In Europe, attitudes remain mixed. In Western Europe, even the far right has become more accepting of the LGBT community. Indeed, far rightists are often enthusiastic supporters of LGBT rights, mainly because they see Muslims – their main political targets – as prejudiced against these rights. In the Netherlands, the far right has supported LGBT rights since the time of Pim Fortuyn, the openly gay politician who strongly opposed Muslim immigration. (Fortuyn was assassinated outside a radio station in 2002.) In Sweden, the right-wing Swedish Democrats have organized gay-pride parades and rallies in neighborhoods with large Muslim populations.
In Poland, the power of a conservative Roman Catholic Church remains large. The church is deeply hostile to same-sex marriage, and in the ruling Law and Justice Party, it has a government in tune with its most regressive influences. There is little or no anti-discrimination legislation, sex education in schools paints a negative picture of LGBT relations, and violence and prejudice against the LGBT community is usually unchecked.
Yet here, too, gay life has become more open, at least in the larger cities, such as Warsaw and Cracow. In addition, a party, originally called the Palikot Movement, committed to supporting gay unions won 40 seats in the Sejm (parliament) in 2011. It later declined, but Robert Biedron, an openly gay member of the Sejm until 2014, went on to become mayor of the city of Slupsk, a city of some 100,000 in the northwest of the country. Anna Grodzka, a transgender woman, was a parliamentary deputy until 2015.
The cycle of relative liberalism and relative reaction repeats itself throughout the former communist states of Central Europe, as reflexive homophobia is challenged by both newly empowered activists and official European Union insistence on anti-discrimination legislation. Liberalizing changes are made; conservative governments freeze and sometimes reduce, but do not entirely repeal, them.
That stuttering progress stops at the Russian border. A recent trip to Russia highlighted just how stark is the divide between the Western states and those in which the welfare — and even physical safety — of millions of men and women are at risk because of their sexual orientation.
Homosexuality was banned under the tsars, decriminalized in the first years of Communist rule, re-criminalized under Josef Stalin, decriminalized after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2013, the Vladimir Putin government adopted a law that banned what it regarded as gay propaganda. A new report from the Equal Rights Trust shows how restrictively the law is applied.
Russia, it finds, is backed by the authority of the Orthodox Church in “promoting the alienation of Russia from the intrusive influence of the West” – first among these intrusions being gay rights. Laws and constitutional declarations in favour of human rights are accepted in principle and not applied in practice. Only one region, Krasnoyarsk, has a law banning discrimination.
“There is no clear judicial position on the application of basic rights to the LGBT community in Russia,” the report said, “leaving members of the community with uncertainty in matters which affect everyday lives.” In effect, courts usually find against individuals or LGBT centers that bring a complaint or charge – and many don’t try for fear of the harassment that could follow.
Jim Fitzgerald, the co-director of the Equal Rights Trust, told me that “activists are vulnerable and are faced with two charges: corrupting children and receiving money from the United States. There’s no question on the motives of the propaganda legislation: to identify internal enemies, talking up the threat to traditional Russia – and also, as part of the strategy, to align Russia with many African countries.”
The campaign tactics of the liberal democratic states travel: Their example is copied, if often cautiously. Nor are Western nations monolithic in their progress. Some states in the United States – North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, prominent among them – refused to provide legal protection for and recognize the equal rights of the LGBT community. Many have since backed down, a retreat not so much because of second thoughts on their prejudice, but because several large corporations threatened to move operations out of their states. “A little corporate muscle-flexing can work wonders,” as James Surowiecki wrote on the developments that led some of the states to judiciously reconsider their legislation.
Victories can be sweet, if ironic. The dedicated British-Australian campaigner on LGBT issues, Peter Tatchell, was given an award whose inspiration is in India – the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award. Tatchell has, said the citation, engendered “a greater understanding in the public mind of human rights, and … lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) in particular, (creating) the conditions to allow laws protecting minority groups to be implemented.”
In his years of campaigning, Tatchell has been reviled, spat at and beaten. But he has prompted others, East and West, to join the struggle he has taken care to encourage.