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Fall 2007 | Europe's Crumbling Closet

Fall 2007 | Europe's Crumbling Closet

Gay life is steadily growing in the former Soviet bloc countries, although troubling setbacks and violence threaten progress in these communities.

Pride seasons in recent years in Eastern Europe could hardly qualify as Summers of Love. In 2006 paint bombs and insults were hurled at the second annual pride celebration in Riga, Latvia, while in Moscow, things turned more violent when neo-Nazis began beating up pride participants, including a German member of parliament.

This year police used tear gas against protesters who hurled stones at the annual gay rights parade in the Romanian capital of Bucharest ] as well. Ten countries once firmly behind the Iron Curtain are now in the political arms of the European Union, 18 years after the resounding fall of the Berlin Wall.

While the nations of Eastern Europe have embraced their Western neighbors' economic approach as a way to a prosperous future, they lag seriously behind in their attitudes towards LGBT rights. Major growing pains plague the nascent and fascinating Eastern European gay scene, and traveling through this frontier of gay rights can be an eye-opening experience.

It's difficult to generalize about a group of countries that ranges from Scandinavia-influenced Estonia in the north to traditionally Balkan Bulgaria in the south, and from relatively prosperous Hungary to a still-struggling Romania .

But broadly speaking, the most gay-positive countries are those closest to Western Europe, that is, Hungary and the Czech Republic (Prague actually lies west of Vienna), and the ones that have been part of the European Union for the longest time. For the queer traveler, Budapest and Prague account for the bulk of Eastern Europe's gay scene, and have nearly become been-there, done-that destinations, with well-developed tourism infrastructures, open attitudes towards sex, thriving gay nightlife, and world-class cultural scenes.

Hungary and the Czech Republic have even approved civil unions, as have Croatia and Slovenia. (Latvia is the only country in the region to actually outlaw same-sex marriage.) Next to emerge as players on the gay scene are likely to be Poland and Romania. But Poland, even in cosmopolitan and thriving Warsaw, is not nearly as homo-friendly as its neighbors to the West. The identical twins who rule Poland, President Lech Kaczysnski and Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczysnski, have frequently used homophobia to consolidate their power and enhance their popularity. While Warsaw features gay dance clubs and a countercultural art scene, Robert Biedron, the Polish leader of the Campaign Against Homophobia, is not overly optimistic: "At first I thought that I can make progress. Now I think less and less that I can."

Further out on the fringe of gay rights is Romania, which had its fourth gay festival in Bucharest in June. While homosexuality was decriminalized in 2000 and an antidiscrimination law including sexual orientation was put in place four years ago, there is strong popular feeling against homosexuality, despite some progress. According to pride festival coordinator Octav Popescu, "Although we cannot say that Romania is a friendly country for LGBT people, we've seen more tolerance among young people and more respect for private life." Still, he adds, "The general attitude in society is quite homophobic, especially in the rural areas."

Almost all the capitals of the countries of the former Eastern bloc -- including mother Moscow -- have had their first gay pride marches during the past few years. Many countries have tried to ban the marches, and in addition to virulently homophobic reactions to pride events in Riga, Moscow, Bucharest, and Krakow, the Netherlands had to recall its openly gay ambassador to Estonia last year after he and his Cuban boyfriend suffered verbal harassment and threats.

But there are signs of hope: The European Court of Human Rights ruled earlier this year that Poland's ban of gay rallies in Warsaw in 2005 violated the organizers' rights to freedom of assembly, and the European Parliament will send a fact-finding mission to Poland to see if EU antidiscrimination laws are being violated. This proves that the integration of the former Eastern bloc into the European Union bodes well for the local LGBT population. After all, Europe is arguably the gay-friendliest continent on earth. For that progressive mind-set to flow eastward is just a matter of time.

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Bruce Shenitz