Europe’s image of tolerance doesn’t extend to gay rights

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Vadim’s brilliant white groom’s tuxedo matched both his smile and the outfits of his friends as they gathered along Berlin’s famed shopping street, the Ku’damm, and waited for the uberfestive annual gay pride parade to begin.

But if the attire of the Russian men hinted at global progress in what many here believe is the civil rights effort of this era – gay and lesbian equality under the law – their words and placards told a very different story.

Vadim, 36, and tellingly afraid to give his real name for fear of reprisals back in Moscow, admitted that his costume was just as much a fantasy as those of the men down the street dressed as unicorns.

“Back in our country, homophobia is law,” he explained. “Our struggle isn’t about the right to marry. Right now, we’re focused on the right to state our case without violating the new laws against gay propaganda.”

Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage were widely interpreted last month in the United States as ushering in greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in American culture . But in Europe, even as the British Parliament approved gay marriage on Tuesday, attitudes toward gays and lesbians are decidedly more mixed. Two countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, legalized gay marriage a decade ago. But elsewhere the approach toward gays and lesbians is far less tolerant.

In Russia last month, President Vladimir Putin signed a law that imposes a $3,000 fine on people advocating for gay and lesbian rights – including the right to marry. The legislation passed 436-0 in the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament.

“It’s not about imposing some sort of sanctions on homosexuality,” Putin said. “It’s about protecting children from such information.”

In Poland, Lech Walesa, whose stand for workers’ rights galvanized his nation’s battle against communism three decades ago, recently suggested Poland’s two openly gay politicians should be put “behind a wall” in Parliament. Macedonia has seen a series of violent attacks on gay and lesbian individuals and organizations. Germany this summer rejected a move to grant gay couples the right to adopt children and hasn’t moved forward on same-sex marriage, though the Bundestag, the German equivalent of Congress, has approved civil unions. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party opposes same-sex marriage.

In Britain, the House of Commons’ approval of same-sex marriage sends the bill to Queen Elizabeth II for approval – a formality.

Meanwhile, France – after months of sometimes violent protest – passed a same-sex marriage bill in April; the aftermath was tumultuous. In May, Dominique Venner, a well-known French historian from the far right and a fierce opponent of gay marriage, wrote a blog entry about its legalization: “New spectacular and symbolic actions are needed to wake up the sleepwalkers and shake the anaesthetized consciousness. We are entering a time when acts must follow words.”

Not long afterward, he walked into Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral and, in front of 1,500 witnesses, shot himself in the head. Soon afterward, Marie Le Pen, a National Front leader and France’s most famous member of the far right, said Venner’s suicide was “obviously a gesture of positive despair” and was “aimed at waking up the people of France.”

The people of France were awakened a couple weeks later, when, amid continuing high tensions over the legalization of gay marriage, leftist protester and student Clement Meric was beaten to death by far-right skinheads. While the cause of the attack is unknown, it has been tied to gay marriage in the public mind. Again, thousands took to the streets to protest, though this time against hate groups. Recently, France officially banned three far-right groups because of the incident.

Peter Tatchell, who’s been involved in the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in England since 1992, noted that “despite often violent protests in France, it’s important to remember that the opponents are in a clear minority.”

He called the movement “an unstoppable European and global trend. Same-sex marriage is the moral and political equivalent to the worldwide effort to get women the right to vote.”

Italian gay and lesbian rights activist Imma Battaglia isn’t so sure that an effort that has never really gotten started in her country can be called unstoppable.

She points to online maps showing the status of same-sex marriage laws that have far more turf where nothing is happening than where there is progress.

“In Italy, the debate is very strong, but the result is nil,” said Battaglia, who is also a Rome city councilman. “Nothing changes, not for 20 years has anything changed. Everyone talks, but it’s a big talk show, nothing more.”

Even Germany, long thought to be culturally open, has been slow to open to efforts to grant gay couples the same status as opposite-sex ones. Eva Henkel, a board member of a leading German gay rights group, notes that the courts and popular opinion appear to be ahead of the current political will on the issue.

“The courts have made it clear they see very little difference between heterosexual marriage and gay civil unions,” she said. “Of course, we’re not to equality yet, but there is progress.”

Germany has an openly gay foreign minister, and Berlin’s mayor famously outed himself before his first election in 2001 by announcing, “I am gay, and that’s a good thing.”

Yet this summer, after a high court ruling that gay couples in civil unions deserve the same tax benefits as married straight couples, Norbert Geis, a member of the ruling Christian Democrat coalition in the Bundestag, said “the sanctity of marriage is diminished.”

His views on adoption also were thought to reflect the view of Merkel’s party, which had opposed the defeated adoption laws. “Homosexual parents are not natural,” he said. “Parents are a father and a mother. That’s the way it is.”

Volker Beck, a Green Party member of the Bundestag, says that sort of attitude is the reason gay marriage is important and that civil unions are a poor substitute.

“There is a difference in ‘getting married’ or ‘getting registered,’” he wrote in an email.

When a form asks for civil status and a person checks civil union, “Your sexual orientation is always immediately revealed to anyone: your employer, your church, officials etc.,” Beck noted. If the form merely asked if one were married, nothing more could be inferred.

“In a world where homophobia is still at large, it still can be necessary to conceal your sexual identity or at least be able to decide for yourself whom to tell,” he said.

By Matthew Schofield for the Tribune, July 16th 2013: