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Monday, November 16, 2015

LGBT Rights: Ukraine inches forward, Russia stays in the dark

Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) has passed a law banning discrimination in the workplace related to sexual orientation. It was the last and most controversial law to pass the Verkhovna Rada for the European Union to formally consider allowing visa-free travel from the EU to Ukraine. 

It wasn’t easy. The bill failed the first two attempts at passage, but the sufficient support needed was eked out on the third attempt. The bill will now go to President Poroshenko’s desk for a signature. 

This is an important step forward for Ukraine in its ambitions to be a part of the European Union. Most of the European Union protects at least some of the rights of their LGBT citizens. 

Unfortunately, what is perceived as an important step towards equality in the countries of Western Europe is considered a sign of immorality and degeneracy in Eastern Europe. Prejudice against sexual minorities is widespread in Eastern Europe, and the Kremlin is an accomplice to this prejudice by passing laws that restrict the freedom of expression to LGBT Russians. Some small political parties have shown their opposition to these laws such as the Yabloko party, which has organized “Russia without pogroms” rallies, comparing the anti-gay laws of today to the violent pogroms against Jews under Tsar Aleksandr III. 

Ukraine is not at all immune to these prejudices. Despite his support of this anti-discrimination law, the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada thundered that same-sex marriage would not ever happen in Ukraine and President Poroshenko, who also supported the bill, also reaffirmed his commitment to “family values”. Indeed, a recent pride parade in Kiev was attacked by Right Sector nationalists and while the police stood firm against the attackers, many participants were still injured in the brawl. 

In Russia, simply being gay is not “illegal”, but the law does very little to protect LGBT Russians. Numerous violent attacks have happened in Russia since the Kremlin implemented a new law against “gay propaganda” under the guise of “protecting families.” This law has led to an uptick in homophobic rhetoric in the Duma, hate crimes that have gone neglected, and other types of discrimination. 

The resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church since the end of communism, once seen as a positive resurrection of ancient traditions stamped out by the Soviets, has also played a role. The Kremlin has used and cooperated with the Orthodox Church  to justify its intolerant attitudes and while Russia is not a terribly religious or religiously homogenous country (many Russians are atheist, non-practicing, or even Muslim), it is still a socially conservative country where distrust of “non-traditional lifestyles” is common. Indeed, the anti-gay laws passed had widespread popular support. 
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, one of Russia’s most famous and influential composers, is widely speculated to have been a gay man, but his sexuality was denied by the Soviets and continues to be denied by the Kremlin today. It’s a move that has infuriated many in the musical community. 

There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding regarding homosexuality in Russia that is evident even with Russia’s president. Right before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, President Putin claimed that gays “were welcome” in Sochi, but asked them to stay away from children, which set off all kinds of outrage.  Immediately, pro-gay press outlets were furious. Some claimed that Putin was implying that being gay was equivalent to pedophilia, and some took it as an implication that gay people were out to poison the minds of children. Both accusations were widely dismissed as absurd and prejudiced. Unfortunately, this attitude is not isolated. The Russian curse word “pidaras”, which is roughly equivalent to the homophobic slur “faggot” in American English, carries an implication of pedophilia as well as it is a near equivalent to the word “pederast”. 

LGBT people are not out to destroy the institution of the family, they want to be included in that institution from a legal perspective. Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law implies LGBT people are trying to recruit impressionable children into some kind of vague sinister organization, another similarly preposterous claim. Sexuality is not a choice as some seem to believe, it is a normal and natural, although fairly uncommon, phenomenon that occurs in animals as well as humans. 

At the end of the day, it should not matter what people do in their personal lives. The rights of all Russians must be protected and upheld. 

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