Title: Tim Barnett in Poland and Russia Credit: Rainbow Labour MP Tim Barnett Features Tuesday 27th February 2007 - 12:00pm1172530800 Article: 1606 Rights
Catching up with local gay activists and senior politicians, Rainbow Labour MP Barnett had a busy and thought-provoking time in Warsaw and Moscow. Tim Barnett We can learn much from contrasts (and similarities) between societies. In the first few weeks of this year I was privileged to see just what this can mean for gay people living on the other side of the world. Lesbian, gay and other queer people don't ask for much in society. The great majority of us want the chance to live and love in peace. We are a spiritual people, and have a strong devotion to community. When we are accepted for who we are, we are often devoted to our birth families. And to the families which we build around us. Unhappily, few countries attempt to guarantee us this degree of peace. In January this year I was fortunate enough to visit Poland and Russia. In each place I found the time to make contact with gay activists. The story they told was compelling. In both countries gay sex is decriminalised. In Poland there are also constitutional protections from discrimination. In Russia “membership of a social group” is grounds for protection, but has never been tested in relation to queer communities. In both countries our basic existence is tolerated, although strong fascist movements and a deeply conservative dominant religious movement (Polish Catholicism, Russian Orthodox) put real limitations on that. Luckily, both countries are members of the Council of Europe, meaning that their citizens have access to the European Court of Human Rights. And, looking back in history (which many homophobic movements are most unwilling to do, for good reasons!), both countries had cities, notably in Warsaw (Poland) and Moscow which, a century and more ago were major centres of liberal thought, including a relaxed attitude to gay culture and life. That is where the similarities end. Poland is now a member of the European Union. To get that membership they had to prove that they respect the freedom of their peoples and have in place effective protection from discrimination. (If only Pacific states had to do the same to be part of some of our regional organisations!). Poland is keen to show the rest of the continent that it is a modern and relaxed place. Russia is heading in a very different direction. After the heady days of free thought and vibrant growth of social movements, especially under Yeltsin, the system has returned some of the way back to the old, more closed way of doing things. Voluntary organisations with an agenda to change things are regarded with suspicion, and open gay activity is seen (as in Communist days) as a distraction to the direction which Government wants society to take. In 2006 there were gay rallies held publicly in both Warsaw, the Polish capital, and Moscow, to celebrate the fact of gay organisations and remind wider society that our physical invisibility does not mean that we do not exist. In both cases they were banned by the Mayors and Councils of those cities, because (allegedly) they could offend against public morals. (The fact that the Mayor of Warsaw at that time is now the deeply conservative Prime Minister of that country has added over time to the impact of the Polish incident). Both bans have led to complaints to the European Court of Human Rights (on the basis of denial of the right to free expression) which are winding through the system. In Poland the lesson has been learned, and from my experience that country is slowly and surely advancing along the road to tolerance and acceptance. Not so in Russia. The same rally was recently announced again for May this year – and immediately banned again by the Mayor of Moscow. When I was in Moscow in January of this year (as part of an official delegation from our Parliament led by our Speaker), we had a chance to meet a group of the most senior women politicians in the nation. I raised the issue of the basic rights of gay and lesbian people, knowing that in our politics women politicians have (with the odd exception!) led and strongly supported moves for our freedom. The response was immediate and hard line – in summary, Russia is a country which respects strong families, and homosexual people don't fit in with that. Decriminalisation is tolerated, but any attempt to express ourselves openly is opposed. Over a lunch after the meeting I argued long and hard with the Chair of the Russian Federation Council (Senate) Social Issues Committee. She was unbending; every stereotype about us was dredged out. “If we let them have a rally, they will strip to their underpants and start kissing each other”. In contrast (but touching on the same fears), lets turn to my home city of Christchurch. On February 3rd two women, out on their first date, were thrown out of a city centre bar for kissing on the dance floor. The media comment was immediate and (generally) on their side. The human rights complaint process rolled into action. A few days later queer community members gathered to demonstrate outside the bar. Neither the Police nor the Council tried to stop them. The right to exist. The right to express ourselves. We take it all for granted, even if we use those treasured freedoms only occasionally. It is important to remember that, worldwide, we are the exception rather than the rule. Rainbow Labour MP Tim Barnett - 27th February 2007    
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