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7 Jan

Volha Charnysh (Belarus)
Transitions Online, 10.10.2014

Whose Freedom?

In his address to the UN General Assembly last month, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei accused the West of depriving Belarus of its “soul” by promoting same-sex marriage. This is nothing new in the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe, where the political and religious rhetoric of “family values” versus “European decadence” is common.

But on the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, the authoritarian regime in Minsk has found unlikely allies among anti-government forces. Even the actors in Belarus striving for a democratic, European future largely fail to support, and often actively oppose, equal rights for sexual minorities.

Opposition groups such as the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party (BCD) and the Young Front are among the most virulent antagonists of the LGBT community. These right-wing organizations have plunged headfirst into the gay rights debate. More liberal entities, meanwhile, seek to distance themselves from the issue, for fear of losing what support they have if they are viewed as pro-gay. But by catering to a homophobic public, they wind up alienating a potential political ally and disconcerting foreign donors.

Even LGBT activists acknowledge the issue can be toxic for opposition groups. In a 2010 survey by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, only 3.4 percent of Belarusian respondents said they viewed sexual minorities positively, while nearly 57 percent viewed them negatively.

The taboo also reflects state policy. Government-run media often portray pro-democracy activists as siding with homosexuals or belonging to sexual minorities.

“The state claims that all pro-European parties support gays, and many opposition parties fall into this trap,” said Natalia Mankouskaya, a member of the board of Minsk advocacy group GayBelarus. Liberal politicians’ avoidance of the issue is especially marked during elections season, she added.

For conservative organizations, there’s no bad time to bring up gay rights, in order to bat them down. Young Front, a pro-democracy youth movement, believes homosexuality “leads to the degradation of the nation,” according to an email from the group. Two years ago the Front ousted several members for criticizing its homophobic stance.

BCD declares that it stands for traditional family values and terms homosexuality a “perversion of God’s commandments.”

“Belarus has enough organizations that are engaged in the protection of rights. The fact that there are separate organizations for gays and lesbians means their true aim is propaganda of untraditional values,” a party spokesperson said in an interview. “Everyone can decide how to live their lives for themselves, but promoting homosexuality is different.”

Katerina Borsuk, a coordinator with GayBelarus, said more tolerant opposition activists are often apologetic in private for not taking up the cause more strongly in public. Gay-rights leaders measure their expectations accordingly.

“We certainly understand this,” Borsuk said. “LGBT activists do not demand anything more than a measured and politically correct attitude on the part of the political parties.”

Only a few pro-democratic organizations have been willing to openly partner with LGBT advocates. GayBelarus cooperates with the Belarusian Green Party and Maladaya Hramada (Young Social Democrats). It also works with less explicitly political pro-democracy groups like the Viasna Human Rights Center, the Belarus Helsinki Committee, and the Belarus Free Theater.

Maladaya Hramada has been particularly out front, hosting educational events about LGBT rights and covering the issue on its website. From 2010 to 2013 the organization was chaired by Julia Mickiewicz, a public defender of gay rights.

Other opposition groups save their expressions of tolerance for a different audience, according to Slava Bortnik, a Belarusian LGBT activist and human rights defender.

“When they’re abroad some opposition leaders declare a commitment to work for equality for all in order to get funding. Returning to Belarus the same people preach the opposite ideas,” he said.

Such foreign criticism may be having unintended effects. Mankouskaya noted that right-wing groups such as Young Front – which is registered in the more sexually tolerant Czech Republic – have done less targeting of LGBT activists lately, but instead direct homophobic statements against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who lives apart from his wife. BCD leader Vital Rymasheuski said in a February 2014 interview with LGBT news site Gay Press that the president “should lead the gay [pride] parade” because “he does not live in a marriage and is therefore no different from homosexuals.”

“Perhaps they have decided that it is safer to talk about Lukashenka rather than LGBT rights activists,” Mankouskaya said. “So now Lukashenka is the main gay in Belarus for not living with his family.”

(In reality Lukashenka remains a proud homophobe. In 2012 he proclaimed that “it is better to be a dictator than gay” in response to criticism of Belarus’ human rights record by Guido Westerwelle, then Germany’s foreign minister, who is openly gay. Since then Lukashenka has repeatedly said that while he can tolerate lesbianism he cannot “forgive” homosexuality in men.)

Perhaps even more troubling is that Western money is spent on state-led campaigns that feed homophobia among the public. For years, fighting human trafficking and child prostitution has allowed Belarus to present itself as a responsible and active member of the international community. But LGBT activists suggest the country’s commitment on this important issue at times leads to denigration of sexual minorities.

GayPress reported in February that Minsk police had recently summoned Borsuk and another LGBT activist for questioning, on the pretext that homosexuals were spreading child pornography online and obstructing an investigation of the issue. And at a press conference this month, Dmitry Tsaiyn, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ anti-trafficking department, stated that 90 percent of pedophiles are homosexuals, without offering any supporting evidence.

“Our valiant fighters for crimes against minors are receiving resources from the West, but their Western donors do not notice that the Belarusian police uses these resources to suppress gay rights,” Mankouskaya said. “I wish Western partners could disabuse our law enforcement agencies from anti-gay stereotypes.”

ALIENATING AN ALLY

With most opposition groups opposing or ignoring LGBT rights, many gay activists are shying away from organized politics, depriving the pro-democracy movement of a natural ally. One example is the dwindling participation of the LGBT movement in the annual Freedom Day parades organized by the opposition on March 25.

In 2012, LGBT groups participated in the parade under rainbow flags, provoking criticism from the opposition and the government alike. The following year the community marched without the flags but still incurred disapproval. This year LGBT activists decided to stay away entirely, said Borsuk, the GayBelarus coordinator.

“We don’t want engage in politics because of the narrow understanding of political activism among our population and the authorities,” she said. “They view it all as a struggle for power rather than civic participation and the desire to fight for freedom and justice.”

Whatever it might mean for the opposition, this outcome serves the interests of Belarusian authorities, who are happy for the LGBT community to keep to itself and stay out of the public square.

While Belarus decriminalized homosexuality in 1994, it has a long way to go toward instituting equal rights. The country’s constitution defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression is not explicitly prohibited under the Labor Code.

Rather, the winds may be blowing in the opposite direction. Belarusian legislators are considered a draft law “On the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development,” which LGBT activists fear will echo Russia’s infamous ban on so-called homosexual propaganda, according to Borsuk.

Still, some advocates say the circumstances for sexual minorities in Belarus are improving culturally, if not legally and politically.

“In the past one could not even imagine adequate coverage of LGBT issues in an independent newspaper, but today the situation is improving,” said Mankouskaya. “The intellectual elite sometimes changes their mind.”

Several prominent figures have recently taken more tolerant public stances on LGBT rights, including Yuri Zisser, the founder and owner of TUT.by, the most popular Belarusian website, and Siarhiej Dubaviec, a well-known journalist and author whose position on the issue has evolved over time.

Borsuk is more pessimistic. “Everything depends on us at the moment – on how professional and persistent we are,” she said, referring to the activist community. “Hoping for changes among other stakeholders is futile.”

Originally published: http://www.tol.org/client/article/24511-whose-freedom.html?print