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Source: Rosanna Sibora / www.youthphotos.eu
Homosexuality was already legal in Russia in 1917.

Riga, July 2006: anti-gay protesters attack a church service celebrating gay pride.

Warsaw, March 2007: the Polish government proposes legislation to "punish anyone who promotes homosexuality" in schools.

Moscow, May 2007: a gay rights demonstration is banned by mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who calls it "satanic."

After events like these, it's no surprise that Eastern Europe doesn't have a great image when it comes to gay rights. When the Iron Curtain disintegrated in 1989, it seemed that many cultural divides remained between East and West - and one of these was the apparent contrast between Western sexual liberality and Eastern homophobia. But has it always been this way? And is there really such a clear division between sexual freedom in Western Europe and restrictive attitudes in the former Eastern bloc?

In fact, homosexuality was originally legalised in the Soviet Union well before it became acceptable in the UK or Germany. When the October Revolution toppled the Czar in 1917, the new Socialist government was eager to modernise Russia in every way. This included abolishing anti-homosexual laws in an effort to depart from the bourgeois conservatism of western capitalist countries. In the Russia of the 1920s, homosexuality was seen as a medical anomaly rather than as a crime, and some doctors even praised the so-called typical lesbian character traits as socialist virtues: the exemplary socialist woman was active, tough, masculinised and wanted to work. Meanwhile, in London, over 80 men were arrested every year between 1922 and 1927 for homosexual solicitation.

Over the 60 years which followed, societies changed dramatically both in the East and in the West. Stalin banned homosexuality, and in the Soviet Union and ex-Soviet states such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Ukraine and Belarus, this ban wasn't lifted until the 1990s. Even now, homophobic prejudice makes the former Soviet states difficult places to live for homosexuals: for entry into the EU, it is obligatory for countries to legislate against homophobic discrimination, but attitudes are slow to change. In Estonia, for example, homosexuality has been legal since 1992 and some forms of discrimination are banned, but only 21% of people support same-sex marriage and 14% support adoption by gay couples, compared with an EU average of 44% and 33%.

But is there an Iron Curtain between sexual self-determination and homophobic prejudice in Europe?

In fact, the true picture is more complex. The extremes of liberality and sexual conservatism in Europe are roughly where we might expect: the countries most tolerant of different sexual orientations are generally in Scandinavia and Benelux, with the Netherlands becoming the first nation in the world to grant legal recognition to same-sex marriage in 2001. And some of the most intolerant countries are former Soviet states. In Latvia and Belarus, homosexuals are banned from military service, and a survey conducted in 2002 found that 47% of Belarusians questioned thought gays should be imprisoned.

In between these extremes, things get more confused. One of the most tolerant countries in Europe is the Czech Republic, where homosexuality was legalised in 1962 (before the UK, Germany, Austria, Spain...). 52% of Czechs surveyed in 2006 supported same-sex marriage, a figure which contrasts strongly with attitudes in neighbouring Poland and Slovakia. Meanwhile, several western European countries are still conservative and reactionary when it comes to homosexuality. Ireland only legalised homosexuality in 1993 and still hasn't granted legal recognition to gay relationships or allowed same-sex couples to adopt; in Greece the police are allowed to insist that gay men be tested for STDs against their will, and homosexuals are banned from military service. Many countries to the west of the old Iron Curtain have been slow to change: Austria didn't legalise homosexuality till 1971, and still lags behind the Netherlands and Germany when it comes to gay marriage and adoption.

So what does this show? Why is Czech Republic so tolerant of homosexuality whilst its neighbours are still prejudiced? And why has the UK become so much more sexually tolerant than the Republic of Ireland in the last forty years? Czech liberality and Irish, Polish or Belarusian prejudice suggest that a strong Catholic or Orthodox Christian tradition and a politically-influential Church often go together with homophobia, whilst secularism is frequently (though not always) connected with tolerance. Far fewer Czechs than Slovaks are religious, and the increasing liberality towards homosexuality witnessed in the UK in the last few years has corresponded with increasingly empty pews on Sundays. On the other hand, there is no "one size fits all" explanation for the striking variations in European attitudes to homosexuality. The Baltic states have a much weaker Christian tradition than Poland or Belarus but are still a long way from sexual tolerance, whilst Spain's Catholic culture (90% of the population are baptised in the Catholic Church) has not stopped it leading the way in celebrating sexual diversity in recent years.

However, these contrasts do show that the myth of a clear mental border between "Eastern Europe" and "Western Europe" is an over-simplification, in questions of tolerance as in many others. The Czech Republic may have experienced communism, but Czech culture probably has more in common with that of Germany than with that of Russia. And conversely, the countries west of the old Iron Curtain aren't always the bastion of sexual tolerance and liberality we might hope for.

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