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Fleeing Homophobia

Latest update : 2008-01-09

Hostile skinheads, unsympathetic police and uncomprehending families can make life difficult for gay men and women in Eastern Europe.

Couples like Micha (pictured above) and his partner Harut have gone West. As a sort of coming out, it was more public than most.  Micha Meroujean, 35, had come to his native Armenia for the first time in 12 years, accompanied by his partner Harut.
 
Neatly turned out in matching black trousers and white shirts, the pair could have been mistaken for tourists as they posed for photos last July outside Echmiadzin, a monastery near the capital city, Yerevan.
 
But the couple had other ideas.
 
Flanked by a small group of friends, they entered the cathedral, where they conducted a brief "marriage"  ceremony amid the building's 7th century splendour, ending with an exchange of rings.
 
For Micha and Harut, a French-Armenian originally from Beirut, holding a guerrilla-style gay wedding at a church in one of eastern Europe's more conservative countries was a risky enterprise. But even they could not have anticipated the fallout when an Armenian tabloid newspaper got wind of the story.
 
"It was a big, big scandal,"  Micha says. "They had clerics coming on local television, priests saying it was an abomination."
 
The publicity caused ructions within his own family. Micha's mother, who had come to terms with her son's homosexuality, was told flatly by her brother-in-law that he wanted no more contact with her as a result.
 
By this time, Micha and Harut were back home in France.
 
No Longer a Crime, but…
 
Their experience underscores the prejudice gays and lesbians still face in many eastern European countries. Micha admits things have changed in Armenia since homosexuality was decriminalised there in 2003, but he says homophobia remains endemic.
 
It was the reason he left the country in 1994, eventually seeking asylum in France.
"I felt I had three options: the first was to get married, the second was to lead a secret life, the third was suicide,"  Micha says. "I chose a fourth - to leave the country."
 
The indications are that many gays and lesbians in conservative eastern European countries are doing the same.
 
The Brussels-based International Lesbian and Gay Association, or ILGA, says it regularly receives requests for information on seeking asylum in the EU. Many of those queries come from countries such as Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, where gays and lesbians face constant prejudice. A large proportion of Belarusians, for example, still believe homosexuals should be imprisoned.
 
"We constantly get reports of violence," says ILGA programs director, Maxim Anmeghichean. " People going to cruising areas getting blackmailed by police, even shot at."

Go West, Young Man!
 
In recent years expatriate gay communities have sprung up in some of the more liberal European capitals. A large gay Russian enclave, for example, is already well established in Berlin.
 
Moscow-based gay rights campaigner Nikolai Alexeyev says most gays and lesbians who leave Russia head for the EU.
 
"In countries like Germany and the United Kingdom, it's easier to integrate, legalise your status and stay permanently," he says. " Many people would love to do this, but it depends on the capabilities of the person. Most are not seeking asylum though. People might look for partners abroad and try to emigrate that way."
 
Homophobic violence remains a problem in Russia, which decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993. The closeted lifestyles of many gays and lesbians mean attacks often go unreported.
 
However Alexeyev says attitudes are slowly changing.
 
Gay Pride in Moscow
 
The turning point may have been this year's first ever Moscow gay pride gathering, which went ahead in May despite a ban imposed by the city's mayor. Alexeyev, one of the main organisers, was arrested as a small group of gay activists trying to lay flowers near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were confronted by skinheads and Orthodox Christians.
 
The incident has helped to put homophobia on the agenda in the Russian media. Senior figures in the Russian Orthodox Church are showing signs of compromising on their hardline stance, and surveys suggest the public is  slowly becoming more tolerant.
 
An independent poll commissioned this year by GayRussia, the human rights project Alexeyev leads, showed the percentage of Russians supporting criminal prosecution for homosexual acts down six percent on the previous year to 37.4 percent. But he says things need to go further if those who have left the country ever want to come back.
 
"The problem is that the situation in Russia is not dramatically bad and yet people are still leaving, because they think it's more tolerant and safer elsewhere," Alexeyev says. "But I don't think the situation will change so greatly in the next 10 years or so that people will want to return."

Date created : 2006-12-01

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