Saturday

19th Jan 2019

Opinion

Pride 2016: Let's not turn back time

  • Events in Gdansk showed how fragility of EU progress on gay rights (Photo: Maria Komarova)

The Pride march itself was surrounded by a heavy police presence. At first, the counter-protests were not disruptive; but later in the march a small group found their way down a side street and attempted to run towards us. Then the riot police intervened, arrested counter-protestors and fired tear gas …

In ILGA-Europe’s 20th anniversary year, you would imagine that this is an extract from our archive. During the past two decades, we have made a lot of progress in making sure that people can enjoy basic rights in Europe. In many countries, activists’ agendas have shifted and they are now working to advance other legal and social issues.

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  • Pride marches, as in Amsterdam, should be cherished by European cities (Photo: Bob Lefevere)

But this is not a clip from an LGBTI activist talking about their experiences two decades ago.

This is part of a discussion I had with my colleagues after returning from Poland very recently. It is a glimpse of what the participants in Gdansk’s second-ever Pride march experienced on Saturday 21 May.

Prior to the march, ILGA-Europe had received reports from the Pride organisers that up to 14 counter-protests had been allowed. The local organisers kept us well-informed of the situation on the ground and worked with the city council and law enforcement officials to make sure the event could go ahead.

The local authorities cooperated, although this meant that the counter-protestors were also allowed to protest on the very same square as where the march started. Dozens of heavily equipped police officers separated both groups. It also meant that the march was rerouted and ended in an empty park outside the city centre, to the frustration of local activists.

Shock was not the overwhelming reaction I had. I went home inspired by the courage of our activist friends in Poland, but suffering from an acute sense of deja vu. Why do I get the feeling that we have been here before?

LGBTI organisations have had this conversation with politicians already. Why, in 2016, are we still asking political leaders to take steps to protect basic fundamental rights like the right to peacefully assemble?

The experience of activists in Gdansk is not an isolated incident. The following day, in Chisinau, Moldova, the Fara Frica solidarity march was interrupted by a counter-protest and an emergency evacuation of all participants. My colleague who was in attendance told me: “I never saw such fear in the eyes of police men. They protected us well. But the authorities failed to let us finish the march.”

Still, the march’s duration was longer than ever before and it ended up being Moldova’s most well-attended Pride march. This is testament to the amazing work being carried out by committed LGBTI activists in Moldova, dedication that is replicated all over our continent.

2016 season

The 2016 European Pride season is just warming up. ILGA-Europe has already been working with activists in Istanbul, Kiev and Budapest as well as a few Italian cities to discuss concerns around their marches. In some cases, we even had to provide security training.

Recently, we saw successful Pride marches in Albania, Kosovo and northern Cyprus. We have to give praise to the local politicians who marched with activists; they demonstrated what is possible when there is political will. But, as if from a Cher Pride classic, some politicians seem to wonder: “If I could turn back time…”.

Human rights gains made in the past do not offer guarantees for the future. With populist politicians winning votes across the continent, LGBTI activists need to be more vigilant than ever.

In many places, political support is fleeting. There is a real danger that politicians and institutions are shifting their focus to other issues and are staying away from Prides and other pro-equality events. It feels frustrating. It feels repetitive. Above all, it feels outdated.

In 2016, Europe’s political leaders should be attuned to the fact that peaceful assembly must be protected.

Come to Pride

This is why ILGA-Europe would like to send a reminder to Europe’s political representatives. Their participation in Pride is a symbol of their solidarity, their commitment to protecting fundamental rights, upholding the rule of law and a defence of democracy. We need politicians to march with us. We need institutions to speak out.

The right to freedom of assembly is a vital element of functioning democracies. Freedom of expression is an important element of pluralist societies. For this reason, many politicians have labelled Pride marches as a litmus test for a healthy democracy.

For governments and NGOs in some countries, safe and successful Prides are a part of the general public’s consciousness. They are part of a city’s appeal and a key date in everyone’s social calendar.

In other parts of Europe, policing of the event is not always guaranteed. Some local administrations are openly opposed to public LGBTI events and put logistical hurdles in the way of LGBTI community organisers. These concerns need to be addressed.

ILGA-Europe are hopeful that the 2016 Pride season will be respected in a growing number of countries, both inside and outside the EU’s borders. That is why we are speaking out now, at the beginning of the summer.

The experiences of our friends in Poland, Moldova, Turkey and Italy should remind Europe’s institutions and national governments of their responsibility to uphold and respect fundamental human rights.

If we have to go back to basics to make sure that the next generation of LGBTI activists can enjoy safe Pride events, so be it. But turning back time is not an option.

Bjoern van Roozendaal is programmes director with ILGA-Europe - the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association

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