October 10, 2013

On October 11 National Coming Out Day will be celebrated in many countries of the world. That day gives lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people an opportunity to talk about their coming out. Their stories might inspire others who are still in the closet, to open the door and make a new start in life without hiding their sexual orientation or gender identity.

As a young boy, growing up in the Netherlands in the seventies, it was not easy to find a suitable role model, an inspiring and respected gay man who publicly talked in a candid and serious way about his homosexuality. In fact there were no such role models to look up to. Surely I could have used such an example, and my parents as well, when I finally came home and told them about my sexual orientation. They did not even know an openly gay person and feared that my life was ruined.

I was reminded about the loneliness before my coming out when the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, addressed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on October 1. Members of the parliament questioned him about the anti-gay propaganda law that prohibits speaking publicly in a positive way about homosexuality when children are involved. The Duma speaker defended this law (which targets "non-traditional" sexuality, code for LGBT people) by claiming there is no discrimination against LGBT people in Russia. The description he gave of the freedom Russian LGBT people enjoy is chilling.

"We have many successful individuals who have a non-traditional sexual orientation in the areas of business, culture, and the arts. Such people have the right to vacation anywhere. In Moscow, there are even gay clubs. I have never been to one, but I have been told that these people feel quite comfortable in them and can have a good time."

OK, so Russian LGBT people have the right to vacation anywhere and can meet each other in Moscow in a gay club, but are not allowed to express their sexual orientation in public. According to the speaker, Russian children have to be protected against positive information on homosexuality as such information is considered harmful homosexual propaganda.

This argument has been rejected by the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters, known as the Venice Commission. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe. The commission directly challenged the argument that the anti-gay propaganda law fell within Russia's discretion to protect morals or public health, finding that it was not necessary in a democratic society to pursue these aims. As the commission concluded, "It cannot be deemed to be in the interest of minors that they be shielded from relevant and appropriate information on sexuality, including homosexuality."

The Russian authorities ignore that children also have the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds to develop their identity and assess their health and sexuality. This includes information about homosexuality. This right is protected by article 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Already in 2002 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticized British legislation prohibiting teaching about homosexuality in schools. The committee concluded that the state needed "to provide adequate information and support to homosexual and transsexual young people." And the committee advised the United Kingdom to repeal the law that prohibited information about homosexuality to minors. Subsequently, the law was repealed.

The anti-gay propaganda law in Russia frustrates a serious celebration of National Coming Out Day. If an LGBT person would speak out in public about his or her coming out, he or she would face the risk of being fined. Foreigners who do the same can even be detained, fined, and then deported from Russian soil. The horrendous situation in which LGBT people find themselves in Russia nowadays is showcased by a new law proposal that has been introduced in the Russian Duma. It aims to change the Russian Family Code and takes away parental rights of a parent who raises a child while in a "non-traditional sexual relationship." If enacted, this might lead to authorities knocking on the door of gay parents and taking their children away. The law has not been approved yet in a final vote, but the mere contemplation of it shows how determined the Russian authorities are to push Russian LGBT people back into the closet.

The anti-gay propaganda law and the law proposal to strip parents from their parental rights are clear violations of the human rights of children to freely access vital information on their health, their sexuality, and their identity as well as the right to be raised by their parents in a safe environment without interference of state authorities.

National Coming Out day is only one day a year. In Russia there is an urgent need to celebrate it every day.

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