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Gay Rights Marches Meet Different Fates in Belarus and Cuba

By L.K. Regan

Gay rights demonstrations this weekend have met with widely disparate responses. In Belarus, a gay pride parade was violently suppressed by police. But in Cuba, a street march organized by the daughter of the Cuban president brought hundreds of celebrants singing and dancing through Havana.

Belarus has a history of violent gay pride parades, as the state refuses to grant permission for such demonstrations. This weekend's march was the latest in a sad pattern, with the government first banning the event and then, when it went forward anyway, intervening physically to stop it. Riot police arrived to disperse the dozens of members of Belarusian and Russian gay organizations who bravely gathered in downtown Minsk. News outlets report that police beat participants and threw them down, while Minsk's public relations department says that 10 activists were arrested for "disorderly behavior." If that weren't enough, anti-gay protesters helped out by throwing eggs.

More of the same may be on the agenda for tomorrow, when a Slavic gay pride parade is planned (but not authorized) to take place in Moscow. Police there say that they will interrupt any efforts to hold the gathering. In fact, "Police officers have clear instructions to prevent public order violations, including the holding of an unsanctioned gay parade in Moscow," said Police Maj. Gen. Leonid Vedenov. "They will in line with the law take all necessary measures regarding those who attempt to violate public order," presumably including those who do so by peacefully gathering and waving a rainbow flag.

Got your blood boiling? Perhaps the Cuban example can put this in perspective. In Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s, anyone believed to be gay could be fired from a state job, imprisoned, or even sent to a labor camp. But since the 1980s, and particularly in recent years, that situation has changed, largely thanks to the work of Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro. Mariela Castro is a major force for gay rights in Cuba—she heads the efforts of the National Sexual Education Center, is a strong advocate of gay marriage and adoption, and is an inveterate presence at events celebrating the International Day Against Homophobia each May 17.

This Saturday's parade culminated a week of celebrations and saw hundreds of LGBT activists and friends, along with Mariela Castro herself, moving through the streets of Havana—peacefully, safely, and without police interference. They sang, they played drums, they wore wigs and walked on stilts, and they celebrated both where they have come from, and where they are going. "We have made progress," Mariela Castro said, "but we need to make more progress." Gays in Cuba still feel discriminated against, and pride parades on June 28 are still technically illegal, which is why the Day Against Homophobia has so much prominence there. As part of forging continued progress, the Day Against Homophobia events go far beyond merely marching to include workshops and debates aimed at developing dialogue and strategizing change.

Things are bleak in Belarus and Moscow—but the example of Cuba also shows that change will come, one day at a time.