Gay Pride and Freedom of Assembly

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the banning of several Gay Pride marches in Moscow contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. (Alekseyev v. Russia).

The Court found that the actions of the Government of Moscow in blocking gay pride parades constituted a breach of Article 11 of the Convention, which guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The Mayor of Moscow, in particular, had vigorously opposed the marches, instructing his officials to do everything in their power to prevent them from taking place. The mayor's office thus refused permission for a march in 2006, in 2007 and again in 2008. It cited public order concerns, as well the need to protect the health, morals of society and the rights and freedoms of others. It also noted the risk of riots and counteractions directed against the parade participants.

The mayor, though proclaiming his alleged tolerance of private conduct, noted "that 99.9% of the population of Moscow supported the ban." He relied in particular on the opposition of the major religions in Moscow. His main concern was with the public 'promotion' of homosexuality:

That’s the way morals work. If somebody deviates from the normal principles [in accordance with which] sexual and gender life is organised, this should not be demonstrated in public and anyone potentially unstable should not be invited.
The Court ruled that by refusing permission, the Muskovite authorities had infringed Article 11. The virulently anti-homosexual motivation in so doing was clear, a motivation that led the court also to find a breach of Article 14 (discrimination in the application of other Convention rights). No sufficient justification had been demonstrated to uphold such treatment:

The mayor of Moscow, whose statements were essentially reiterated in the Government’s observations, considered it necessary to confine every mention of homosexuality to the private sphere and to force gay men and lesbians out of the public eye, implying that homosexuality was a result of a conscious, and antisocial, choice. However, they were unable to provide justification for such exclusion. There is no scientific evidence or sociological data at the Court’s disposal suggesting that the mere mention of homosexuality, or open public debate about sexual minorities’ social status, would adversely affect children or “vulnerable adults”. On the contrary, it is only through fair and public debate that society may address such complex issues as the one raised in the present case. Such debate, backed up by academic research, would benefit social cohesion by ensuring that representatives of all views are heard, including the individuals concerned. It would also clarify some common points of confusion, such as whether a person may be educated or enticed into or out of homosexuality, or opt into or out of it voluntarily. This was exactly the kind of debate that the applicant in the present case attempted to launch, and it could not be replaced by the officials spontaneously expressing uninformed views which they considered popular. In the circumstances of the present case the Court cannot but conclude that the authorities’ decisions to ban the events in question were not based on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts.
The decision of the Court, notably, was unanimous.

The Court's verdict underlines long-standing jurisprudence to the effect that one cannot ban something simply because society might find it challenging, distasteful or upsetting. There would be no point in securing freedom of expression and assembly simply for those matters of which the majority in society approves or for opinions and perspectives that are non-controversial.

Gay pride parades may not be everyone's cup of tea (or, in the spirit of diversity, coffee). Even within LGBT communities, there is some debate as to their utility (though Dublin's Gay Pride parade draws 10s of 1,000s onto the streets - notably, last year, the Lord Mayor of Dublin was in attendance). That said, for a community that 364 days of the year remains largely invisible to mainstream society, Gay Pride can provide a vital opportunity to raise awareness and promote visibility. That opportunity is all the more crucial where even in large, cosmopolitan world cities, gays and lesbians remain oppressed.

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