Pride Retrospective: the U.S. Helsinki Commission Should Engage

Baltic Pride

photo: Associated Press

It’s common to think of Pride-related events as celebrations of gay and lesbian diversity, and indeed of community. Certainly that’s the spirit that pervades the Pride season in major U.S. cities. But Pride events in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region often carry a more basic message: that gays and lesbians deserve the same rights and privileges as any other people. And that message is not, of course, always welcome.

This as in past years, Pride events were a source of controversy, even hostility, in much of the east European region. In Poland and Croatia, anti-gay protesters disrupted parades – and while police generally sought to protect Pride participants, many observers saw the response in Croatia as inadequate to the task. Permits were denied in St. Petersburg. In Moscow, Russian security forces detained Pride marchers, ignoring the right of free assembly that the Russian constitution ostensibly protects.

While the State Department rightly protested Russian actions, the U.S. Helsinki Commission was silent.  A bipartisan Congressional panel, the Commission traditionally has been a fierce advocate of protecting and advancing what we see as fundamental freedoms, including the rights to free speech, peaceable assembly and freedom of expression. However, the Commission took no public stand against the abuses witnessed in this year’s Pride season, nor did it publicly commend those governments that properly sought to protect these basic rights.

Speaking loudly to broad principles but remaining silent when those principles are not applied – in this case, to gay people – is an all-hat-and-no-cattle approach that undercuts our county’s foreign policy credibility. It hollows out the bipartisan U.S. foreign policy priority of developing a greater understanding that countries which respect and protect their citizens’ rights are, in fact, our best partners in enlarging the boundaries of freedom and prosperity worldwide. And it undercuts U.S. leadership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where America’s voice has been crucial in forging a better transatlantic understanding of the democratic rights and obligations that governments must protect.

That OSCE leadership can be regained if, over the next nine months, the Commission finds ways to advocate that the rights of gay and transgender people must be protected, at Pride events and beyond. Through briefings or hearings, public statements and private communications to OSCE partners, the Commission can make clear that the civil and human rights of LGBT people are no less important than those enjoyed by any other segment of the population. In this way, the Commission can convincingly reassert fundamental U.S. principles while establishing its own relevance to some of the most active and fractious battles for human rights in the world today.

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