Russia: Exporting Homophobia

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A senior British politician has accused Russian officials of trying to have him removed from his post as the head of an influential parliamentary committee. His crime: being openly gay.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has overseen the introduction of a law banning the promotion of "homosexual behavior," prompting human-rights activists to call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. For Chris Bryant, a Labour M.P., Russian homophobia just got personal.

He says two Conservative M.P.s have informed him of secret conversations with officials at the Russian Embassy in London in which it was suggested that Bryant should be removed as the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia to improve relations between the nations. "The embassy doesn't like having a gay guy in charge of the group. This was a bid to get rid of me," Bryant told Newsweek. "I'm not naive about Russia's position on homosexuality, and they have tried to interfere with British parliamentary democracy before."

The Russian Embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Tatchell, a human-rights campaigner, said that if true it is outrageous that the Russian government would be "exporting its homophobia" beyond its own borders. "They are targeting him because he is gay, just like they target gay Russians. It is an abuse of diplomatic relations and protocols," he said.

At age 51, Bryant has lived through an era of changing attitudes toward homosexuality. But he says what's currently playing out in Russia is the worst he has ever seen.

Three years ago Bryant, then minister for Europe, was in Moscow on an official trip to meet with senior Russian politicians. But when he tried to check in at the hotel, the staff's reaction left him stunned. At first he was told he could not share a hotel room with his partner, though after a sustained argument, the hotel eventually relented and allowed the two to stay together.

"It was a real shock that, in a major hotel chain, in a major world city, we were faced with that," Bryant says. "This is why the Russian government's position on homosexuality is such a pervasive issue."

In an outspoken attack on Russia's attitude toward gay rights, Bryant wrote of the attempts to remove him from office in The Sunday Times, where he also criticized Putin directly. "Some people who are close to me do worry that I take on too many enemies," he told me. "But this must be challenged. I would say their view on homosexuality is straight out of 1549, with a dose of hypocrisy. They're even trying to pretend now that Tchaikovsky wasn't homosexual, and that's quite a difficult argument to make."