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BY ROB SALERNO: You could be forgiven for believing that the Czech Republic is some big gay paradise if all you've ever heard of the country comes from Bel Ami videos.

But in reality, the Czech Republic is quite conservative, and one of the biggest controversies going on there right now is brewing between members of its governing rightwing party over endorsement of Prague's first-ever gay pride parade.

Yes, it's 2011 and Prague is having its first gay pride parade.

The Festival of Tolerance happens this week, from Aug 10 to 14, with a march through the city centre on Aug 13. 

Kudos go to Prague's centre-right-leaning mayor Bohuslav Svoboda, who's leant his support and endorsement to the parade and taken a public stand to promote gay rights and tolerance. It's certainly more than right-leaning mayors and other politicians do here.

Unfortunately, Mayor Svoboda's remarks have brought out the ugly in certain parts of Czech society, which, trust me, is really hard to do, given that the incredible beauty of Czech people is about the only thing Bel Ami gets right in its depiction of the country (hot tip: if you pick up a hitchhiker in the Czech countryside, you are far more likely to be robbed than to have a three-way with him Lucky Lukas style).

High-ranking government officials, including the Education Ministry's head of human resources and the deputy head of the presidential office, have written open letters demanding that Svoboda withdraw his support for the event, which Svoboda has refused to do.

"Homosexuals live among us, and there is no point in pretending they don't. Moreover, it goes against my soul to create divisions between people because of their sexual orientation, skin colour or religion. In the past such divisions have proven to be more than disastrous," Svoboda is quoted as saying.

Anteing up on the ugly is the revelation that the Education Ministry official is a member an ultra-nationalist party that has denied the Holocaust, celebrated anti-Jewish pogroms and called for the deportation of Roma to India. Critics have called for him to be fired, but the education minister stands behind him.

Meanwhile, President Václav Klaus also supports the homophobic sentiments made by his fellow partisans. In a statement he released on his website, Klaus wrote, "I also feel no 'pride' about this event. It is one thing to tolerate something, but it is quite another to give it public support in the name of an important institution."

"Prague Pride is not a demonstration of homosexuality but of homosexualism, about which I am very concerned, as I am about many other fashionable -isms. This is also the position I publicly took when I vetoed the law on registered partnerships in 2006."

In the letter, Klaus says he considers the terms "deviation" and "deviant" value-neutral.

In the latest wrinkle, the embassies of Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have all cosigned a letter affirming the right of gay people to march through Prague for the Festival of Tolerance.

"We express our solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the Czech Republic, supporting their right to use this occasion to march together peacefully and lawfully, in order to raise awareness of the specific issues that affect them," the  statement said.

The letter has infuriated the Czech government, which called it "unprecedented" meddling in the internal party debates of a free and democratic country.

Curiously, the letter was signed by the Canadian embassy, so I guess either the Harper government is way more vocally supportive of international gay pride marches than he is of domestic ones, or Foreign Minister John Baird is starting to wield his influence for good. 


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