What's happening to LGBT people in Europe?

Over the period of my internship at GLAAD, I have been tracking and reporting on anti-gay tendencies occurring across Europe with a growing frequency. One week I am reporting on a referendum in Slovakia, where conservative groups, backed by the Catholic Church, attempt to put further restrictions on marriage equality. The next week there are massive protests in Slovenia, where the marriage equality law was just past, with thousands threatening to launch contra-referendum to overrule the new legislation. Growing up in the Czech Republic, a post-communist country in the heart of Europe, I have never experienced open hostility towards the LGBT community. During the Communist time, the state was too busy with political repression to concern itself with policing sexual orientation. While today, public awareness, media attention, and legal improvements are a showing a steady increase. This has often to do more with curiosity than actual sympathy. However, the LGBT community in the Czech Republic has progressed far better than many of its western counterparts. Sometimes, we believe that the way we grow up and the experiences we have encountered must be the standard for everybody else. I thought of Eastern Europe as very liberal and forthcoming in regards to the LGBT rights; I could not have been more wrong. More than 16 countries in Europe and Eurasia introduced anti-gay laws, or restricted marriage to solely between woman and man in the past five years, making my experiences from the Czech Republic the exception.

Concerned with the recent developments restricting freedom of expression and assembly, I began to wonder what is happening to Europe. Was the discrimination and intolerance always the case? Researching and documenting the anti-gay tendencies for the past month I have come up with two major reasons and motivations behind the anti-gay tendencies swiping throughout the European continent. Some of those are limited to the eastern parts of Europe, which even after more than two decades of independence find themselves under the Russian influence, while others happened to be wide-spread and persistent regardless the history or country location.

Reason # 1: Russian influence

Beginning in 2006, Russian regions began to pass local laws banning so called ‘homosexual propaganda’ to minors. The trend continued until 2013, when the nation-wide ban was passed, opening a new, dark chapter in the history of LGBT persecution in Russia and number of nearby countries. The violations of Russia’s LGBT citizens have included multiple bans on gay pride parades, substantial fines to gay rights groups accused of acting as foreign agents, denial of registration to nongovernmental organizations, and regional laws banning the propaganda of homosexuality to minors. The violent attacks on gays or “suspect gays” have become a commonplace. Despite the international pressures, the legislation remains in place, further complicates the lives of LGBT people, and encourages other countries to go along.

Following the Russian example, nine countries have seriously considered or adopted amendments similar to Russian propaganda law in the past three years. Lithuania, one of the three Baltic States and a former Soviet republic of 3.4 million people, which joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, was among the first to adopt the so called "protection of minors" amendment in 2009. Legislation aims to keep information about the LGBT relationships away from children. Since 2009, Lithuania has repeatedly banned gay pride parades, sharing films or giving public speeches with LGBT related content, and gradually introduced new proposals aiming to harshen the existing law. The situation has gone so far that in the fall of 2014, Lithuanian parliament voted on the legalization of hate speech against the LGBT community. The decision has not been reached yet.  The ultimate goal here is to introduce the Russian style propaganda laws, which makes providing and spreading of the information on LGBT community and/or relationships among minors a criminal act. Despite the criticism of the EU, anti-gay attitudes in the country are wide-spread and persistent. Lithuania is being a perfect example of how far the situation can go, if a single anti-LGBT law is adopted. Same as the adoption of anti-discrimination law is the first step towards marriage equality, banning the sexual education to minors is a first step towards the criminalization of LGBT relationships.

The anti-LGBT movement went on to gain further momentum after Russia’s 2013 passage of the national ban, with Moldova secretly passing similar law in July, and Armenia attempting the same in August. Both countries eventually withdrew (in case of Armenia) or overturned (Moldova) the laws to maintain their relationships with the EU. It is important to note here, that in both cases the politicians avoided debating the bill in public, trying to side step the international condemnation. This signals that such countries are aware of the wrongdoing and more importantly it raises concerns of how many other countries were able to or are planning on to slightly change their legislation in favor of homophobic sentiments without anyone knowing or reporting on the manner.

With Moldova and Armenia, unable to push the legislation through, one would hope other countries drop the efforts. Unfortunately this is not the case. The next wave of anti-LGBT policy proposals came only couple months later. 

Propaganda laws were threatened or proposed in Ukraine, Belorussia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan just within the last year. Some of these laws, as in case of Ukraine, were turned down in 2015 due to major crisis with Russia and the pressure from the EU, while others are continuing to advance through parliaments.

When assigning the radicalization of the relations towards the LGBT community in the region to the Russian influence, it is unavoidable to look at the other side of a coin as well. Celebrating great victories in terms of LGBT rights in the west, both in the United States and the European Union, the voices and criticism of the Russian and eastern European approaches towards the LGBT community became louder. As a result, many local people became alienated with the western values. This created a vacuum, or an opportunity, swiftly filled by Vladimir Putin.

In the hands of Putin, western advocacy for LGBT people is being seen as an aggression and an attempt to expand influence. What is worse, this strategy is working. Appealing to the powerful social conservative base, Putin was able to transform LGBT rights into a nationalist issue, with Western promotion framed as an assault on the traditional values. Not only was Putin able to consolidate his stand throughout Russia after the wave of anti-Putin protests in 2012, he provided the means to expand Russia’s influence and to drive Eurasian countries away from the West – something nearly impossible since the dissolution of the USSR.

Reason #2: Right extremism on the rise throughout Europe

A second wave of radicalization of attitudes towards the LGBT community has appeared in the Central and Eastern Europe, in countries who have long been part of the European Union and have been cherishing the individual rights and freedoms for years. Countries such as Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Macedonia have all recently restricted marriage as the union solely between woman and man or adopted laws prohibiting or making it extremely hard to achieve marriage equality in the future.

Conservative groups in Croatia, backed by the Roman Catholic Church, forced a referendum in December 2013 to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman only. Voters overwhelmingly supported the measure (65% of the vote in favor of the referendum), dealing a blow to the liberal government and triggering criticism from the European Union.

Slovakia, as a rather conservative and predominately Roman Catholic country, currently not recognizing same-sex partnerships, and defining marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman, attempted to strengthen the already conservative status quo and make it hard for any progressive legislation in the future in a referendum this February 2015. Fortunately, Slovak people stayed away from the ballots, causing the referendum to fail. However, the referendum, regardless of the results, sets a very wrong and dangerous example, in a region once torn by the nationalistic sentiments. Referenda are not meant to enable the majority to vote against the minority to be deprive of human rights.

In Hungary, the parliament adopted a marriage equality ban in 2012. Proposed and pushed through the Parliament by the extreme right-wing party known as Jobbik, the new constitution makes it very difficult for LGBT people to gain marriage equality in the near future and provides no protection for from unfair dismissal or hate crimes. The support for the political group whose main mission is protection of "Hungarian values and interests" has grown rapidly. In 2007, Jobbik could be dismissed as a marginal group with no parliamentary representation. Today, Jobbik is the nation's third-largest political party in the Hungarian Parliament. What is even more alarming, when Jobbik ran for the European Parliament in 2014, it based its campaign on explicitly anti-LGBT platforms. To be more concrete, Jobbik printed posters featuring a blond woman with a Hungarian flag standing opposite drag Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst with an EU flag, along with the caption: “You Choose!”

For somebody who was born in Central Europe like myself, it is fairly difficult to see any Russian influence behind these changes in attitudes towards the LGBT community. After the fall of the communist regimes, Russia's attempts to maintain influence in the region have always produced only limited results. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, as all the former Yugoslavian Republics, remain committed towards their NATO and EU memberships, while strengthening their energy supply independence (region's dependence on Russian energy has always been a great weapon in Russian hands). Therefore, the radicalization of attitudes towards the LGBT people in Eastern and Central parts of Europe, cannot be blamed solely on Russia and its propaganda law.

When searching for the roots of intolerance in Europe, one has to consider the economic situation. Ever since the recession unfolded in Europe in 2007, the liberal parties began to lose ground to the right wing conservative movements, a trend not limited to Eastern and Central Europe, but rather widespread across the continent. In the 2014 European Parliament elections, the far-right parties doubled their numbers to hold around 20% of seats. Parties like France’s National Front, Britain’s UKIP, or Hungary's Jobbik party discussed above, have all won pluralities in their countries. Despite the fact, that the results were driven by economic frustration, parties who gained support and influence, tend to push forward conservative policies negatively effecting LGBT people and other minorities.

Moving back to my initial question whether the discrimination and intolerance in Europe we are witnessing today has always been the case or whether we are facing a new phenomenon, I must conclude, the anti-LGBT tendencies were always present in the region. They were marginalized and kept quiet during the times of expansion and growth, but the economic crisis has accelerated their strength. The European Union, which requires a certain human rights baseline from its member states, is rather unpopular, and rising homophobia can be understood in this context. For political parties who are on the search of a scapegoat to explain or rather to move attention away from the rising government deficits and high unemployment, the LGBT communities and other minorities, make perfect targets.