Eastern Europe and the LGBTQ+ Community: What Now?

Although same-sex sexual activity is legal in all 51 European member states, the countries in which same-sex marriage is illegal are all located in Eastern Europe. 

Illustration Credit: Alicia Cookson

One of the worst European countries for discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is Poland. A key example of this are the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’.

As of April 2020, 100 municipalities (about a third of Poland) have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. These areas describe themselves as ‘against LGBT propaganda’ and ‘pro-family’. This creates what human rights activists describe as hostile spaces for those who are not heterosexual or committed to the so-called ‘natural family’.

Local authorities in these areas pledge to refrain from acts that encourage tolerance of the LGBTQI+ community. They avoid providing financial assistance to non-profit organisations working to promote equal rights.

The Atlas of Hate was created by activists Pawel Preneta, Paulina Pajak, and Jakub Gawron. The map indicates regions which have either adopted (red) or rejected (green) the ‘anti-LGBT declaration’. The areas in yellow are where lobbying activities are being conducted by right wing groups for the adoption of the declaration.

As highlighted by a Channel 4 report, the areas are not obvious on the ground. To make the oppressions clear, pro-LGBTQ+ activists have begun to signpost the areas. They are often tipped off to the authorities and leave quickly through fear of arrest.

On 18th of December 2019, the European Parliament voted 463 to 107 in favour of condemning the ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland. The European Parliament demanded that the “Polish authorities condemn these acts and revoke all resolutions attacking LGBT rights”. Since then, nothing has improved; instead, there has been an increase in the number of zones.

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) is one of two treaties forming the constitutional basis of the European Union. Article 19 states that the Council, with the consent of the European Parliament, “may take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”.

Activist groups are now calling on the European Parliament to do more to combat this issue.

In absence of significant pressure, the issue in Poland remains. In 2007, the former Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, argued that “widespread homosexuality would lead to the disappearance of the human race.”  

The current leader of the ruling national-conservative, Christian democratic, populist Law and Justice party (PiS), Jaroslaw Kacynski, has famously warned, “Hands off our children!” This statement has been said to imply that ‘LGBT ideology’ threatens the morality and health of young Poles. In the PiS manifesto, defence of supposedly Christian principles is a key promise.

On the other hand, in February 2019, newly elected Warsaw Mayor, Rafal Trzaskowski of the largest opposition party, Civic Coalition, adopted an ‘LGBT Charter’ promising to combat discrimination against the vulnerable LGBTQI+ community.

After his election, ‘anti-LGBT propaganda’ became more prevalent. In March, some municipalities surrounding the capital started to pass anti-LGBTQI+ resolutions, while PiS ramped up its anti-LGBT messaging.

Many of the local councillors supporting the resolutions are PiS members. Statistics from Balkan Insight show that almost 60 per cent of PiS councillors supported ‘anti-LGBT’ and ‘pro-family’ resolutions. Most of the ‘LGBT-free zones’ are in the south east of the country where Catholic conservative views are strongest.

In the recent presidential election, in which PiS-backed current President, Andrjez Duda, won, PiS chose to present it as “a choice between the white-and-red Poland represented by the current president and a rainbow Poland [of Trzaskowski]”.

The discrimination is not going unnoticed. In an open letter to the Polish president, Jewish community leaders in Warsaw drew a parallel with the situation to attempts encouraging antisemitic hatred prior to the Holocaust.

In the Rainbow Europe Rankings (ILGA), Poland is positioned 42nd of 49 countries. The index is determined using a range of factors including equality, family issues, hate speech, legal gender recognition, freedom of expression and asylum rights. Poland, however, is not alone in witnessing the rise of discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. Countries in Eastern Europe dominate the bottom half of the rankings.

Many of those campaigning for equal rights in Europe have dubbed this ‘an iron curtain’. In 2019, Adéla Horáková, an advocacy director at the Czech group ‘We Are Fair’, said at the annual ILGA conference: “While life for [the LGBTQI+ community] isn’t perfect on either side of the [former] curtain, in none of the eastern European countries can they get married, [and] in none of them can same-sex couples jointly adopt children.”

In June, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance specifically called on Ukraine and Albania to give more legal protections to members of the LGBTQI+ community. In late May, Hungary’s far-right government outlawed modifying the listed gender on official papers.

According to Putin, Russia needs to “cleanse” itself of gay people. In March, his government proposed a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to between a man and a woman.

Across many Eastern European countries, pride marches are routinely disrupted or banned from going ahead. In 2011, Budapest Pride was prohibited as it would “hinder the flow of traffic.” Turkey, who banned gay pride marches in 2015, prosecuted people last year for violating the ban.

Many from these countries flee and attempt to seek asylum in countries such as Austria and Belgium. However, according to NBC News, the system is flawed, and applications are often rejected.

All these examples accumulate to one thing: discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community.

In research conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Central and Eastern Europeans are more likely than West Europeans to view religion as a central component of their national identity. A deep-rooted allegiance to religion could explain why Eastern European countries are failing to adopt measures to protect LGBTQI+ people.

Throughout the centuries, the words of St Paul (Romans I: 26-28) and narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis: 18-19) have been used to condemn same-sex practices. Eastern European leaders tend to believe homosexuality clashes with discourses of national identity.

Unlike in Western Europe where nations emerged out of largely centralised states, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe formed communities from large multi-ethnic empires.

Countries in Central and Eastern Europe have a strong belief in collectiveness as well as an extended kin group. This group is united by shared biology, culture and history.

Given their emphasis on a shared bloodline and common descent, order can only be maintained by naturalising the patriarchal family and having associated public and private roles of both men and women. This ensures ethnic continuity, internal homogeneity and a clear distinction from the supposed wrong and immoral.

Protecting vulnerable LGBTQI+ people in Eastern Europe is not as simple as introducing new laws; it requires a fundamental change in the beliefs and ethics of the population’s themselves.