Though eastern Europe has never been an exemplary model for human rights, the past few years have engendered major concerns for the LGBTQIA+ (LGBT) community within this region. Key political leaders across eastern Europe have chosen to use the LGBT community as scapegoats for underlying societal issues and to bolster campaign platforms to garner the conservative vote. Throughout my graduate studies in International Relations, I have focused on the continent of Europe, and more recently on human rights issues of the LGBT community. As my studies draw to a close, I have combined these areas of interest, which has led to my current research question: What are the driving forces of political homophobia in Eastern Europe in recent years? For purposes of this research, I define political homophobia as the targeting of sexual and gender minorities through rhetoric and/or legislation for political gain. I chose to analyze the trends across three Eastern European countries: Hungary, Poland, and Russia. I deduce that political homophobia is driven by leaders’ desire to uphold traditional values, protect children, and avoid foreign influence.
I specifically chose to examine Hungary, Poland, and Russia for two reasons. First, each nation ranks low to extremely low on the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association’s (ILGA) 2021 Rainbow Europe Report. Rainbow Europe is the ILGA’s annual benchmark tool used to determine the climate for LGBT people in forty-nine European countries. ILGA ranks the legal and policy practices of the countries based on six thematic categories – equality and non-discrimination, family, hate crime and hate speech, legal gender recognition and bodily integrity, civil society space, and asylum for LGBT people. Hungary ranks 27th, Poland ranks 43rd, and Russia ranks 46th out of forty-nine countries (ILGA-Europe, 2021). Second, each of these countries has received large amounts of media attention in recent years for their treatment of the LGBT community. Major human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), journalism giants like the New York Times, BBC News, and Reuters, and other organizations like the European Union (EU) and the European Commission (Commission) have released multiple articles documenting homophobic incidents and legislation in these countries.
Hungary is ranked much higher than the other two countries in this study. According to the ILGA 2021 Index, Hungary has more pro-LGBT measures in place than Poland or Russia, such as protection against discrimination in places of employment, education, and healthcare, and legislation against hate crime and hate speech related to gender identity and sexual orientation. However, none of these are constitutionally protected rights, and there is still no marriage equality, ability for same sex-couples to adopt children, or any recognition of trans rights (name changes, gender recognition, gender confirmation surgery, etc.) (ILGA-Europe, 2021). Furthermore, political homophobia has become been a key strategy for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government, especially since the election for his third term in 2018.
The most notable incident in Hungary is a law conflating LGBT issues with pedophilia. In June of 2021, Orbán added a last-minute change to a bill penalizing child sex abuse. The bill, which increases sentence lengths for people who commit sex crimes against children and creates a public database of sex offenders, was edited to include “the depiction or promotion of homosexuality to those under 18 years of age” as a criminal offense—essentially deeming anyone who shares LGBT-related content with minors as a sex offender (Novak, 2021). The bill also requires that all media depicting gender identity not assigned at birth or queer sexual orientation be identified with a label stating “not recommended for those under 18 years of age” (Novak, 2021). The bill was staunchly criticized by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, but her remarks were met with a statement from the Hungarian government that her comments were ‘“based on false allegations’ and reflected ‘a biased political opinion without a previously conducted, impartial inquiry’” (Erlanger, 2021).
In addition to this legislation, other political leaders have followed Orbán’s lead and committed their own bias-motivated actions. A few notable instances were Előd Novák removing a pride flag from the rooftop of Budapest City Hall and throwing it into a trash bin (Fenyo & Than, 2020) and Dóra Dúró tearing apart and shredding the pages of a children’s book depicting two mothers during a press conference (MTI, 2020).
Poland is the lowest ranked EU country on the ILGA Rainbow Index for the second year running. Poland does offer protection against gender and sexual orientation-related discrimination in areas of employment, and it provides avenues for legal name changes and gender recognition to trans folks, but this is about the extent of protection. Poland offers no legislation against LGBT-related hate speech or hate crimes, gives no recognition of same-sex marriage or civil partnerships, and obstructs freedom of speech and assembly of the LGBT community (ILGA-Europe, 2021).
The two most contentious actions by the Polish government have been the creation of LGBT-Free Zones and the signing of the “Family Charter.” In March of 2019, Świdnicki county designated itself as free from LGBT ideology. Since then, more than 100 municipalities in Poland have declared themselves so-called “LGBT-Free Zones.” Though Poland’s government claims that these declarations are wholly symbolic, the leaders of some municipalities have vocally discouraged tolerance of LGBT people and removed financial assistance for NGOs working with queer communities in the region (Ash, 2020).
The “Family Charter” was publicly signed by Polish President Andrzej Duda of the Law and Justice (PiS) Party during his 2020 re-election campaign. The “Family Charter” pledged to ban public institutions from teaching about LGBT issues and ensure that same-sex couples would not be able to marry or adopt children. Same-sex marriage was already unrecognized and same sex-adoption was not allowed, but the vow to keep the status quo was likely what kept Duda in power—and what has likely continued the spread of homophobia in the country (Reid, 2021a).
Russia occupies a position in the bottom five of the ILGA rankings, a position it has inhabited since the ILGA began the Rainbow Europe project in 2009. At the time of the ranking’s release in May 2021, vague language provided a loophole for the constitutional right to same-sex marriage—but this has since changed. Additionally, there are a few legal measures in place for name change and gender recognition for trans folks (ILGA-Europe, 2021). Outside of this small affordance, the establishment of the gay propaganda law, a rise in violence, and a constitutional amendment have made Russia a hostile place for the LGBT community.
Russia’s public discrimination against the LGBT community began in 2013 with what has been termed the “Gay Propaganda Law.” This law was created to uphold traditional Russian values and to protect children from the promotion of LGBT ideology. This effectively banned “public mention of homosexuality”—which has censored everything from media covering LBGT-related topics to pride marches (Chan, 2017). Unsurprisingly, this law has had a variety of impacts. HRW released an entire study on how this law has impacted and will continue to impact LGBT youth in Russia (Bochenek & Knight, 2018), and the law has been used to target LGBT activists and NGOs working in the region (“Statement” 2021). The SOVA center for information and analysis, an organization that reports on crime in Russia, has also documented a steady increase in crimes against LGBT people for the past 3 years (Yudina, 2021), including the horrific “gay purge” in the region of Chechnya, in which individuals suspected of being LGBT are rounded up, beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed (France, 2020).
Most recently, Russia has made the headlines for its official ban of same-sex marriage. In April 2021, Putin signed a series of constitutional amendments that unquestioningly banned same-sex marriage. In addition, the amendments included the ability for Putin to extend his presidency for another two terms (until 2036), leaving little hope for a change in this policy anytime soon. Putin has infamously claimed that Russia holds a “neutral” feeling toward the LGBT community, yet the current situation shows anything but (Kozlov, 2019).
Trends Across Countries
As I studied the situation for the LGBT community within each of my chosen countries, a few common themes arose regarding appeal tactics in political homophobia. The common themes were leaders using language about traditional values (specifically religious and family values), about protecting children, and about renouncing foreign influence.
One of the primary methods used by political leaders in the three countries was an appeal to traditional values, both religious and family values. In Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán has “portrayed himself as a defender of traditional Christian and national values” (Erlanger, 2021). He and his Fidesz party promote a strongly Christian-conservative agenda, and he has called for European countries to return to Christian roots. In August of 2020, Orbán gave a speech at an event to inaugurate a new WWI monument in which he stated, “‘Western Europe had given up on … a Christian Europe, and instead experiments with a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies’” (Komuves, 2020).
The very premise of the “Family Charter” in Poland is to uphold the traditional family structure. One of the primary sections of the document pledges to “defend the institution of marriage” as a “relationship between a woman and a man” (Reid-Smith, 2020). Duda has not made a direct connection between the LGBT community and the Catholic church himself. However, the archbishop of Krakow has remained a notorious critic of LGBT ideology, calling it a “rainbow plague” more malicious than the spread of communism (Ash, 2020).
Russia is likely the largest protector of traditional values. In fact, most sources referencing Russia’s stance on the LGBT community offer some variation of the phrase, “Russia has positioned itself as the champion of traditional values, both domestically and internationally” (Lang, 2021). According to one Reuters article, “During his two decades in power, Putin has closely aligned himself with the Orthodox Church and sought to distance Russia from liberal…values” (Reuters Staff, 2020). This was clearly reflected in the recent constitutional amendments, which emphasized Russian law over international norms and stressed “a belief in God” as a core value (Isachenkov, 2021). Furthermore, Putin has made clear in other speeches that traditional marriage is between a mother and father, not “what he called ‘parent number 1’ and ‘parent number 2’” (Reuters Staff, 2020).
Protection of Children
The protection of children is an obvious component in all the new legislation passed by the three countries. Orbán and his party have said the goal of the Hungarian law linking LGBT issues to pedophilia does nothing more than defend the children. The Hungarian government said in a press conference: “The recently adopted Hungarian bill protects the rights of children, guarantees the rights of parents, and does not apply to the sexual orientation rights of those over 18 years of age, so it does not contain any discriminatory elements’’ (Erlanger, 2021).
President Duda achieved similar sentiments by signing the “Family Charter” last year in Poland. There is even an entire section of the document entitled “defense of children from LGBT ideology” (Walker, 2020). Other Polish politicians have echoed these views. The Polish Education Minister praised the latter mentioned Hungarian bill stating, “This law states that school lessons touching on questions of sexuality must not promote gender reassignment or homosexuality… We should copy these regulations on Polish soil in their entirety!” (Reuters, 2021). Plus, in an email to Reuters, the Polish Justice Ministry said, “While respecting the rights of people with a different sexual orientation … one should always remember the most important value, which should be the best interest of the child in any society” (Reuters, 2021).
Russia’s gay propaganda law also clearly aims to protect children from the promotion of LGBT ideology. In a court hearing at the European Court of Human Rights, the dissenting judge, Dmitry Dedov, defended Russia’s ban on gay propaganda in this manner:
“The idea that same-sex sexual relations are normal indeed creates a situation where [children] are ready to engage in such relations, just because of the curiosity which is an integral part of a child’s mind… [the ban] had a legitimate aim, namely the protection of public morals…[and] the privacy (including the dignity and integrity) of the children and the convictions of their parents as to how their children should organize their family life.” (Chan, 2017)
The final trend within these three countries is the desire to avoid foreign influence. Hungary and Poland have been known to use nationalist rhetoric, but Russia tends to be the prevailing user of this strategy. In Hungary, for example, Reid (2021b) contends that “LGBT people have been cast as both an internal threat and a foreign influence.” He says that terms like “gender-ideology” have come to signify the Western influence of LGBT ideology that is “construed as a threat to the fabric of society itself.” In Poland, Duda has referred to both same-sex marriage and same-sex couples adopting children as a “foreign ideology” saying, “‘There is no consent for this phenomenon to happen in our country in any way’” (Reid-Smith, 2020; Tilles, 2020).
Russia, on the other hand, has been the most vocal about foreign influence. Russia has long used the rights of LGBT people as “the wedge issue used to undermine the universality of human rights and to position Russia in opposition to the West on the global stage” (Reid, 2017). For example, the new constitutional amendments contain “vaguely worded restrictions on ‘negative foreign interference in the educational process’” (Lang, 2021). Plus, one physical manifestation of this sentiment has been the attack on LGBT human rights organizations. According to HRW, “On November 8, 2021, the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation (MOJ) designated the Russian LGBT Network a ‘foreign agent organization without legal entity’” (“Statement” 2021). One of the MOJ’s “expert” witnesses “falsely claimed [the] Russian LGBT Network was a part of a broader ‘spying network’ and therefore a threat to national security” (“Statement” 2021).
Hungary, Poland, and Russia are just a few of the countries in Eastern Europe that have experienced a rise in political homophobia and, subsequently, fewer human rights for the LGBT community. The trends in pushing traditional values, protecting children, and avoiding foreign influence are only a handful of strategies used to garner support for such movements. The impact is a rhetoric which dehumanizes LGBT-identifying individuals and puts members of the community at risk of violence.
The possible answer to why this is such a strong tactic is summed up well by HRW journalist Graeme Reid (2021b), “LGBT rights are projected as a marker of modernity, a foreign influence, and an assault on the family and tradition. When [leaders] cast ‘LGBT’ as an ideology, not people, it is effective because ideologies seem destabilizing, menacing, whereas people evoke sympathy.” The hope is, thus, that human rights defenders, international organizations, and the international community will set the example by adhering to human-rights principles, maintaining political pressure on these governments, supporting local LGBT-organizations in these areas, and ultimately treating the LGBT community like human beings.
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