Eastern Europe was once a world leader in gay rights. Then he ran out of scapegoats

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Pál lives in Budapest with her husband and young son, and says Hungary has made great strides in LGBTQ rights over the past two decades. He feels that society is becoming more and more open and tolerant of him and his family, which makes his life considerably better.

“Maybe I live in my cute little bubble,” Pál said, “but what the government is doing is completely against society.”

Experts and human rights activists say Orbán hopes to score political points and divide his opponents before next year’s elections. Many Hungarian opposition parties have united in an attempt to defeat the longtime leader, but LGBTQ rights remain a major sticking point within the group.

“They [the government] trying to pit society against each other, ”said Luca Dudits, communications officer and board member of the Háttér Society, a Hungarian LGBTQ rights group.

“The first social group they used as a scapegoat, as a public enemy, were the Roma people, and after that came the refugee crisis of 2014, which they again used for their own campaign of political fear… and since then they have waged a campaign against the EU and against [George] Soros and they have the anti-homeless law – they have targeted vulnerable and marginalized social groups[s] one after the other.”

Hungarian parliament passes anti-LGBT law ahead of 2022 elections

Dudits said the Hungarian government was trying to portray LGBTQ people as “pedophiles and abnormal citizens”.

Orbán’s Fidesz party added the latest proposal to a separate, widely supported bill that strictly penalizes pedophilia, both it is much more difficult for opponents to vote against and confuse pedophilia with LGBTQ issues.
Hungary’s new law has sparked a new wave of international protests and criticism, including several strong statements from the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the new law a “shame” which goes against EU values, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “Hungary does no longer has its place in the EU “.

Disturbing pushback

Human rights activists and watchdogs say the move is just the latest example of a deeply disturbing setback against LGBTQ rights, not only in Hungary and Poland, but around the world.

“There is a real regression that is happening in many different countries, and rights that had been recognized are now being questioned,” said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay Association. , bisexual, trans and intersex (ILGA). .

Participants march under a rainbow flag during the Warsaw Gay Pride Parade through the center of the Polish capital on June 19, 2021.

Yet Paradis said this reaction is not limited to the LGBTQ community. “The movement that attacks women’s rights, LGBTI rights, sexual and reproductive rights… they have become much more present, resourced and active across Europe,” she said.

Paradis added that different countries are experiencing distinct versions of this tension around gender, identity and sexual freedoms. In the UK, for example, this focuses on transgender rights, while in the US reproductive rights are under threat, she said.

“You could call it an attack on sexual progressivism, it is happening all over Europe, in Latin America, in the United States,” said Agnieszka KoÅ›ciaÅ„ska, visiting professor of anthropology and ethnology at the University of ‘Oxford.

Kościańska said that one of the reasons the problem is more pronounced in Eastern Europe is the complicated history of the region.

Orbán, like the Polish government and some other countries, tries to present homophobic policies as a way to protect national values.

Arriving at an EU summit last week, Orbán defended Hungary’s new law. “It’s not about homosexuals, it’s about children and parents,” he told reporters, adding that he was a “freedom fighter” during the Hungarian communist era.

Experts say this is not just a European phenomenon. Helen Touquet, chair of European values ​​at the University of Antwerp, said nationalist and far-right movements are often associated with anti-LGBTQ sentiments.

“In order to establish your identity and the supremacy of your people, you have to define who your people are, and one of the ways to do that is to show what you are not … Refugees, people LGBTI and trans women, they are small communities, they are easy to scapegoat and show your own patriarchal values, ”said Touquet. She added that the idea of ​​nation is often closely associated with a traditional family and families. gender roles – another way to ‘different’ the gay community.

The rainbow curtain

There are also deeply held beliefs at play. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that there is a clear divide between Western Europe and the post-Communist bloc when it comes to attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. While the majority of respondents in all Western European countries support same-sex marriage, the majority in almost all Eastern European countries – with the exception of the Czech Republic – oppose it.

Jacob Poushter, Pew’s associate director for global attitudes research, said the divisions are sharp – and deepen as one moves from west to east.

“You have places like Germany, France, Spain where 85% or more say homosexuality should be accepted by society and then once you cross the line, the other side from the old Iron Curtain, those numbers start to drop pretty quickly and then drop even lower as you enter Russia, ”he said.

According to Poushter’s research, 47% of Poles and 49% of Hungarians say that homosexuality should be accepted. In Bulgaria, this figure drops to 32%. In Russia, it’s 14%.

This East-West divide is clear. Earlier this month, 17 of the 27 EU leaders wrote an open letter criticizing Hungary’s new legislation. Apart from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, all the other ex-communist countries refused to sign it.

Yet there was a time when Eastern Europe was ahead of the world in terms of accepting the LGBTQ community – at least on paper.

“When you look at the former Eastern bloc, these countries had a long tradition of really progressive legislation towards LGBTQ rights, Poland for example decriminalized homosexuality in 1932, which is really, really early,” he said. declared Kościańska.

Dudits said Hungary was also ahead of Western Europe, decriminalizing homosexuality in 1961, though the community has remained largely invisible. “It was really a ‘don’t ask, don’t say’ situation – if you didn’t say anything you were left alone,” she added.

A protest for LGBTQ rights takes place in front of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest on June 14, 2021.

The revolutions of the fall of the Iron Curtain brought new freedoms and, above all, visibility for the community in the former communist countries. The first pride parades across the former Soviet bloc took place in the early 2000s, followed by a slew of new laws enshrining LGBTQ rights into law. In Hungary, same-sex registered partnerships became legal in 2009.

“It was a year before the Fidesz government came to power,” Pál said.

Hungary’s registered partnerships have almost the same rights as marriage, which is restricted in the country to opposite-sex couples. The only notable exception is the adoption of children – while Pál and his partner are raising their son together, legally the boy is just Pál’s child.

The couple are hoping to adopt another child, but with the latest government action against LGBTQ rights, Pál fears they may have a very long wait. Last year, the Hungarian government passed a constitutional amendment that effectively banned adoption by same-sex couples, only allowing single people to adopt a child with the approval of the country’s Minister of Family Affairs.

“So the professionals at the adoption agency say, ‘Okay, we allow this or that person to adopt, but they have to get the approval of the family affairs secretary,’ which is insane – politician decides who can and cannot adopt, ”said Pál.

Paradis is concerned that advances in LGBTQ rights across Europe in recent years may have overshadowed deeper societal issues fueling the recent backlash against the community,

“We all thought we were moving forward, and once the laws were passed many countries failed to do the hardest and most important job, which is actually changing public opinion and public attitudes, ”she said. “It’s not just about laws, it’s about bringing people with them.”

Populist governments in Poland, Hungary and other countries are now exploiting this underlying problem, stoking fears and portraying the LGBTQ community as the enemy. Paradis said that as Hungary and Poland pass anti-LGBTQ legislation, signs of similar measures are appearing across Europe and the world – Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia are just three countries his organization is monitoring from close.

These trends are noticeable even in countries perceived to be more liberal, such as the Czech Republic. Czech President Milos Zeman recently told CNN affiliate CNN Prima that transgender people “really disgust” him.

For those who want to stoke and exploit these feelings, the potential political capital is clear, says Paradis: “We have underestimated how profitable it is still in many countries to use LGBTI communities as scapegoats.


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