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Adrienne Warren

State-Sponsored Intolerance: Homophobia in the Eastern Partnership

The European Social Survey (ESS), published last week by City University London, has reported a notable decrease in tolerance of homosexuality in a number of eastern European countries. According to the study, the proportion of people agreeing with the statement “gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own lives as they wish” decreased by 2% in Slovenia and Slovakia, and 3% in Hungary and Ukraine since 2004/05. In Slovakia, only 45% of those surveyed agreed, and in Ukraine only 34%.  Eastbook.eu takes a look at the growing trend of homophobia in Eastern Europe, and the possible roots for this “institutionalised intolerance”.

LGBT-EU hybrid flag. author: elmada. source: Flickr

LGBT-EU hybrid flag. author: elmada. source: Flickr

Statistics from the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner in the previous year showed that what looks like progress on the surface often masks the fact that homosexuality is still hated by over 80% of people in some European countries. In fact, nine of the Council of Europe member states have no anti-discrimination legislation pertaining to gay rights at all. In addition, same sex marriages are allowed in seven countries, and 13 others accept some form of civil partnership, others not only prevent same sex marriage but do not allow gay people planning to marry or conduct a civil partnership abroad access to the necessary paperwork.

The Council of Europe explains:

“Some LGBT organisations are denied registration or are banned from organising peaceful meetings and demonstrations in Europe. Many LGBT persons have fled to Council of Europe member states from countries where their human rights are not protected and they may even risk being tortured or executed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Too few opinion leaders and leading politicians have taken a firm stand against homophobic and transphobic expressions, discrimination and violence.”

In Eastern Europe, such expressions of discrimination are alarmingly on the rise. Memories are still fresh from May’s violent anti-gay backlash in TbisiliGeorgia. A planned gay rights rally in honour of IDAHO had to be abandoned after protesters, including Orthodox priests, disrupted the event. Thousands of anti-gay protesters broke through police cordons, with several dozen gay activists having to be evacuated from the city centre. The violent eruption resulted in 17 people being injured – 12 of whom were hospitalized, including three policemen and a journalist.

The harsh protest in Tbilisi caught international news, and was condemned by Amnesty International, as Central Asian program director John Dalhuisen spoke out against the occurrence, saying:

“Ironically this shameful violence marred a day that is meant to mark solidarity in the face of homophobic violence around the world, and it shows that the Georgian authorities have a long way to go to promote tolerance and protect LGBTI people and their human rights.The authorities must investigate this violence and bring to justice those responsible for committing acts punishable by law.”

Similarly, Ukraine is contending with a sharp rise in the number of homophobic attacks being reported in the capital of Kyiv. In spite of this, and the forced cancellation of last year’s pride march, the LGBT community intends to go ahead with a planned march next week. Human Rights Watch released a report last week saying that LGBT discrimination in the Ukraine is spiralling out of control–as sixty-one lawmakers have signed a petition urging the mayor  of Ukraine to ban the gay-pride parade.

Meanwhile in Moldova, last week bore witness to the country’s first ever pride parade. The Pride March was attended by the Swedish and the American ambassador, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy as well as representatives of ILGA Europe and the European parliament who held speeches in front of the participants and several local media.

Experts have weighed in on the possible reasons underlying the increasing intolerance of homosexuals in the region.Renato Sabbadini, The co-secretary general of ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) explains:

 “…After the fall of the Soviet Union there were years of hope because there was a general feeling of freedom. This is when these countries decriminalized homosexual behavior. Unfortunately, toward the end of the 2000s, the mood changed. A rapprochement between the church and the state took place, particularly in Russia. This brought a wave of homophobia, which has unfortunately become an institutionalized homophobia. So things have changed for the worse.”

LGBT rights, source: ilga.org

LGBT rights, source: ilga.org

Richard Mole, Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at University College London, echoes some of these ideas when explaining the UCL study just released:

“The lower level of acceptance of homosexuality in Eastern Europe is the cumulative effect of various social and political influences which differ from state to state. The one factor that applies to the region as a whole is the legacy of communism. In the communist era, citizens were expected to adhere to the psychology of the collective. This meant that ‘alternative’ sexualities were considered a dangerous sign of individualism. Homosexuality was further seen as contrary to the public good, in that it failed to produce children.”

Mole continues, suggesting that homophobia is supported by some societies, as it provides a convenient scapegoat:

“When communism collapsed, the ideological vacuum this created was quickly filled by religion and nationalism, both of which have fuelled intolerance towards homosexuals due to their supposed threat to traditional values and the continued existence of the nation. Tapping into this pre-existing antipathy towards homosexuality, politicians have been able to use LGBT rights as a lightning rod to divert attention from corruption and economic downturns.”

Such a lightning rod is easily created and perpetuated as many East European states lack strong, if any, anti-discrimination legislation.

However, Kevin Moss, a Professor of Modern Language and Literature at Middlebury College, underscores the importance of seeing this increasing trend as a European phenomenon, not a region-specific one:

“Focusing on the negative statistics in these countries should not detract from the acknowledgement of similar issues in the rest of Europe. It’s easy to fail to point out that homophobia is not exactly dead in the West. Russia recently banned  ‘propaganda of homosexuality,‘ and it’s clear Putin is using gays as a scapegoat, but the UK had a similar law (Section 28) until only 10 years ago.”

… and not only the EaP states:

COMPARE: Interactive Map of Homophobia Trends in Europe

sources: The Conversation, The Council of Europe

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Graduated in International Relations and Russian. Resident of Estonia, but a citizen of the world. Most interested in contributing to the progress and education of mankind--as the primary tool of achieving global unity.

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