LGBT Rights Activism in Eastern Europe – Part 1

George Vasilev, lecturer in Politics at La Trobe, discusses gay rights activism in Eastern Europe.  Part 1 gives a brief history of gay rights activism, and its impact, across different parts of Eastern Europe. 

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activism is a relative latecomer to Eastern Europe. While LGBT rights movements staked a place for themselves in Western democracies with the ‘new social movements’ wave of the late 1960s, it was only in the late 1990s that LGBT associations began to make an impression on the political landscape of Eastern European societies.

The appearance of LGBT activism in Eastern Europe was facilitated by the dramatic collapse of authoritarian regimes and their replacement with governments committed to democratisation and integration into liberal international institutions like the European Union (EU). In the atmosphere of enhanced civil liberties and democratic openness that followed, LGBT rights campaigners gained the associational space to organise themselves and mobilise for the legal recognition and social acceptance of their identities.

This activism was initially national in composition and scope. It involved local campaigners pressuring domestic governments to take action against sexuality based prejudice and creating awareness around LGBT specific concerns within a domestic public sphere.  However, LGBT activism soon underwent a transnationalisation as the integration of post-communist states into liberal international institutions opened up spaces for civil society actors to collaborate across state borders and gain influential international allies to their cause. The transnational networks that began to coalesce around LGBT issues were steered by domestic and foreign advocacy groups and human rights organisations raising awareness on rights violations, reminding the EU and western liberal democracies of their responsibilities to intervene, and offering advice on the development of LGBT policies for post-communist states where homosexuals were being severely repressed.

This era of nascent activism also brought into sharp relief the strong homophobic currents running throughout Eastern Europe. The newfound political assertiveness of LGBT individuals, a despised category of citizens that had historically remained hidden from view, drew hostile reprisals from quarters of the population perceiving non-heteronormativity to be a threat to the nation and moral fabric. An intensification of homophobic hate speech followed as politicians, the media and religious institutions began a campaign of vilification, representing homosexuality as a mental disorder and a degenerate lifestyle from which society required protection. Intimidation and organised violence against LGBT individuals also grew in prevalence as far right groups began disrupting Gay Pride events and brutally attacking participants.

While LGBT rights campaigns have been deeply polarising, their impacts have varied dramatically across Eastern Europe.  In some societies, such as Russia, Serbia, the Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and the Ukraine, the public display of homosexuality continues to court hostility and politicians remain unreceptive to demands to address sexuality based prejudice. Worse still, politicians there have served as the very agents of this prejudice by inciting gay hatred in their rhetoric. In other societies, such as Croatia and Slovenia, governments have worked together with LGBT activists to introduce non-discriminatory legislation, have stepped up efforts to punish homophobic crime, and have led a national discourse designed to shape public opinion towards LGBT acceptance.

This variation in openness towards LGBT reform is illustrated starkly in the country based assessments of the advocacy group, International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association-Europe (ILGA-Europe).  In the organisation’s 2015 Annual Review, Eastern European states are represented across the spectrum on how adequately human rights are protected for LGBT individuals. For example, Croatia was ranked Europe’s fifth most advanced on this measure, Serbia twenty eighth, and Macedonia, another former Yugoslav state, forty third, only several places above last placed Azerbaijan, ranked forty ninth.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which will look at some of the factors that help explain the uneven rate of gay rights reform across Eastern Europe.

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