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Confronting New European Opposition to LGBT People’s Human Rights

Confronting New European Opposition to LGBT People’s Human Rights

0 Comments 🕔08.May 2014

This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

Gay couple beaten up in Budapest, July 7, 2007. Credit: Dawei Ding

by Joël Le Déroff

Back a few years ago, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activists in Europe may have had the impression that LGBT equality was on its way everywhere across the continent. Progress was happening everywhere in Europe, albeit at very different paces in specific countries and regions. The 2000–2010 decade saw symbolic breakthroughs in Western Europe, with pioneer countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and Sweden) adopting marriage equality. In the rest of the world, other countries were going in the same direction, and this movement would only continue in the following years.

Other aspects of LGBT equality, such as legal gender recognition for trans people, were appearing on the political agenda in different regions of Europe and in the world. On the European scale, one remarkable thing is that these movements were not limited to Western Europe, although this sub-region was globally more advanced. Cohabitation and partnership bills adopted in Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were putting these Central European countries at the level reached by the pioneer countries just a few years earlier.

Less than five years later, the road to full equality has proven to be more chaotic and difficult. From a European perspective, different sub-regions are now facing different trends. Western Europe seems to continue to move forward, but with many debates resulting in violent street protests and extensive coverage of anti-LGBTI opinions in the media. The 2013 French debates on marriage equality are a striking example. Large regions in Central and Eastern Europe seem not to be moving ahead anymore, including European Union (EU) member states. Important countries like Russia and Ukraine are even discussing or adopting overtly homophobic legislation. With anticipation of EU accession, areas like the Western Balkans are still moving ahead in the area of anti-discrimination and hate crime laws, but will this trend survive post-accession?

Le Déroff Image

Rainbow Europe Map 2013 © ILGA-Europe


What has happened?

Political opposition to equality has strengthened. It has become powerfully organized. Depending on the countries and on the regions, such opposition is composed of different factors. Unprincipled populist politicians are increasingly targeting LGBT people, along with other minorities such as the Roma and migrants, in their campaign speeches and government programs.

In Russia and its sphere of influence, LGBT issues became one weapon in a more global and geopolitical strategy. They are used as a nationalist identity marker. They are instrumentalized on the domestic level to point out alleged enemies of the nation. They are instrumentalized externally to make diplomatic games even more complex and less readable to other global players and to human rights defenders.

Another key factor, which can be either a driver of such organized opposition or a toolbox for hostile politicians and decision-makers, is what I would call religious extremist discourse. All over the world, from Uganda to the United States to France, such discourse has undergone a methodical sophistication to achieve broad mobilization of huge chunks of the public opinion.

And these strategies seem to work. By adopting a seemingly softened language (in the EU at least), extremist groups appeal to the majority of citizens, including religious believers, but also increasingly to non-believers. They learned to play on emotions, portraying LGBT people as odd people claiming specific rights, allegedly threatening the majority’s identity and future (the children). They instigate fear by opposing a worrying ‘them’ to a supposedly everlasting and reassuring ‘us’.

To summarize the situation, the battlefront can be described as follows in early 2014:

  • In countries where LGBT issues are still globally taboo in the media and in politics (e.g., Russia, Ukraine), the coalitions that reject equality exploit all forms of hateful speech, including religious extremist arguments, to preempt any form of debate on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people’s rights, and even to question LGBTI people’s freedom of expression.
  • In countries where LGBT issues are not an absolute taboo anymore, but where no important symbolic equality legislation has ever been adopted (e.g., Slovakia, Poland, Italy), similar coalitions are making use of the same – sometimes softened – types of arguments. Their aim, for example in the area of family law, is to preempt any serious debate on LGBTI equality.
  • In countries that can be described as ‘advanced’, where important symbolic victories have taken place in the past few years for LGBTI rights defenders (e.g., Spain, France), we face consistent, sometimes surprisingly impressive mobilizations. The aim clearly is to push governments to renounce aspects of their agenda, or even propose limitations of already existing rights (this applies to LGBT equality but also to sexual and reproductive rights, for instance).
  • Last but not least, in European and international institutions, the same coalitions are also becoming increasingly effective. The European Parliament’s rejection of the Estrela report (December 2013), a non-binding report calling on the EU and its Member States to implement a liberal approach to sexual and reproductive rights, is a recent striking example. But in fact, beyond the EU, key players like Russia and the Holy See are constantly mobilized in fora like the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, not to mention the United Nations. Moreover, some religious groups, such as some  Evangelicals in the United States, are increasingly aware that they are fighting a losing battle in their own countries in the short term even as they continue their efforts through transnational institutions. By helping to consolidate state-sponsored homophobia in countries of the global South, they aim to maintain ground in this global battle.


Beyond LGBT issues, what is at stake in this battle?

The core objective of these coalitions of unprincipled politicians and governments and of religious extremists is to gain or retain political and social control, imposing a political agenda that is closed to diversity. Their core values can be objectively defined by the concept of privileges: people who do not abide by prescribed ethics and assigned roles cannot benefit from equal rights, nor can they enjoy equal chances to achieve self-fulfillment.

This is a serious, world-wide challenge. To overcome it, the LGBT movement will need to become equally organized and effective, which is not an easy task. The LGBT movement will also need to form a consistent front with its allies, with the civil society but also opinion leaders and political decision-makers. More importantly perhaps, such progressive coalitions are now, more than ever before, forced to find ways to win the general public’s hearts and minds.

The key for success – on top of a vast mobilization of human and material resources – could be the answer to the following questions: how can we give flesh and faces to the abstract principle of universal and indivisible human rights? To the idea that all human beings have a right to self-determination and free choice, and cannot be limited by assigned roles? How can we push people to identify with the idea that all humans are a single community of rights holders, as opposed to members of competing communities determined by religion, sexual orientation or other identities? How can we translate this into mobilizing emotions?


Joël Le Déroff is a European LGBT rights activist. From 2005 to 2009, he was a member of the executive board of the French LGBT left-wing think tank Homosexualités et Socialisme, and one of the initiators of the Rainbow Rose network, the European network of social-democratic LGBT activists, an observer member organization of the Party of European Socialists. He also co-chaired the international and European working group of the French umbrella Inter-LGBT. From 2009 to 2014, he joined the secretariat of ILGA-Europe, the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association as a Senior Policy Officer, responsible for parts of the organization’s advocacy strategy.


This article is part of our Over the European Rainbow feature.

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