What does the European Commission’s LGBTIQ Equality Strategy mean for CEE?

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For most of emerging Europe, LGBTIQ rights and social inclusion remain contentious issues with no clear path forward. Poland and Hungary especially have seen a sharp rise in anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric and policies that have worried many activists and analysts.

In November of 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a new LGBTIQ Equality Strategy, the first of its kind, which aims to bolster LGBTIQ rights across the European Union by fighting discrimination, ensuring safety, protecting the rights of “rainbow” families, and promoting LGBTIQ rights around the world.

The strategy has been in the works for nearly a decade, says Ana Munoz Padros, communication officer at ILGA-Europe, an advocacy group promoting the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people at the European level.

“Although the worrying trends in Hungary and Poland have revealed how much of a pressing need the strategy is, it is not in itself a response to the current context in these countries,” she tells Emerging Europe.

Despite not being a direct response, the timing – and the fact that the EU is taking such a stance – does feel somewhat pointed.

“The Challenging situation in Poland, both in terms of declining democratic standards and increasing homophobia fuelled by the public authorities have definitely helped to push the EU to adopting an LGBTIQ strategy,” says Mirosława Makuchowska, programme vice-director of Campaign Against Homophobia in Poland.

Across the region, most activists have reacted positively on the announcement.

“We welcome the European Commission’s decision to create a strategy on LGBTIQ equality. We believe that it is a long-needed initiative and we’re happy that it is finally coming to life,” says Gloriya Filipova, project coordinator at Bilitis, a Bulgarian NGO.

Still, even with the strategy now in place, it remains to be seen exactly what impact it will have on a region where LGBTIQ rights have always been an especially touchy issue.

A bad year for the LGBTIQ community in Poland and Hungary

In 2020, most of the news was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, letting the negative trends in LGBTIQ acceptance and rights slip by.

It’s no secret that when it comes to LGBTIQ rights, the eastern part of the European Union is somewhat lagging. Despite advancements in legal protection and the softening of attitudes in public, life remains challenging for queer people in the region, especially those who are transgender and intersex.

This was seen most clearly in Hungary, where as part of his emergency powers related to the pandemic, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán launched an attack on the country’s transgender and intersex population. In May, a controversial gender identity bill was passed, ending legal recognition for transgender identities. On official documents such as birth certificates the “sex” category is now “sex at birth” and cannot ever be changed.

While Hungary has gone the furthest in making life difficult for transgender people, the legal terrain remains challenging elsewhere in the region too. In Bulgaria, people can only change their legal documents only once they undergo gender reassignment surgery. The surgery itself is subject to court approval and is not covered by state healthcare insurance, making it prohibitively expensive for most people.

Poland has seen an increase in anti-LGBTIQ rhetoric too. So-called LGBT-ideology free zones have been popping up in municipalities around the country, around a hundred of them as of June of last year. While the designations carry no legal power, being merely symbolic and unenforceable, they do represent a powerful statement against the LGBTIQ community.

A sharp divide in attitudes between East and West

With everything that has been happening, a natural question emerges. When it comes to LGBTIQ rights and acceptance, are there in fact two Europes?

Findings from the Special Eurobarometer do seem to point in this direction. In the Focus on LGBT section, that tries to measure attitudes and the level of acceptance of the community, there is a divide between the West and the East. On questions such as “should LGBT people have the same rights”, and “should transgender people be able to change their documents”, countries in the emerging Europe region tend to fall behind the EU average. Some, like Bulgaria, dramatically so.

Only 16 per cent of people in Bulgaria think that same-sex marriages should be recognised, compared to the Eu average of 69 per cent average.

“The hostile attitude towards LGBTIQ rights is part of the general decline of democratic standards in Bulgaria. Therefore, to reverse the course we will need strong political support, either from the ruling GERB party, part of the European People’s Party (EPP), or from new political players who might emerge in the upcoming elections,” says Simeon Vasilev, chairman of the GLAS Foundation.

Veneta Limberova, the president of Deystvie, another Bulgarian NGO that works on LGBTIQ issues, shares the opinion that there is a lack of political will in Bulgaria to address these issues.

“Government policies encouraging acceptance of LGBTIQ people are entirely missing, even unimaginable. Political figures and representatives at the top level of the executive (including the vice prime minister) use hateful language. There is no understanding and literally no sensitivity to the topic by MPs, who propagate fake news, negative stereotyping and hateful language in parliamentary discussions,” she tells Emerging Europe.

“Currently, no party in the government has openly stated that it supports LGBTIQ rights, which is surprising for an EU country in 2021,” adds Ms Filipova.

Some activists feel that it’s precisely this divide in attitudes between East and West that may have caused the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy to climb so high on the European Commission’s list of priorities.

“Divergence in LGBTIQ equality among ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ countries, and in that the growing homophobia and transphobia in Poland and Hungary might have prompted the Commission to put the topic higher on the agenda,” says Tamás Dombos, board member of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance.

How can the strategy help?

Now that the Equality Strategy has been put forward, there are two important questions for all stakeholders: Can the strategy actually help in turning the tide of anti-LGBTIQ sentiment that is proving troublesome in some emerging Europe countries? And how will the strategy affect the work that activists are already doing in the region?

As stated in the strategy itself, one of the main areas it will aim to tackle is expanding the list of EU hate crimes to include crimes against LGBTIQ individuals, as well as a proposal for a horizontal legislative initiative on mutual recognition of parenthood across all member states.

This issue is especially important as some member states recognise the right of LGBTIQ people to adopt children, while others do not.

Additional funding is also one of the strategy’s objectives, for initiatives that aim to combat hate crime, hate speech, violence and harmful practices against LGBTIQ people. For activists in countries that are currently the taking part in the accession process, such as Serbia, more funds will be made available through the IPA (Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance) Fund.

“The strategy promises important legislative advances (horizontal directive on equal treatment, family recognition directive, inclusion of hate crimes in EU crimes) that will improve the situation around Europe,” says Mr Dombos.

Additionally, as Mr Dombos points out, another important aspect of the strategy is the targeted funding.

“It is very important that such funding is provided directly by the EU, and not through member states, as in the latter case the money would not reach LGBTI organisations,” he explains.

Other activists too are expecting that the new strategy could lead to better and increased funding. Still, even this point is not free of concern.

“Yes, we do expect LGBTIQ NGOs to receive more funds than before, but we have huge concerns about where that money will go and for what. In Eastern and Central Europe trans (and intersex) organisations are not institutionalised,” Barnabas Hidasi from Transvanilla, a Hungarian trans rights organisation tells Emerging Europe.

Social impact

As for the social impact of the adoption of the Equality Strategy, there is broad agreement that it is an important signal for the European Union and a sign that LGBTIQ issues are being taken seriously. However, there are fears of how local politicians in the region might try to block legislation or use the strategy itself for propaganda purposes.

“At present one may say that the strategy can help in advocacy. For example, it can serve as a convenient ‘excuse’ that Bulgarian politicians might use if and when they address the topic of LGBTIQ equality – a topic they would otherwise avoid in every possible way,” says Ms Limberova.

On the other hand, there is worry that governments in the region might just choose not to engage with the strategy at all.

“Hostile political speech infused with fake news and Russian propaganda is of no help. Eastern European and ex-communist societies are much more conservative on these topics and change won’t happen without political engagement,” says Mr Vasilev.

“I’m not so optimistic when it comes to the Polish government’s willingness to get inline with the strategy: most probably it will be actively blocking pro-LGBTIQ initiatives in the European Council,” adds Ms Makuchowska.

One of the problems facing emerging Europe countries like Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria are that attitudes towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and especially transgender and intersex people are deep rooted. The fact that many political parties, organisations, and even governments are engaging in actions with the outright goal of making life worse for the community is – quite obviously – not helping.

‘Right-wingers going wild’

“The right-wingers are going wild in Poland and Hungary and they see LGBTIQ people as their biggest enemies,” says Predrag Azdejković of the Belgrade-based Gay and Lesbian Info Centre. “This strategy is just a piece of paper to soothe the consciences of EU bodies and placate European LGBITQ activists.”

The majority of activists, however, do believe that the Equality Strategy has merit, but there are worries about just how much such top-down strategies can actually help people on the ground.

“The short answer would be maybe. It is very complicated to assess as on the one hand we value the effort and the clear message from the European Commission that LGBTIQ citizens and their rights are important and worth a strategy, but on the other side hand governments like that in Hungary might say that the Commission is trying to impose ‘foreign’ values on member states,” says Barnabas Hidasi.

Currently, there is no national LGBTIQ Equality Strategy in Hungary, despite the UN and the ECRI (European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance) making such recommendations in the past.

“We have doubts that the European Commission can put enough pressure on the government to create one. And even if it would be created, implementation is often non-existent in our context,” adds Hidasi.

With the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy only months old at this point, it’s hard to judge exactly what it will end up achieving. But what is clear, is that for emerging Europe and its LGBTIQ communities there will be no easy answers and quick solutions.

“In this era of post-truth, the main thing that can reverse the course of anti-LGBTIQ discourse is education and bringing people together,” says Gloriya Filipova. “We need to create a bridge between the LGBTIQ community and general society in order to show that we’re are not the enemy, we are just people who want to live their safely and peacefully. Our work is mostly community based, but in this journey, we will strongly rely on the European Union’s power to facilitate change,” she concludes.

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