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Eastern Europe was once a world leader on gay rights. Then it ran out of scapegoats


By Ivana Kottasová, CNN

Martón Pál feels like he is in a parallel universe.

Pál lives in Budapest with his husband and young son, and says Hungary has made a lot of progress on LGBTQ rights in the past two decades. He feels society is becoming increasingly more open and accepting towards him and his family, making his life significantly better.

At the same time, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is pushing in the opposite direction.

Hungary’s hardline nationalist government passed a new law earlier this month banning content that “promotes” homosexuality and gender change from being shared with children, effectively prohibiting any discussion of LGBTQ themes in schools.

In doing so, Orbán has followed the playbook of Poland’s government, which has been chipping away at the rights of the LGBTQ community for a number of years, adopting discriminatory rhetoric and stoking homophobia.

“Maybe I am living in my little nice bubble,” Pál said, “but what the government is doing is going completely against society.”

Experts and human rights advocates say Orbán is hoping to score political points and divide his opponents ahead of elections next year. Many of Hungary’s opposition parties have united in an attempt to defeat the long-time leader, but LGBTQ rights remain a major sticking point within the group.

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

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

Dudits said Hungary’s government was trying to paint LGBTQ people as “pedophiles and abnormal citizens.”

Orbán’s Fidesz party tacked the latest proposal onto a separate, widely backed bill that strictly penalizes pedophilia, both making it much harder for opponents to vote against it and conflating pedophilia with LGBTQ issues.

The new Hungarian law sparked a fresh wave of protests and international criticism, including several strongly worded statements from the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.

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

Worrying pushback

Activists and human rights watchdogs say the move is just the latest example of a deeply worrying pushback against LGBTQ rights — not just in Hungary and Poland, but across the world.

“There’s a real regression happening in many different countries, and rights that had been recognized are now being challenged,” said Evelyne Paradis, the executive director of the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA).

Yet Paradis said this backlash isn’t limited to the LGBTQ community. “The movement that is attacking women’s rights, LGBTI rights, sexual and reproductive rights … they have become a lot 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 assault, she said.

“You could call it an attack on sexual progressivism, it happens all over Europe, in Latin America, in the US,” said Agnieszka Kościańska, a visiting professor of anthropology and ethnology at Oxford University.

Kościańska said one reason why the problem is more pronounced in Eastern Europe is the region’s complicated history.

Orbán, like the government in Poland and some other countries, is trying to present homophobic policies as a way of protecting national values.

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

Read more: In Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones,’ existing is an act of defiance

Experts say this is not a uniquely European phenomenon. Heleen Touquet, chair in 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 need to define who your people are, and one of the ways to do this is to show what you are not … Refugees and LGBTI people and trans women, they are small communities, they are easy to scapegoat and show your own patriarchal values,” Touquet said. She added that the idea of nation is often closely associated with a traditional family and gender roles — another way to “other” the gay community.

The rainbow curtain

There are some deeply held beliefs at play too. Data from the Pew Research Center show 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 supports same-sex marriage, the majority in nearly 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 divides are stark — and that they get deeper as one moves from West to East.

“You have places like Germany, France, Spain where 85% or more say that homosexuality should be accepted by society and then once you’re past the dividing line, on the other side of the former Iron Curtain, those numbers begin to fall pretty rapidly and then get even lower as you go into Russia,” he said.

According to Poushter’s research, 47% of people in Poland and 49% of people in Hungary say homosexuality should be accepted. In Bulgaria, that figure drops to 32%. In Russia, it’s 14%.

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

Yet there was a time when Eastern Europe was ahead of the world in terms of acceptance of 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 instance decriminalized homosexuality in 1932, which is really, really early,” Kościańska said.

Dudits said Hungary, too, was once ahead of Western Europe, decriminalizing homosexuality in 1961, although the community remained largely invisible. “It was very much a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ situation — if you didn’t say anything, you were left alone,” she added.

The revolutions as the Iron Curtain fell brought new freedoms and, crucially, visibility for the community in former communist countries. The first Pride parades across the former Soviet bloc happened in the early 2000s, followed by a slew of new legislation enshrining LGBTQ rights into law. In Hungary, same-sex registered partnerships became legal in 2009.

“That was one year before the Fidesz government got into power,” said Pál.

Hungary’s registered partnerships come with nearly the same rights as marriage, which is limited in the country to opposite-sex couples. The one notable exception is child adoption — while Pál and his partner are bringing up their son together, legally the boy is only Pál’s child.

The couple is hoping to adopt another child, but with the government’s latest push against LGBTQ rights, Pál is worried they could be in for a very long wait. Last year, the Hungarian government passed a constitutional amendment that effectively banned adoption by same-sex couples, by only allowing single people to adopt a child with the approval of the country’s family affairs minister.

“So the professionals in the adoption agency say: ‘OK, we are allowing this and that person to adopt, but they need to get an approval from the secretary of family affairs,’ which is insane — a politician is deciding who can and cannot adopt,” Pál said.

Paradis fears that progress on LGBTQ rights across Europe in recent years has perhaps overshadowed deeper societal issues that are fueling the recent pushback against the community,

“We all thought that we were going forward, and once the laws were passed, many countries fell short of doing the harder and more important work, which is actually changing public opinion and changing public attitudes,” she said. “It’s not just about the laws, it is about bringing people along.”

Populist governments in Poland, Hungary and other countries are now exploiting this underlying problem, stoking fears and painting the LGBTQ community as the enemy. Paradis said that while Hungary and Poland are passing anti-LGBTQ legislation, signs of similar moves are popping up across Europe and the world — Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia are just three countries her organization is watching closely.

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

For those willing to stoke and exploit these sentiments, the potential political capital is clear, says Paradis: “We’ve underestimated how profitable it still is in many, many countries to use LGBTI communities as scapegoats.”

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