A Home Truth

Europe says it will now welcome gay asylum-seekers -- even as the EU’s own LGBT communities suffer discrimination and violence.


BELGRADE, Serbia — On the night of Nov. 11, several hundred Polish nationalists celebrated their country’s Independence Day by setting a 30-foot tall rainbow sculpture ablaze in downtown Warsaw and clashing with police and firemen who came to douse the flames. This marked the fifth time since it was installed last June that the rainbow had been burned for its supposed reference to the international symbol for gay rights — even though its artist has said the sculpture is fact intended as an emblem of broad social inclusion. As the European Union (EU) codifies greater protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, the attack on the multicolored monument underscores a growing cultural and political rift between western EU countries and their eastern neighbors.

The week prior to the incident in Poland, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) granted LGBT people facing discriminatory laws in their own countries the right to asylum in EU countries. The landmark ruling came in a case of three African men seeking refuge in the historically gay-friendly Netherlands. But with homosexuality criminalized in over 76 countries, including punishment by death in five, the verdict potentially opens the doors of the EU’s 28 member states to new asylum-seekers from across the globe.

The decision has been welcomed by human rights groups. "The court has, for the first time, clearly stated that laws criminalizing homosexuality are to be seen as persecution and that EU member states cannot expect LGBTI-people to conceal their sexual orientation or restrain from expressing it," Robert Hardh, Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders, an international human rights NGO, tells Foreign Policy.

However, the legal precedent is unlikely to be well received in the farthest-flung corners of the EU, where socially conservative attitudes remain entrenched and the politics of the far right are experiencing a worrying revival. In Eastern Europe in particular, there has been vitriolic, nationalistic, and sometimes violent backlash against efforts to expand LGBT rights, including the right to marry, adopt children, and make other personal decisions. "The nationalist rhetoric varies between countries but resonates with voters because it deliberately plays on historical and populist concerns," says Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. "I don’t see how asylum for the LGBTI community is realistic here right now."

Radoslav Stoyanov, a gay-rights activist in Bulgaria for over a decade, regularly receives death threats and has been attacked in the street by skinheads. Fear of reprisals, he explains, was one of the main reasons he remained an anonymous online activist-blogger for so long. But in 2008 — the year after Bulgaria joined the EU — state lawmakers introduced a draft law defining a civil union as a relationship that could occur exclusively between men and women. Stoyanov decided the time had come to stop hiding. "[A]t a certain point I asked myself, ‘If I don’t do it now, who will? Somebody should do this, why should it not be me?’" he recalls, adding that the decision was not an easy one. "The LGBT community here is still largely closed, people are not free to express their identity. Being out can cause problems in day-to-day life."

As with all other newly joined EU member states, Bulgaria’s national laws were brought into line with European anti-discrimination directives as part of an accession package deal. Whereas discrimination was once codified in the law, now there are guarantees of basic protections. "Sofia Pride has been held for six years, and this is a big achievement," Stoyanov says.  

It’s been a far from smooth transition, however. Over 70 anti-gay protesters were arrested the first year of Sofia Pride. And this summer, the celebration was postponed after the government claimed it could not guarantee the security of participants following a period of political instability and a spate of violent incidents at an LGBT film festival in the city of Plovdiv in June.

Indeed, there is a distinct limit to the progress. A recent report by Amnesty international highlighted Bulgaria as one of the EU countries with the most inadequate provisions for the LGBT community under hate crime laws. Victims are hesitant to report homophobic or transphobic attacks because of the low probability of a prosecution going anywhere, as even the minimal protections on the books are often not enforced. "There is this feeling that nothing will change," Stoyanov says.

Moreover, there is significant support in the country’s socially conservative society for the reversal of existing provisions regarding LGBT rights. A statement from the nationalist party Ataka, which currently holds 23 out of 240 parliamentary seats, recently called homosexuality "an ugly phenomenon alien to Bulgaria’s national traditions and morality" that is permitted only "under pressure from outside of the country." The party supports the imposition of Russian-style "anti-gay propaganda laws" (a reference to controversial legislation adopted by Moscow this year).

Bulgaria is not alone. Nearly all countries in the EU’s eastern region — including Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, and Bulgaria — have constitutions or laws prohibiting same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by gay couples. Croatia, the EU’s newest member, is scheduled to hold a public referendum on whether to amend the constitution to define marriage as "a union between man and woman," after 700,000 people signed a petition — organized by a conservative group — calling for a vote on the matter.

More broadly, conservative mores, lingering economic malaise, and growing disillusionment with the EU, alongside mounting public concern over immigration, is creating a fertile breeding ground for far-right sentiment in several of the EU’s peripheral member states. From Sofia to Budapest, charismatic far right political leaders are taking to podiums and platforms, aggressively delivering a potent cocktail of anti-EU, xenophobic, and homophobic rhetoric. "More and more frequently, the LGBT people are used by politicians as a perfect example of an enemy that undermine social and traditional values," explains Krzysztof Smiszek, president of the Polish Society of Antidiscrimination Law.

For instance, Gabor Vona, leader of the Hungarian nationalist party Jobbik, who has referred to Adolf Hitler as the "the final product of liberalism," called the decision to hold the 2012 Gay Euro Games in Budapest "the end of the world." At present, Vona’s party remains on the fringes of mainstream Hungarian politics; it won just over 10 percent of votes in the last election. Its anti-gay views, however, are not. In 2012, the ruling center-right government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, made controversial amendments to the constitution that civil rights activists say undermine judic
ial and media independence and effectively ban gay marriage. And video footage from this year’s Pride parade in Budapest shows participants first being pursued down the streets by aggressive thugs and later being harassed by an angry mob screaming epithets and burning a rainbow flag.

Then, there are countries that are seeking to enter the EU.  During Montenegro’s first gay pride parade, held this year in the coastal town Budva, businesses turned off their lights and music during the event as a statement of opposition. A local Orthodox priest, Boris Radovic, told the press at a "cleansing ceremony" performed after the event that he was "praying to God to repel this disease and devil’s attack on Montenegro." Meanwhile, in neighboring Serbia, tipped to be the next in line for EU accession, the situation isn’t much better. In 2001, Belgrade Pride descended into large-scale social unrest as hooligans attacked peaceful marchers and trashed the city. And for the last four consecutive years, planned Pride parades have been subject to last-minute bans by the state. Unsurprisingly, LGBT individuals from both Serbia and Montenegro have sought — and, in some cases, been granted — asylum in places like the United States and Canada.

Goran Miletic, an organizer of Belgrade Pride, says that the EU is not doing enough to support LGBT people: "The message being delivered to our government is that LGBT rights are not a condition for EU accession." HRW’s Gall says, too, that it is time for the EU to take action. "Public expressions of regret or condemnation by politicians and the EU are just not enough. Perpetrators must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," she argues.

However, Ulrike Lunacek, a member of the European Parliament and co-president of the body’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights, says there are limits on the EU’s role — both during the accession process and after. "A lot is done in the build-up to accessions to ensure countries bring in and implement anti-discrimination legislation," she explains. But, she adds, the EU law "only covers issues such as employment and the workplace, it does not extend to family issues such as gay-marriage and adoption."

Even more problematic is the lack of checks in place after a country has joined the EU. "[T]here are limited mechanisms to ensure European values are being upheld" Lunacek says. While the EU does have some options available to curb the behavior of errant states, such as suspending a member state’s voting rights — which has recently been discussed for Hungary — the processes involved are complex and lengthy. "Here, there is a gap," Lunacek says.

The EU’s commitment to improving the situation of LGBT asylum-seekers, indicated in the ECJ ruling, is certainly commendable. But members of the LGBT community already inside the bloc or living on its fringes are still wondering why more is not also being done to improve the situation of those suffering closer to home.

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