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Pride vs. indignity: political manipulation of homophobia and transphobia in Europe

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 16/08/2021
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Pride vs. indignity: political manipulation of homophobia and transphobia in Europe

World Pride is being celebrated on our continent this week, but a surge in intolerance towards LGBTI people in Europe is nothing to be proud about. In more and more European countries, politicians and public officials are shamelessly targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people for political gain, fuelling prejudice and hate. In so doing, public officials – sometimes at the highest level – are failing in their duty to promote equal dignity and human rights for all.

On the one hand, spectacular progress has been made in Europe in just a couple of decades: many Council of Europe member states have passed laws protecting LGBTI people from discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes; 30 member states offer protection for stable same-sex relationships; and the right to legal gender recognition has been strongly asserted. Overall, public attitudes towards LGBTI people have markedly improved in many places. At the same time, homo/transphobia continue to linger and to hinder LGBTI people’s full inclusion in society. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed that too many within the LGBTI communities remain vulnerable, exposed to intra-familial violence and without proper access to employment, housing and health care.

The progress of the past years coupled with persisting homo/transphobia in our societies have now provided fertile ground for exploitation by opportunistic and anti-human rights political movements.

Stigmatisation of LGBTI people for political gain

Over the last few years, my predecessor, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) and Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, as well as the European region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-Europe) and others have warned about a worrying rise in intolerance of LGBTI people in Europe. My own work provides further illustration of this trend and points to one key cause of the hatred: some politicians are instrumentalising existing societal prejudices and verbally attacking LGBTI people to achieve political objectives for their own benefit.

Scapegoating LGBTI minorities has become a tactic applied by ultra-conservative and nationalist politicians posing as defenders of so-called “traditional values” to strengthen their base and gain or stay in power. I have observed that stigmatisation of LGBTI people is particularly pronounced in the run-up to elections and votes. For example, in my report following a visit to Armenia in 2018, I concluded that various parliamentary bills discriminating against LGBTI people seemed to be deliberately designed to stoke anti-LGBTI sentiment as part of rivalry between opposing political parties. I warned against politicians using hate speech against LGBTI people during election campaigns in Moldova in a 2020 visit report and called on the authorities to take steps to tackle the problem. In Poland, as I described in the Memorandum published in December 2020, high-ranking officials and politicians affiliated with the ruling coalition used the stigmatisation of LGBTI people as a campaign tool during the 2019 parliamentary elections. In the 2020 presidential elections, the serving President of Poland, running for re-election, promised to prohibit the “propagation of LGBT ideology” in public institutions, calling it “worse than Communism”, and tabled a bill proposing to ban “any person in a relationship with another person of the same sex” from adopting children. As the 2022 parliamentary elections approach in Hungary, the ruling party there is evidently taking the same path.

In the Russian Federation, exploiting anti-LGBTI prejudice to attract votes is a long-standing practice, the latest example being the proposal to enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage in the Constitution. At the time when this was proposed, the polls indicated that many voters were undecided as to whether to participate in the constitutional referendum being held in the summer of 2020, which sought to make sweeping changes to the Russian Constitution. In Bulgaria, I documented the use of inflammatory language by politicians, some of whom made banning the Sofia Pride march an election campaign promise. In several countries, politicians expressing anti-LGBTI views have links with far-right and neo-Nazi movements involved in violent attacks on LGBTI events. Most recently, Bulgarian activists alerted me to a spate of incidents at Pride events carried out by one such far-right group in what appeared to be an attempt to drum up votes in the July parliamentary elections.

In addition to mobilising certain categories of voters, the exploitation of societal homo/transphobia has proven a convenient way to divert public attention away from government failure to address pressing social issues and rising inequalities and broader attacks under way on human rights and democracy. In Hungary, for example, legislative rollbacks concerning the human rights of LGBTI people, including the constitutional amendments passed in December 2020 and a law prohibiting, under the pretence of protecting children, the dissemination of LGBTI-related information to minors, were adopted jointly or around the same time as other measures with a severe impact on democracy and human rights, including changes to national human rights structures, transparency on the expenditure of public funds and electoral law. In Turkey, I recently expressed my dismay at the increasing stigmatisation of LGBTI people by politicians and opinion-makers. The Turkish authorities withdrew from the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention), claiming a need to resist “the normalisation of homosexuality which is incompatible with Turkey’s social and family values”. This unfounded allegation paves the way for further stigmatisation of LGBTI people and Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will have serious consequences for women’s safety and rights.

I am troubled that transgender people are under attack from politicians from across the political spectrum. For instance, the President of the Czech Republic did not have any qualms about stating that he found transgender people “disgusting”. Transgender people and their rights have become a toxic battle ground. In Hungary, Italy, Spain, Poland and the United Kingdom – to name but a few – politicians incite and perpetuate transphobia, questioning the “normality” or even the very existence of transgender people.

These are unfortunately just a few examples drawn from my own work and monitoring. In its latest annual review of the human rights situation of LGBTI people in Europe, ILGA-Europe documented cases of verbal attacks by politicians (whether they are in power or not) on LGBTI people in 2020 in several other member states, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Latvia and Slovakia. I am concerned that we are facing a downward spiral with more and more politicians across Europe feeling emboldened to resort to such unacceptable attacks on LGTBI people as they see these tactics work in other countries.

Influence of the so-called “anti-gender movements”

Politicians targeting LGBTI people often propagate narratives promoted by the so-called “anti-gender movements”. For some years now, there have been reports about the expansion – in Europe and the rest of the world – of these increasingly organised, transnational and well-funded movements, made-up of religious extremists and ultra-conservative organisations. The anti-gender movements call into question the concept of gender and whether it is a protected category in the human rights framework, promoting an ultra-conservative view of the family, sexuality and women’s role in society. Anti-gender movement actors seek to blur the lines for their audience by adopting the vocabulary of human rights, but what they are doing in reality is working to deprive other groups – mainly women and LGBTI people – of their rights.

The influence of the anti-gender movements in politics is increasing. Some politicians are not hiding their affiliation and others may seek convenient alliances because the issues raised are known to attract votes and distract attention from real problems. In my work, I have clearly seen some common patterns across several countries in the way political leaders resort to “anti-gender” slogans in national campaigns emerging around issues, such as same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. By permeating the political scene, the anti-gender movements are increasingly well-placed to erode the protection of human rights in Europe. It is urgent to acknowledge this fact and take steps to counter it.

Harmful impact on LGBTI people

Targeting LGBTI people for political gain is a costly strategy which harms the lives and well-being of those affected and undermines social cohesion in general. When public officials and elected politicians employ intolerant rhetoric, this signals to others that they too can engage in hateful actions with impunity. In the European Union (EU) Fundamental Rights Agency’s 2020 survey of LGBTI people, negative public discourse by politicians was identified as one of the key contributing factors in prejudiced social attitudes towards LGBTI people. Harassment of LGBTI people and activists on social media and everyday acts of violence are on the rise in Europe. Hardly a week passes without reports of serious physical attacks motivated by homophobia or transphobia. Recently, the Tbilisi Pride march in Georgia had to be cancelled after violent attacks on the organisers’ headquarters and journalists covering the events.

Toxic rhetoric targeting LGBTI people also hampers their ability to fully participate in all facets of life, including political and public life, and to have full access to education, health care and employment. In Poland, the proliferation of anti-LGBT declarations and “family charters” adopted by some local governments has led to many LGBTI people being shunned by members of their own communities. Others are seeking to leave the country altogether. In Bulgaria and Ukraine, LGBTI activists informed my office that young people increasingly avoid LGBTI events and community centres over fears of attacks and intimidation by members of extremist groups. This hostile atmosphere is driving LGBTI people back into the closet in many places, in a clear affront to their human dignity and right to live in freedom and safety. A climate of hatred promoted by public officials also has a huge impact on LGBTI people’s mental health.

Stigmatisation and political manipulation of LGBTI issues rarely stops at words; it often goes on to adversely affect how LGTBI rights are protected at policy level and by law. At a very minimum, as highlighted in ILGA-Europe’s 2021 annual review, the current polarisation has brought the adoption of new legislative proposals protecting the rights of LGBTI people to a standstill. Transgender Europe has reported a slowdown in new initiatives increasing the protection of trans people. Bills that should be uncontroversial have spurred heated political debate. For example, in Italy, a bill ensuring that sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned along with other grounds in a law prohibiting hate speech and hate crimes, has been blocked for months. Opponents have argued that this move threatens freedom of expression and freedom of thought. But, as clearly established by the European Court of Human Rights, hate speech against LGBTI people is not protected by freedom of expression, and neither is it by freedom of belief. In countries where politicians proudly voicing anti-LGBTI positions are in government, we already see a dismantling of existing LGBTI rights or positive policies, for example with regard to legal gender recognition.

Towards political will for inclusion instead of political manipulation of homo/transphobia

This trend for political manipulation of homo/transphobia in Europe must be tackled without further delay. In line with ECRI’s General Policy Recommendation on combating hate speech, I urge member states to take measures to ensure that politicians refrain from making derogatory comments about LGBTI people. Political parties and parliaments should adopt codes of ethics that prohibit and punish homophobic and transphobic hate speech. Public representatives should systematically condemn homophobic and transphobic speech. There must be no impunity for particularly serious cases of incitement to hatred and violence by politicians.

In addition to refraining from spreading hate, political leaders should take positive steps to foster a culture of equal treatment and equality. As highlighted in Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, “public officials and other state representatives should be encouraged to promote tolerance and respect for the human rights of LGBTI people”. Similarly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe also underscored the specific responsibilities of political leaders in combating hate speech and intolerance in its Resolution 2275 (2019). The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities highlighted in a recent report that “whatever their political backgrounds, mayors and local and regional councillors have a responsibility vis-à-vis all their fellow citizens to establish inclusive societies based not on prejudice and the rejection of others, but on dialogue and concertation.”

I realise that it sometimes takes real political courage and wisdom to tackle deep-rooted homophobia and transphobia. Standing up for a minority group’s human rights may not always be popular with one’s political base. But we need politicians who are not afraid to lead by example. I want to salute just a few recent examples of such courage. I commend the President of North Macedonia for joining in this year’s Pride March in Skopje, which was only the second ever to take place in the country. In the United Kingdom, a cross-party group of lesbian, gay and bisexual Members of Parliament also spoke up in support of transgender people in the midst of a contentious public debate. The President of the European Commission, when announcing the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025, also sent a powerful message in favour of inclusion and diversity by stating that “being yourself is not your ideology. It’s your identity”.

Overall, member states must work to bring about broader changes in societal attitudes towards LGBTI people. This requires outreach campaigns and education in schools to promote understanding and respect of the human rights of LGBTI people. LGBTI human rights defenders are doing amazing work to counter the spread of hate and should be better supported. Member states should also ensure a strong national human rights infrastructure is in place to protect LGBTI people when political leaders fail in their responsibilities. This includes national legislation prohibiting discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes based on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics, and effective national human rights structures which can work to denounce abuse. In this regard, I have noted the crucial work undertaken by the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights in recent years in challenging anti-LGBTI declarations and “family charters” before the courts.

Politicians’ scapegoating of LGBTI people for their own gain is only a symptom of their more widespread opposition to and assault on human rights and the rule of law. In some countries, they portray the recognition of the human rights of LGBTI people as an external imposition that goes against national tradition or wield the issue in their confrontation with European and international institutions. In doing so, they clearly challenge the values and the human rights system on which our continent is built. Human rights are universal and indivisible: ensuring that everyone in society can enjoy them is the key to cohesive, peaceful societies where everyone can strive. Pitting groups of people against each other breeds tensions, hate and violence – only serving the narrow interests of some unscrupulous politicians.

Europe is at a crossroads in the protection and inclusion of LGBTI people. By standing up for LGBTI people, we defend the equal human dignity of all, protect our societies’ wellbeing and the strength of our precious human rights system. Targeting, scapegoating or ignoring one group can ultimately negatively affect us all.

Dunja Mijatović