ANALYSIS: why are LGBT+ people a key target of the far right in eastern Europe?

By Martin Smith and Tash Shifrin | 22 February 2021

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa with a rainbow halo – three people are on trial for putting up posters with this image. Pic credit: ILGA-Europe

[UPDATE 2 March 2021:Good news – the courts today acquitted Elżbieta Podleśna, Anna Prus and Joanna Gzyra, who were charged and faced possible jail sentences over the rainbow Virgin Mary posters in the picture above. Gratulacje! ]

When Vladimir Putin’s Russian government passed laws attacking LGBT+ rights back in 2011 he was mockingly labeled the “Czar of homophobia”. But the seeds of his offensive are now bearing bitter fruit – and not only in Russia.

Anti-LGBT+ hate has always existed in far right circles, but in recent years across central and eastern Europe, far right governments and movements are making opposition to so-called “LGBT ideology” a central plank of their political agendas.

Here, we look at why and how fascist and far right organisations – in and out of government – in central and eastern Europe are using homophobia to mobilise support.

A target of the far right in power

Where governments adopt homophobic measures, the consequences are severe. Russian law now bans so-called “homosexual propaganda”, with fines and possible jail sentences for people who talk positively about LGBT+ issues in the presence of minors.

And last year two thirds of Russian voters supported a referendum proposal defining marriage as “exclusively a union between a man and a woman”.

The far right’s term “LGBT ideology” was defined and crystallised in a speech by Poland’s far right president Andrzej Duda in 2020, when he described “LGBT” as “neo-Bolshevism” and an “ideology” worse than the former Polish communist regime. Duda has since claimed that he is not against LGBT people but rather this supposed “ideology”.

Duda’s homophobic notion of “LGBT ideology” – or sometimes “gender ideology” – centres on seeing LGBT+ people as a threat to traditional conservative “family values” and a belief that a so-called LGBT “lifestyle” is being promoted by global elites in an attempt to weaken the nation state.

Opposition to LGBT+ rights in Poland is now a key element in the programme of the ruling far right Law and Justice Party (PiS). Today over 100 municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”.

And three equality activists are on trial – facing possible jail terms of up to two years – for distributing posters with the image shown at the top of this page, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa with a rainbow halo, in protest at a homophobic display made by a church.

In 2020 Duda made homophobia a central feature of his election campaign, launching a “family charter” of election promises, including pledges to prevent gay couples from marrying or adopting children and to ban teaching about LGBT+ issues in schools.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s LGBT+ community has been firmly in the sights of Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian Fidesz government. In May 2020 the government voted to end legal recognition of trans people and, in November, it amended the constitution to declare that in a family “the father is a man and the mother is a woman”.

In one speech Orbán accused western Europe of forfeiting “the happiness generated by marriage and one’s descendants” and experimenting with “rainbowing, migration, and open societies”.

Only last month the Fidesz government ordered Labrisz (an association for lesbian, bisexual and trans women), to print disclaimers in an anthology of fairytales it had published called Wonderland is for Everyone. Fidesz claimed it contained “behaviour inconsistent with traditional gender roles”. Orbán went one step further, denouncing the book as “homosexual propaganda”.

Wonderland is for Everyone – the book Hungary’s far right Fidesz loves to hate

This is not the first time the book has been targeted by the far right: the nazi Our Nation Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom) shredded a copy of the book at its founding press conference last September.

Croatia and Slovakia have also held referendums on proposals to institutionalise a definition of marriage as “heterosexual”. There has also been a failed attempt by far right parties in the Czech Republic to pass similar legislation.

On top of this, governments in Armenia, Hungary, Poland and Russia have banned LGBT+ events.

These attacks are part of the far right’s implementation of a broad range of policies whose aims are to alter laws around the questions of reproductive rights, abortion and sex education in schools.

Social attitudes

A 2019 review conducted by the international LGBTI Queer Rights group found there was a sharp rise of hate speech against LGBT+ people across much of central and eastern Europe, noting that hate speech “often” came from public officials.

Worryingly, anti-LGBT+ sentiment is growing in many eastern and central European states. Between 2015 and 2017 the Pew Research Center found that only 18% of Bulgarians, 27% of Hungarians, 32% of Poles and 47% of Slovakians supported the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry – although in all western European countries the overwhelming majority supports same sex marriage.

In a survey asking Poles to identify what they felt was the “biggest threat to their way of life”, the most popular answer from Polish men over 40 was “the LGBT movement and gender ideology”.

The survey also found that 13% of people in Hungary thought that people in same-sex relationships should be treated as criminals.

Violence on the streets

But anti-LGBT+ repression in the region is not confined to repressive laws and hate speech. According to equality and human rights group ILGA-Europe, levels of violence aimed at LGBT+ people are growing. Pride marches have been attacked and – horrifically – there have been several well publicised murders of LGBT+ people and their allies in Poland and Russia.

A study by the University of Warsaw found that two thirds of people identifying as LGBT+ in Poland have experienced physical or psychological violence.

In Ukraine, where fascist parties and paramilitary groups are strong, the authorities have acknowledged that sexual orientation and gender identity crimes are among the “most widespread form of hate-crime” in the country.

ILGA-Europe has pointed out that far right and nazi groups are perpetrating much of the violence being meted out to the LGBT+ community.

Fascism and homophobia

Opposition to the LGBT+ community has always been a feature of classical fascism. As with their far right populist counterparts, fascists make the sanctity of the traditional nuclear family and the role of the father as the provider central to their ideology.

In Mussolini’s Italy, hundreds of gay men were labeled “degenerate” and many were internally exiled on the Tremiti Islands.

In Hitler’s Germany, the Nazis’ vision for women was one of marriage and childbearing. The Nazis used opposition to LGBT+ people as part of their “moral crusade” to defend the family and stamp out “deviant behaviour”.

The Nazis treated gay men as a threat to their vision of a virile nation and their belief in machismo and masculinity. Hitler’s right-hand man, Heinrich Himmler, claimed gay men did not contribute to the “growth of the Aryan population”.

Gay men imprisoned by the Nazis in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Germany, 1938

By 1935 the Nazis started the Lebensborn Programme, a eugenics project that encouraged women to have children with SS men to create a pure Aryan race. The twisted logic of this position came to fruition during the Holocaust when gay men were sent to concentration camps, forced to wear pink triangles and constituted the lowest rung in the camp hierarchy – before being murdered.

That legacy of murder has stretched into much more recent times. In Britain, nazi nail bomber David Copeland (a former member of the British National Party and the nazi National Socialism Movement) targeted London’s LGBT+ community. His horrific 1999 nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, the heart of London’s gay community, killed three people and injured 79 others.

And in central and eastern Europe fascist groups have actively and violently targeted LGBT+ people and organisations. The academics Klára Kalibová and Miroslav Mare record that between 2002 and 2011, fascists violently attacked LGBT+ events in Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

We have compiled a list of media reports of attacks carried out by nazis on LGBT+ communities in the region in just one month – September 2019.

  • Belgrade’s Pride Information Centre was attacked by far right ultras. It was the fourth attack on the premises in a year.
  • In Poland, fascists attacked the Lublin and Bialystok Pride events.
  • In Budapest, the nazi Our Nation Movement disrupted a film screening about tackling homophobic bullying of school students.
  • Ultras and fascist groups attacked queer-friendly venues in Hungary and Poland.
  • LGBT+ groups in several universities in Budapest had their meetings and socials disrupted by far right groups.
  • During that month “LGBT Free Zone” stickers and posters appeared all over Poland.

This is just a snapshot of the kind of violence directed at LGBT+ people across the region

Different approaches: east and west

Many traditional fascist and far right parties in western Europe are openly homophobic and oppose LGBT+ rights. For example the far right Lega party and its ally the Brothers of Italy (FdI) continually attempt to block any progressive LGBT+ legislation. Supporters of these groups have also been involved in horrific attacks on LGBT+ people and their allies.

In Britain, the BNP was also openly homophobic and argued for an extension of the homophobic Section 28 legislation introduced by the Toriues under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

There is a growing body of evidence showing that as the influence of the far right grows hate crime and violent attacks against LGBT+ people increase.

For example, Arcigay (Italy’s oldest LGBT+ organisation) has noted that anti-LGBT+ hate crime had been on the rise in Italy since the rise of Matteo Salvini and the Lega.

In the US, the 2019 National Crime Victimisation Survey found that respondents believed hate crime against the LGBT+ community had risen under now departed president Donald Trump’s administration. In the run-up to Trump’s election as president in 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Centre recorded 201 hate incidents against LGBT+ people.

This is clearly the case in central and eastern Europe.

But elsewhere, some fascist and far right parties and movements have adopted a more “LGBT+ friendly” approach. For example Pim Fortuyn, the Islamophobe and leader of the Dutch far right from the mid-1990s until his assassination in 2002, was openly gay. Fortuyn paved the way for Geert Wilders’ far right PVV in the Netherlands and remains an influential figure for the far right there.

The English Defence League street movement formerly led by fascist “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) publicly stated that it supported LGBT+ rights and often had a rainbow flag on its protests, although its actual support in the LGBT+ community was negligible.

The fascist Sweden Democrats held a “gay pride” event in a majority Muslim neighbourhood in Stockholm in 2015.

Even Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Rassemblement National in France (formerly the Front National), has distanced herself from some of the party’s more extreme homophobic proclamations.

How do we understand this ideological shift among far right parties in northern and western Europe?

The more astute operators on the far right – especially those focused on electoral gains – understand that outright opposition to LGBT+ and women’s rights is a vote loser and ctheir political shift can be partially be explained by political expediency and the so-called “modernisation” strategies adopted by fascist parties.

Secondly, this turn has to be viewed through the racist lens of the far right. These parties, which make heavy use of anti-Muslim racism, are playing up support for the LGBT+ community as a way of portraying Muslims, who they stereotype as homophobic, as “intolerant” and a supposed danger to “Western Civilisation”.

It is also important to note that the apparent shift towards supporting LGBT+ rights does not go far beyond a surface gloss. In private, and sometimes in public, figures in the EDL, Sweden Democrats and Rassemblement National have made outrageous homophobic comments and been involved in violent attacks on LGBT+ people and venues.

Far right homophobia and the church

Historically the Catholic Church – among others – has opposed LGBT+ rights. However, a developing feature of this current period has been the alignment of sections of the church with far right governments and parties in central and eastern Europe, especially in the Visegrád countries (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). Sections of the church now publicly use the far right term “LGBT ideology”.

Poland’s Catholic bishops have adopted an official position opposing LGBT+ rights, arguing that these were an imposition of a “moral and cultural transformation by gradually accustoming society to behaviours that until recently were considered morally reprehensible”.

The document also supports “conversion therapy” – a harmful fake-science process that claims to be able to change LGBT+ people’s sexual orientation. In a sermon to mark the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, the archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewski, referred to the “threat” from gay rights campaigners as a “rainbow plague”. He also compared “LGBT ideology” to Nazism and Soviet communism.

At the annual Bishops’ conference of the Visegrád Countries, delegates pledged their support for Poland’s anti-LGBT+ drive.

Zoltán Osztie, a Hungarian priest, appeared on Hír TV where he described it as sacrilege to “place the faggot flag next to the flag of our nation”. He also stated, “one must choose between being Hungarian and belonging to the LGBTQ community”.

Several far right parties and leaders are more closely aligning themselves with sections of the Catholic Church. Orbán, who is himself a Calvinist, now provides the Catholic Church with large state grants and refers to Hungary as a Christian homeland. He has stated, “Christianity is Europe’s last hope.”

Poland’s PiS government proclaims that it wants to see a Catholic Poland in a Christian Europe. The recent ban on nearly all abortion in Poland – which has sparked huge pro-choice abortion rights protests – should be seen as a further tightening of ties between the PiS government and the church.

This desire for a Christian Europe also dovetails with the far right’s campaigns against Muslims, migration from majority Muslim countries and the antisemitic campaigns framed around the figure of US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish.

Sections of the Catholic Church are prepared to link arms with the far right because they believe this relationship will help promote its social agenda and protect the sanctity of the church. For the far right this alliance is a crude case of electoral endorsement from the pulpit.

A small number of Catholic officials have gone even further and are openly flirting with fascism. Priests and nuns have joined pro-family and anti-LGBT+ protests organised by nazis in Hungary and Poland and even blessed their marches.

A fridge magnet showing a fist clenching a rosary, with the symbol and slogan of the fascist-led Independence Day march in Warsaw. Pic credit: Dream Deferred

But there are limits to the alliances between the church and far right parties. At present it appears that the far right does not want to see a return to clericalism or to reinstate the Catholic Church as a major player in affairs of state.

Likewise, the church has not been prepared to throw its lot in completely with far right governments. Some leading church figures have denounced the PiS and Fidesz.

During Poland’s mass revolt against the attacks on abortion provision in 2016 the church eventually pulled away from backing the legislation fearing major divisions within its congregations.

Why is homophobia more prevalent in eastern Europe?

Homophobia is a feature of all European societies but it is more entrenched in sections of the population in central and eastern Europe. Little research has been conducted into why this is the case.

Here we suggest some tentative explanations. First, is the power and influence of the churches, which had been repressed by the stalinist regimes in eastern Europe and enjoyed a resurgence of support after their collapse.

A survey conducted by the IBRiS research institute in 2017 found that less than a third of Poles had trust in their government yet support for the Catholic Church stood at 40% (although that had fallen by 13 percentage points from 2013).

In Romania, where much of the population is Orthodox Christian, a 2019 survey by pollsters INSCOP of the level of trust in different institutionsfound that 56.8% of the population trusted the church, yet only 12.4% had confidence in the government and just 9.8% trusted parliament.

A similar picture is found across the region. And despite a decline in recent years, the relatively high levels of support for the church means it remains a powerful social force.

This is not the case in western Europe, where a 2018 study carried out by the Pew Research Centre noted that – with the exception of Italy, Ireland and Portugal – the numbers attending church at least once a month were low. In Britain, for example, less than 18% of the population attended church this often.

A second possible factor is the impact of transition from the Stalinist “Communist” economic model to free market capitalism created a huge economic, social and political dislocation.

The fear and hardship caused by this transition has seen many people (especially in rural areas) fall back on the so-called “traditional way of life”, seeing the family and church as their safety net.

Issues such as migration, LGBT+ rights and globalisation are portrayed by sections of the church and the far right as being responsible for the ills of society. And LGBT+ equality is portrayed by racist and nationalist far right parties as part of a general liberal threat from “outside” to “tradional” national identity.

PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, for example, condemned “that entire LBGT movement, gender”, saying, “This is imported, but they today actually threaten our identity, our nation, its continuation and therefore the Polish state.”

Finally, the weakness of the left after transition has enabled the far right to whip up racism – including anti-Roma sentiment, antisemitism and Islamophobia – as well as homophobia with little opposition.

But there are now real signs that the far right’s narrative on LGBT+ equality and wider social issues is increasingly being challenged.

Resistance

Despite the high levels of homophobia in eastern and central Europe, support for LGBT+ rights is growing among young people across the region.

So while the figures supporting gay men and lesbians’ right to marry are depressingly low, it is worth noting that support for same-sex marriage is twice as high among people aged under 30.

And the LGBT+ movement is growing in confidence. In Poland, 12 Pride marches took place in 2019, a record number. In the Hungarian capital Budapest, the Pride march in 2019 was not attacked by fascist gangs for the first time in 15 years.

LGBT+ activists and groups are also playing significant roles in the campaigns against the far right in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Antifascists staged a superb banner drop on the route of the fascist-led Independence Day march in Warsaw. Pic credit: Dream Deferred

In Poland organisations including Kampania Przeciw Homofobii (Campaign Against Homophobia) and Lambda Warszawa are spearheading campaigns against LGBT+ hate crime and the far right.

One of the most inspiring campaigns has centred on Margot, a non binary activist who was placed in pre-trial detention for two months last year.

Margot was accused of assaulting a van driver who was broadcasting homophobic messages from a loudspeaker. Margot was also arrested for “insulting religious feelings and insulting Warsaw monuments”, their crime – putting rainbow flags on statues in the city.

After Margot’s detention, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Warsaw. Some 48 people were arrested on charges of taking part in an illegal gathering. Many activists drew parallels between the campaign to defend Margot and the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York. The hashtag #PolishStonewall trended on Twitter.

The campaign to defend Margot is part of a much wider and developing campaign of opposition to the far right in Poland and Hungary, centred on gay-friendly clubs, DJs and music promoters.

The Polish dance music community has organised national petitions, online conferences, parties and protests against the far right. Their sound systems and young, dancing supporters have been prominent on counter-protests against the far right.

In Poland, homophobia was one of the themes of the 2019 Independence Day march led by fascists in Warsaw. Alongside nazi and white supremacist insignia and antisemitic motifs, were banners and symbols denouncing LGBT people along with luridly illustrated anti-abortion banners.

But LGBT+ rights and the wider club scene were crucial to the counter-protest organised by antifascists on the day. The Antifascist Coalition (Koalicja Antyfaszystowska), which organised the loud and lively protest – see the video below for a flavour of the day – said 15,000 turned out, significantly bigger than previous mobilisations.

A group of antifascist activists also succeeded in a superb banner-drop on the route of the fascist-led march. Painted across a Polish flag were LGBT, Roma, Jewish, Christian and Muslim symbols.

A similar pro-equality club scene is developing in Hungary particularly in Budapest and Szeged.

The situation in central and eastern Europe is ominous as the far right, the church and the bigots try to push the LGBT+ community back into the closet.

But the growing resistance is something to celebrate in this LGBT+ History Month – and it’s a source of inspiration, hope and optimism for LGBT+ people, antifascists and the wider left internationally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *