Europe’s New Gay Cold War

Demonstrators wearing Vladimir Putin masks kiss as they take part in a rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Paris in September 2013.

Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images

An old new power struggle is underway in Europe. With Russia on one side and the United States and the European Union on the other, the struggle is geopolitical—in Ukraine, violently so. But it is also ideological, a clash of values and cultures at the heart of which is the question of whether societies should integrate or ostracize their LGBTQ citizens. It is Europe’s new gay Cold War.

In countries aligned with the United States and the European Union, the general trend on LGBTQ rights is toward greater equality under the law. In 2014, the United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland) became the 10th country in Europe to legalize same-sex marriage, and beginning on Jan. 1, 2015, Luxembourg will be the 11th. In 2013, Croatia, Malta, and Gibraltar made same-sex unions legal. In the coming years, Finland and Estonia will open up legal unions to same-sex couples, while Ireland will hold a referendum on the subject in May 2015.

One of the most admirable aspects of Obama-era foreign policy has been the decision to use American soft power to actively promote LGBTQ rights, including in Europe. Since I frequently meet with LGBTQ rights organizations in Eastern Europe, I have learned that many of them receive financial, logistical, and moral support from U.S. Embassies and NGOs in their countries, as well as from European embassies. Qesh in Kosovo, for example, receives assistance from USAID and the Finnish Embassy.

By contrast, the experience of being queer in Russia today modulates between miserable and brutish. It is illegal, through the legislation on gay “propaganda,” to speak openly of homosexuality in the street or to petition for LGBTQ rights. Gay people are hunted for sport, beaten, and raped—and the government chooses not to respond. The work of LGBTQ organizations is suppressed not only by the propaganda laws but also by legislation on the funding of NGOs, whereby groups involved in “political activity” and in receipt of foreign funding are subject to increased scrutiny from the Russian authorities. Streams of dissent are being choked as foreign media outlets, including CNN, are ceasing to broadcast in Russia, while non-state TV channels are closing.

As Mark Joseph Stern put it so succinctly in these pages, “By putting the government’s stamp of approval on rampant Russian homophobia, [President Vladimir] Putin effectively declared open season on gay people.”

Now Russian anti-gay influence is spreading in Europe. After Russia illegally and illegitimately annexed Crimea, its LGBTQ citizens found themselves subject to the anti-gay propaganda law, and the Pride parade scheduled to take place in Sevastopol this summer was canceled. “Before Russian occupation, it was really complicated to be a gay in Ukraine,” Maxim Kornilov, a 29-year-old resident of Crimea, told NBC News. “Now it’s absolutely unbearable.” Moldova adopted an anti-gay propaganda law in 2013 (before overturning it); Kazakhstan and Belarus may be the next nations to adopt one.

Russia’s allies in Europe, particularly in the east, are also those least likely to care for the cause of LGBTQ equality. The counterprotests to this year’s Pride parade in Belgrade, Serbia, were widely covered in the Russian media. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban condemned E.U. sanctions against Russia, and, according to one observer, his increasingly anti-democratic government “has largely succeeded in advancing conservative values, which [tend] to exclude gay people.” In biology classes in Hungarian schools, students are taught that homosexuality is a mental disorder linked to HIV/AIDS, venereal disease, and risky behavior.

“[Putin] had nothing to offer to his former zone of influence,” Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, told BuzzFeed in a 2013 interview. He continued:

So what he’s telling them: “OK, Europe is promising you much more, it’s a better market, they might give you subsidies, they might give you lots of new opportunities and openings. But what you should know is Europe is all about gay rights. If you go to Europe, your family values will be undermined, your traditions will be destroyed. So we as Orthodox unity, we should stick together.”

Russia is indeed able to exercise influence through the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims exclusive jurisdiction over all Orthodox Christians living in the republics of the former Soviet Union. Its churches act as forums for hatred of homosexuality on a weekly basis. And, while it is true that Russia has so far used hard power only in countries on its periphery—notably dismembering Georgia and Ukraine in recent years—it does have some ability to use soft power to influence events in the heart of Europe. Most of the continent, including Germany, is heavily dependent still on imported natural gas, which arrives in pipelines originating in Russia.

Today, the distinction is clear. To align oneself with the United States and the European Union is to accept that one must implement anti-discrimination legislation and protect the rights of minorities—the latter being part both of the Copenhagen Criteria on E.U. membership and the European Convention on Human Rights—and to acquiesce to the use of U.S. money to fund NGOs that promote LGBTQ rights. To avail oneself to Russia as an alternative to U.S. and E.U. influence is to adopt the opposite view and perhaps accept Russian influence on the matter.

This not only goes for nation-states but for political factions, too. All across the continent, anti-European parties on the far right of the political spectrum are drawn to Russia as opponents of U.S. hegemony were pulled into the Soviet orbit during the Cold War. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, has said that the European Union is an “empire” with “blood on its hands” for the crisis in Ukraine, where Putin was “unnecessarily provoked.” Farage also told GQ that Putin was the world leader he most admired.

The European parties that are most pro-Russian tend also to be anti-gay. UKIP does not support same-sex marriage, while the Front National’s Marine Le Pen took part in the anti-marriage-equality Manif Pour Tous demonstrations that rocked France in 2013. In response to the suicide of anti-gay essayist Dominique Venner—who shot himself at the altar of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral shortly after same-sex marriage was legalized in France—Le Pen said, “All respect to Dominique Venner whose final, eminently political act was to try to wake up the people of France.”

Farage and Le Pen represent two different political streams within the European right—Le Pen is a statist; Farage a libertarian—but their anti-gay, anti-E.U. agenda sits happily with that of Putin and his handmaidens in Europe. It illustrates starkly that the annexation of Crimea, the bloodshed in the towns and battlefields of eastern Ukraine, and the awakening of the consciousnesses of Russian minorities in the Baltic states is only one facet of the ongoing struggle in Europe. Just as important is the culture war, a battle where, mercifully, the United States and the European Union have the upper hand, but LGBTQ Europeans are still caught in the middle.