Europe’s LGBTQ Iron Curtain

Gay rights activists march holding a banner calling for same-sex marriages in Zagreb, Croatia, on May 27, 2013. 

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, and 10 years after the largest single expansion of the European Union, an Iron Curtain continues to divide Europe when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

As this year’s Rainbow Europe report (published annually by ILGA Europe, an umbrella organization for 422 European LGBTQ NGOs) demonstrates, the difference between the legal status of queer people in Western and Eastern Europe is stark. While the end of Soviet-style communism and the expansion of European Union membership has brought with it the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression that afford LGBTQ organizations a role in civil society that never existed before, queer Eastern Europeans continue to lack fundamental legal rights and protections when it comes to hate crimes and hate speech; the right to family life, including marriage and adoption; and gender recognition and bodily integrity.

Indeed, Western European nations made up 14 of the top 15 ranked countries in ILGA Europe’s updated index. (A country’s standing is based on its ability or failure to meet criteria in six key areas, ranging from anti-discrimination laws and right to family life to gender recognition and asylum policy.) The United Kingdom was awarded the top spot, after a year in which marriage equality came into effect in England, Wales, and Scotland, and when several government initiatives were introduced to tackle homophobia and transphobia in schools. After the United Kingdom and Belgium, Malta surged up to third in the rankings after it became the first European country to constitutionally outlaw discrimination based on gender identity. In 2014, the Maltese government also legalized civil unions for all couples, including joint adoption rights, and proposed aligning legal gender recognition procedures to the highest human rights standards by allowing trans individuals to change their birth certificates and identification documents without undergoing gender reassignment surgery or receiving a medical diagnosis.

The explanation for this continued division is obviously historic. Its roots are to be found in the ideological schism that divided the continent for 40 years. The process of Eastern European countries coming out of decades of authoritarianism and returning to the democratic family of nations was an all-encompassing economic, social, and political transformation. It is fair to say that LGBTQ rights continue to be seen as a lesser priority by national governments, something that has to wait until everything else has been worked out.

There is also a social and cultural dimension to the division. National governments believe they can “park” the issue of LGBTQ rights, or even turn back the clock, because of the broad absence of support for such rights within the wider society. This can attributed to a number of things, including the pervasiveness of traditional attitudes to sexuality and gender perpetuated by the Orthodox and Catholic churches and the absence of comprehensive civic and sexual education of any sort, let alone of the type that is inclusive of LGBTQ people.

But to focus only on the legacy of the Cold War—which, after all, is part explanation and part excuse for the absence of progress—would be to miss that the Iron Curtain is not the only boundary in Europe that defines the LGBTQ experience. Evident from the Rainbow Europe report is that there are frontiers within Eastern Europe, specifically between the nations that are within the European Union and without, and those that were part of the Soviet Union and those that were spared that experience.

Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, Ukraine, and Belarus are among the worst countries in Europe when it comes to LGBTQ rights. ILGA Europe describes the situation for queer people in Azerbaijan (ranked as the worst nation in Europe for LGBTQ rights) as “very daunting”—they are “almost invisible within a highly repressive society.” Russia and Belarus have their infamous “anti-propaganda” laws, and Russian influence is evident in parts of Ukraine. In the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, as well as the Republic of Crimea, further restrictions have been placed on LGBTQ people’s rights.

Inside the Russian orbit, there is no incentive to either democratize or legitimate the lives of LGBTQ citizens. Indeed, I have argued that between Russia and the European Union, a clash of values and cultures is currently taking place at the heart of which is the question of whether societies should integrate or ostracize LGBTQ people. Only those states in the European Union are seeing any real progress on LGBTQ rights and human rights in general.

That much is evident from the exception that proves the rule on LGBTQ rights in Eastern Europe. Croatia was ranked fifth—above such progressive bastions as Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands—in the ILGA Europe survey, after same-sex registered partnerships became law there and as Croatian authorities acknowledged that legal gender recognition didn’t require surgery or sterilization. ILGA Europe also noted that “freedom of assembly appeared to grow stronger, as Pride events took place across several cities.”

Croatia falls beyond the Iron Curtain and is categorized as being part of the former Yugoslav family of nations. But, as a member of the European Union with a center-left government, that label appears to be becoming less significant as Croatia feels Brussels’ gravitational pull, leaving its neighboring states behind in a state of dysfunction and, in some cases, chaos.

Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo are all consumed by internal and external ethno-religious conflicts that are a tremendous waste of human potential and tend to stunt the growth of civil societies, including groups and institutions that support LGBTQ people. Meanwhile, Macedonia is dealing with its own internal instability and is backsliding toward authoritarianism. “No progress could be noted in a climate of general hostility towards LGBTI people created by mainstream press, most of the political establishment, and society at large,” ILGA Europe said of life in Macedonia this year.

By and large, the experiences of LGBTQ people in Europe continue to be defined by which side of the Iron Curtain you are born or live on. But it is no longer the only important and relevant distinction. Just as important is whether you are inside or outside the European Union., The evidence gathered in the Rainbow Europe report shows that it is much better to be within range of the stability it affords and the values it embodies.