ZOiS Spotlight 18/2018

The politics of homophobia in Eastern Europe

by Richard Mole 16/05/2018
Prague Pride, Wikimedia Commons

The 14 years since the first International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia have witnessed a marked improvement for LGBT people in many states across Europe. More recently, however, some of these advances have been eroded or are at risk as a result of the rise of populism and nationalism in several states – most noticeably Poland and Russia.

Life for gays and lesbians under communism was hard. In Poland, although homosexuality was not criminalised, it was presented by the state as a symptom of ‘Western depravity’ and inconsistent with socialist morality. As a result, homosexuals were often kept under observation by the security services, with an individual’s homosexuality becoming of interest to the authorities if it could be used as a means of recruitment or blackmail. In the Soviet Union, sexual relations between men were punishable with up to five years’ hard labour in prison. Same-sex relations between Soviet women, however, were never criminalised.

The collapse of communism marked a watershed in the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Russians and Poles. Consenting sexual acts between adult men were decriminalised in Russia in 1993, and in the mid-1990s gay and lesbian organisations and publications mushroomed, before dwindling to almost none by the early years of the new millennium in the face of official harassment and cuts in overseas funding. Nevertheless, according to opinion polls, attitudes to sexual minorities become increasingly tolerant throughout the 1990s, with 47 per cent of Russians relating to sexual minorities ‘kindly, calmly or with interest’ by 2003. Similarly, after 1989, LGBT Poles had less to fear from the police and the state authorities, and gay and lesbian venues opened across the country—at least in the larger cities. However, the long-hoped-for liberation for LGBT citizens in both states ultimately came into conflict with attempts by politicians to redefine Polish and Russian national identity for political gain.

Nationality and homosexuality in Poland

In the context of the social turmoil triggered by the end of the communist system across Eastern Europe, nationalism provided a sense of cohesion and stability by offering a credible explanation of the past and a guide for the present and the future. To ensure the continued existence of the nation in its desired ethnic form, nationalist politicians put considerable effort into promoting its biological and cultural reproduction, a process that could be ensured only by naturalising the traditional family and associated public and private roles of men and women. LGBT people were thus constructed as threatening the nation by undermining the traditional family, failing to contribute to the reproduction of the nation, challenging national stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, and deviating from shared norms, especially those derived from religion. This made them a ‘legitimate’ target for nationalist politicians.

In Poland, the country’s accession to the European Union (EU) in 2004 led to an intense political debate about the place of LGBT people in Polish society. Given the EU’s introduction of various measures aimed at promoting the legal equality of sexual minorities, nationalist politicians presented the EU’s liberal position towards LGBT rights as a threat to national values, and populist politicians used those rights to draw a boundary between the ‘decadent West’ and the ‘traditional East’. Criticism by the European Parliament of Poland’s failure to protect its LGBT citizens was interpreted as highly patronising and resulted in a feeling of wounded national pride and a backlash against both the EU and the promotion of LGBT rights, the two now being seen as inextricably linked.

It therefore became a matter of national sovereignty that politicians be allowed to criticise sexual minorities, with homophobia becoming ‘the new voice of patriotism’. This instrumentalisation of homophobia helped sweep the populist Law and Justice party to victory in Poland’s 2015 parliamentary election, as the party sought to appeal to those ‘left behind’ and present itself as the champion of traditional values.

‘Homosexual propaganda’ in Russia

Unlike in Poland, when Russian president Vladimir Putin felt his political position to be under threat, he resorted to attacking sexual minorities. The mass demonstrations against the falsification of the 2012 presidential election results prompted him to seek to reaffirm his political legitimacy by protecting ‘traditional Russian values’ in the face of alien ideas from the West, such as tolerance of homosexuality. Restricting LGBT rights has enabled Putin to clamp down on actual and potential opponents and shore up support among the conservative majority. In addition, it has allowed him to entrench traditional Russian values in the face of the spread of Western liberal ideas, which Putin blames for corrupting the nation’s youth and fuelling opposition to his rule. And by tapping into pre-existing antipathy towards sexual minorities, he has been able to use homosexuality as a lightning rod to divert attention from political corruption and Russia’s weakening economy.

Putin’s construction of homosexuality as both non-traditional and thereby non-Russian—in tandem with his rigorous defence of traditional values as the foundation of the Russian nation’s greatness—has successfully legitimised the marginalisation of the country’s LGBT citizens. The international outcry these policies triggered was vociferous but only strengthened the association of sexual minorities with the West. Putin could simply provide Western tolerance of homosexuality at the expense of Russian national values as further proof that he was right all along.

As the cases of Poland and Russia show, homophobia can be a very useful tool for populist and nationalist politicians to discredit liberal opponents and shore up support among conservative voters. As long as homosexuality in Eastern Europe is seen as alien—and specifically Western—rather than an inherent part of all national cultures, nationalist and populist politicians in Poland and Russia look set to continue to reap the benefits of constructing gays and lesbians as disloyal enemies of the state.

Richard Mole is a senior lecturer in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) at University College London.