Drawing borders within borders

Abortion is still illegal in a number of EU countries and LGBT people are publicly harassed. The conservatives of Europe favour policies that limit sexual and reproductive freedom. What are progressives doing about this?

Belgrade, October 2010. A thousand demonstrators are celebrating Pride behind a wall of five thousand heavily equipped police officers. On the other side, more than six thousand counter-demonstrators are attacking the police. Some with insults and invocations of hell’s gates and banners saying homosexuality is equal to paedophilia, others with rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. To calls urging “death to homosexuals”, more than one hundred people are hurt, most of them police officers. Nearly as many are arrested.

It is the first time since 2001 that a Pride demonstration has been held in Belgrade. Activists have tried since then, but the government has refused, citing safety problems.

The previous year, Pride was cancelled last minute, after rightwing extremist and nationalist groups such as the infamous youth organization Obraz published death threats. These targeted, among others, Boban Stojanovic, a peace and LGBT activist, one of few openly gay public figures in Serbia?

When the parade permit was withdrawn, fascist hooligans celebrated with a rancorous demonstration – outside Boban Stojanovic’s home.

Serbia is not the only country with a government that takes ultra nationalist and orthodox currents into account when it comes to LGBT politics. Behind the headlines of financial crises and fear of migration, a war of varying intensity is being held against LGBT persons, particularly in eastern and southern Europe. What these countries have in common is conservative rightwing governments, a powerful orthodox or Catholic Church, and more or less well-organized and militant neo-fascist movements. The LGBT movement in these countries are not only fighting fascists and armed religious fundamentalists, but also a massive parliamentary aversion to admitting their elementary freedoms and rights.

In Hungary, sexuality and gender identity have been omitted as worthy of protection in the new constitution, which also establishes that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

In Lithuania the “promotion of sexuality” and “homosexual propaganda” has been criminalized. In 2010, Vytautas Landsbergis, the country’s first president after the Soviet occupation and currently a member of the European Parliament, claimed that homosexuality and paedophilia are closely related. In a speech in the European Parliament, he used the self-invented term “homophilic paedophilia” [sic] as his main argument.

During the Italian municipal elections in spring 2011, Silvio Berlusconi asserted that Milan would be overflowing with “immigrants, gays, gypsies and mosques” if people did not vote for Berlusconi’s candidate. This same Berlusconi, when facing a possible lawsuit for paying for sex with a minor, defended himself by saying “it is better to have a passion for beautiful girls than to be gay”.

The Moscow leadership bans one Pride parade after another, and when activists counter by going ahead with the demonstrations, according to the constitutional freedom of assembly, they are assaulted and arrested. The fact that Pride took place in Belgrade in Autumn 2010, despite everything, does not mean that Serbia has suddenly become and LGBT friendly country. According to opinion polls, 67 per cent of Serbs think that homosexuality is an illness and 49 per cent say that they would not “tolerate” a family member who came out as a homosexual.

However, the Serb government, which under Prime Minister Boris Tadic is striving to become an EU member, wanted to show that Serbia is a modern country, respecting freedom of assembly and speech. One might therefore conclude that the EU is a kind of a warranty against the most militant homo/transphobia. This is far from the truth. The European Union as a political body is hardly the most rainbow-coloured advocate of LGBT rights.

In order to be considered as EU accession candidates, countries must indeed show that they respect freedom of assembly and speech and do not, in any legistlation, discriminate against minorities such as Roma and LGBT persons. However, experience tells us that very little is done when countries, once they are within the Union, persecute these same minorities.

It is not only disastrous for the LGBT population in Italy when the country’s parliamentary Right goes so far in its tolerance of attacks on gay, lesbian and transgender people. When “old” member countries of the EU, such as Italy, treat minorities harshly, the possibility for newer member countries to introduce clearly discriminatory legislation à la Lithuania increases. The organization behind Europride felt obliged to re-locate the festival in Rome in an attempt to move forward the strictly marginalized LGBT movement.

The fact that countries such as Malta, Poland and Ireland continue to prohibit abortion, even in cases where the woman’s life is at risk, decreases the possibility of resistance when Lithuania wishes to pass similar laws, or when anti-abortion organizations, with the help of American Christian fundamentalists, decorate the whole of Slovakia with giant images of aborted foetuses, putting abortion on par with murder.

The fact is that in issues concerning sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) there is no way to put effective pressure on the attitudes of any individual member state attitudes. The term SRHR includes, in addition to LGBT rights, the right to abortion, contraception and sexual education, and is subject to the subsidiarity principle. This means that each member state passes its own legislation and that the EU has no say on whether or not abortions are legal or whether artificial insemination is available to LGTB persons or only to heterosexuals.

In a Europe, where social democracy and the broad Left has continued to lose ground during the past decade, and where the neoliberal market economy is now accompanied by an increasingly rightwing (even fascist) conservatism, we might be in a position where we should be thankful for subsidiarity. Without this, the right to abortion and the right for LGBT people (in some member states) to become parents would perhaps be facing an uncertain future.

For those living in countries where these rights exist, subsidiarity is a protection against conservative attacks. For LGBT people in Hungary, Lithuania or Malta, or women in Poland and Ireland, this protection is not as self-evident. Nor is it for the millions of people around the world who, every year, depend on EU aid – because when it comes to the EU’s international role, consensus is required. When the EU speaks with one voice, for example in the UN, or when it comes to joint EU aid (by far the world’s greatest), the conservative and religious countries block all progressive subsidies.

This means not only that the EU has to stand in the moral conservative corner together with Sudan and Iran, but also that millions of women in countries that receive EU aid will keep dying as a consequence of unsafe abortions and dangerous pregnancies, since the EU does not support sexual education or means for preventing death during childbirth; and that men who have sex with men are made invisible when it comes to HIV prevention.

Moreover, ever since the Lisbon Treaty, the influence of the Vatican, as well as other religious institutions and congregations, has increased as a result of being brought into the policy-making process. The Vatican also spends millions of euros lobbying the European parliament openly as well as more secretly.

Irene Donadio, head lawyer at the International Planned Parenthood in Brussels, says that the future for SRHR issues within the EU looks bleak. Not least because the European Commission does not want even to come in contact with SRHR. The Commission’s fear of conflict and critique from the member states, and the Vatican’s representative on Malta in particular, boils down to issues of sexual and reproductive rights today being “dead”.

Unfortunately the European Commission’s silence is shared by the more progressive states of the union. The fear of political conflict takes priority over rights and health. When a country like Sweden, in the eyes of the world synonymous with sexual freedom, during its six months of EU presidency did not consider abortion and LGBT rights even worth mentioning, there is hardly any reason for religiously conservative countries to do so either.

However, there is a small ray of hope for LGBT persons: the Lisbon Treaty stipulates that LGBT people should be protected from social and economic discrimination, even if this directive so far has had few real consequences.

Nationalist movements in countries like Poland, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Lithuania see EU membership as a threat to the nation – as yet another case of a foreign power exerting control over them. The fact that the EU requires countries to allow Pride Parades makes the nationalists’ opposition to EU membership a catalyst for homophobia – and vice versa. In addition to existing homophobia, harassing Pride Parades is also a way to attack the state. It is no coincidence that the young men who turned Belgrade into a warzone during the Pride Parade did the exact same thing some week earlier, that time as football hooligans.

Within radical Islamist movements as well – with their focus on the family, on “traditional” gender roles, on religious and ideological purity and hatred of majority society – homophobia? and anti-abortion thrives. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon to find mutual respect as well as unholy alliances between radical Islamist and neo-fascist movements, where conservatism, antisemitism and fascism form the common ground.

In a Swedish context, there is no one whose actions personify these traits more than Iran-born poet Mohamed Omar. Among his promoters one will find public intellectuals such as antisemite Lasse Wilhelmsson and the homophobe Jan Myrdal – as well as neo-Nazis.

National movements’ attitude to LGBT persons differs according to whether Muslims are seen as the greatest threat to Europe and the nation or whether Jews and immigrants are the target or hatred. The Swedish party Sverigedemokraterna, the Sweden Democrats, is not alone to have abandoned antisemitism and homophobia? in favour of a “culture struggle”, where Muslims and Islam is the enemy. This is an attitude that can also be seen in the traditional Swedish Right. The editorial of the rightwing newspaper Svenska Dagbladet regularly uses LGBT rights as a weapon against Islam and Muslims. The opposite, attacking the Right for homophobia, rarely occurs, if ever.

This development places high demands on the Left and feminist activists, as well as LGBT movements. In the future, they will need to navigate between these various fields: one populated by antagonists in lace-up boots and an explosive conservatism that openly harasses the rights of LGBT people and women; the other by more businesslike nationalists in suits, who harass Muslims in the name of the same rights.

It might be true that the Right gathered force in recent years and taken charge of sexual politics. However, the Right has always owned sexual politics. At times, the Left has, together with liberals, introduced more progressive legislation, but the Right’s obsession with sexuality and people’s bodies has always been greater. This obsession has formed the borders along which sexual politics are forced to navigate. Now more than ever.

A crucial difference between conservatives and progressives, when it comes to sexual politics, is exactly this: obsession. While progressives tend to lean back and consider the battle won when marriage has become gender neutral and the right to abortion has been made legal, the other side never stops fighting.

The conservative struggle for sexual restrictions is not only waged in southern and eastern Europe’s relatively new democracies. Anti-abortion activists in France recently managed to persuade the Supreme Court to accord the right to enter a foetus in the national registry in the case of a miscarriage – no matter how far advanced the pregnancy. This opens the path to civil cases on behalf of aborted foetuses and, by extension, precedent-setting legislation where life begins – and is thus inviolable – from the moment of fertilization.

The fact that sexual and reproductive health and rights are at the bottom of the political agenda makes Europe’s increasingly conservative parliament an even greater problem. There are big headlines when thousands of hooligans turn Belgrade into a battlefield in order to demonstrate their hatred of LGBT people and the state they claim is far too ingratiating to the same. Hungarian gays, lesbians and transgender people forced to live their lives in the shadows of society for of fear of violence, or Italian LGBT people who find it just as well to emigrate, do not make the headlines.

When was Carl Bildt last seen stepping up for the right to abortion? Or Angela Merkel for the freedom of speech and movement for LGBT persons?

The situation is not made any better by liberals adopting the rhetoric of the far Right, and/or claiming that Muslims are the greatest threat against the “open societies” they so feverishly declare they want to protect from beggars, veiled women and swarthy men.

The Left, on the other hand, needs to start living according to their ideals of solidarity and equality. Gay, lesbian and transgender people are being killed and persecuted, even when economic crisis seem to drown every other political commitment.

Published 20 January 2012
Original in Swedish
Translated by Caroline Åberg
First published by Arena 4/2011 (Swedish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Arena © Anna Hellgren / Arena / Eurozine



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