This article was published on June 24th, 2015
Russia has taken a firm stance under Putin to define itself as the defender of Christian civilization in Europe and to actively promote conservative values, a role it played following the French revolution and the liberal revolutions of 1848 when it intervened in European affairs. But while gay rights have faced a brick wall in Russia and gains have been rapidly reversed, it is often forgotten the many steps that countries in the former Soviet bloc have taken towards creating a more equal society for their LGBT citizens. And it’s not just in typically liberal countries such as the Czech Republic where change has occurred.
From Estonia to Slovenia, which was communist but non-aligned, it has been two steps forward for every one step back. And it appears that the direction will continue to be greater equality in these countries.
Just this year in the beautiful hilly and mountainous country of Slovenia, lawmakers voted resoundingly by a 51-28 vote to legalize gay marriage, where registered partnerships were already legal. There may be a referendum to overturn this if the country’s constitutional court allows a referendum to go ahead and polls show conflicting outcomes. However, even if it were to be overturned in a referendum, the fact that nearly two-thirds of lawmakers supported marriage equality is surely a sign of the direction the country is taking.
Poland, the home of the conservative Pope John Paul II, has also sent signs of growing tolerance. While just a decade ago, the country’s capital Warsaw was busy trying to ban gay pride parades, LGBT people are becoming more visible in society. In 2011, Poland elected Europe’s first transgendered politician into its parliament, Anna Grodzka. She was greeted warmly by fellow lawmakers, including kisses on her cheek. At the same time, Robert Biedron was elected Poland’s first openly gay parliamentarian. In December 2014, Biedron became a mayor. After two centuries of occupation and domination by outside powers, Poland’s history as the most liberal and tolerant nation in Europe may about to be resurrected.
Next door in Lithuania, leaders are also standing up for all of its citizens. Recently, one of the country’s singers compared homosexuality to paedophilia (he’s now apologized). But after strongly rebuking the singer, the country’s President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, stated “the sooner Lithuania becomes more open and more tolerant, the better it will be for the country.” She hoped the discussion following the condemnation of the singer will help educate the country’s citizens.
And finally, Estonia is consciously snubbing Russia and charting a different path. This year, Estonia became the first actual former Soviet nation to legally recognize same-sex partnerships in a close 40 to 38 vote. A quarter of the country is made up of ethnic Russians who get their news from Russian state-controlled television and the older generations tend to be quite conservative. Despite this, younger Estonians see themselves more as Scandinavians (they are ethnically very similar to Finns) and look there for their values.
Why have these countries moved towards greater equality for their LGBT citizens rather than turn towards a medieval conservatism as Russia is doing? Well, they are all member states in the European Union. While the EU does not mandate things such as marriage equality, it does guarantee the right to protest and to hold gay pride parades. It also mandates anti-discrimination laws. These all had to be put in place before the countries were accepted into the EU. This enables gay rights groups to mobilize and also allows citizens to be more open about their sexual orientation without the same level of fear of discrimination in employment or housing (though undoubtedly that still occurs).
Being a part of the EU has also meant that hundreds of thousands, if not over a million now, of their citizens have gone to work in Western Europe and returned with a new vision of tolerance for their countries. Hundreds of thousands of Poles alone have lived and worked in the United Kingdom and interacted with gay people in their everyday lives, including now with fellow gay Poles who were able to live more openly without fear. This younger generation is transforming the values of these countries. The economies of these countries have also advanced dramatically in the last two decades. And with greater economic security, the population has begun to embrace greater individual freedom.
Finally, and most importantly, many of these countries see gay rights as a visible way to reject their former master Russia and embrace their new partnership with Western and Central Europe. Gay rights has become a litmus test: are you modern or traditional, are you western or eastern, are you secular or conservative religious, are you with the EU or against it. As Russia increasingly defines itself as the bastion of conservative Christianity, and due to the historical enmity many of these countries feel towards their former oppressors, these European citizens conversely are increasingly defining themselves by their liberalism. In this regard, gay rights are but one part of a larger brewing conflict over values and the future of the European continent.