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European soccer championships got tangled up in a fight over LGBTI rights. Who won?

Trying to shame a country for its stance on LGBTI rights can backfire

Germany’s goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, wears a rainbow flag as a captain’s armband before the UEFA Euro 2020 Group F football match between Germany and Hungary at the Allianz Arena in Munich on June 23. (Christof Stache/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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Europe’s soccer championships are underway and LGBTI politics in sport and in Europe are front and center. (In Europe, intersex people are often included in the acronym.) In last week’s nail-biter match between Germany and Hungary, the game itself was overshadowed by an intense debate on LGBTI rights in Germany, Hungary and Europe.

Last week, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) investigated German national team captain Manuel Neuer for wearing a rainbow-colored armband, which it had claimed was “too political.” The organization approved the armband eventually. But before the Germany-Hungary match, host city Munich planned to illuminate its Allianz Arena in rainbow-colored lights to protest a Hungarian law. Hungary’s autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has made anti-LGBTI politics a centerpiece of his party’s platform. Orbán canceled his attendance, and UEFA blocked Munich from illuminating the stadium in rainbow colors.

Here’s what’s going on.

Nationalist backlash to “foreign” promotion of LGBTI rights

Recently, Hungary’s government passed a bill that included a so-called anti-“gay propaganda” measure. This section prohibits educators and television broadcasters from offering information about LGBTI people to children under the age of 18 — effectively limiting LGBTI rights discourse and advocacy in the public sphere. The bill is inspired by infamous legislation passed by the Russian parliament in 2013, which Human Rights Watch says has imperiled LGBTI youths there since.

Political leaders like E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been speaking out against the Hungarian government’s breach of the rights and values associated with E.U. membership. That’s a significant step in promoting global LGBTI rights. My book and others’ work shows that such international efforts by transnational movements and intergovernmental organizations, like the E.U. or United Nations, have helped spread LGBTI rights in many countries during the past two decades.

But when criticism of a government’s policies becomes — or is perceived as — criticism of a nation, it can prompt a backlash, commentators and activists warn. Scholars have shown that opponents of LGBTI rights commonly attack such concepts as foreign impositions that threaten local values.

Before Wednesday’s soccer match, as the Hungarian anthem played, a rainbow-flag-waving fan stormed the field. That’s not necessarily useful. Treating a national team as equivalent to homo- and transphobia may bring negative repercussions. Hungarians may begin to embrace a national identity that’s intractably antithetical to LGBTI rights. Portraying whole nations as backward and peripheral to an “enlightened” Europe encourages counter-movements that link LGBTI rights with foreignness. These outside demonstrations can thus set off violence toward local LGBTI communities, who are scapegoated as against “us” and “our team.”

For these reasons, local LGBTI activists sometimes object to others’ efforts to use sporting events as sites of international protest. When Western activists called for a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympics in response to Russia’s propaganda law, some Russian activists rejected the proposal, warning that it could lead to a nationalist backlash. These concerns may also explain why, according to the Háttér Society, a Hungarian pro-LGBTQI group, when the French team planned to wear rainbow armbands at the beginning of their match with Hungary, some Hungarian activists asked the French to refrain.

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When can international advocates be helpful in promoting LGBTI rights?

International advocacy has been able to achieve the most, my own and others’ research finds, when it frames LGBTI rights as part of local values. In Europe, local values may sometimes fit closely with the shared norms expected in E.U. membership, and nationals are enthusiastic about embracing these. At other times, making the case for LGBTI rights needs to be rooted in arguments that emphasize local and national queer identities.

While LGBTI displays at the European Championship can be compelling, associating all of Hungary with homophobia ignores the hard work being done for LGBTI rights there. In recent weeks, thousands of Hungarians attended Budapest protests against the propaganda law, and over 100,000 signed a petition denouncing the law. Headlines about a “culture war” between Hungary and Europe erase the more complicated reality, as no E.U. nation offers perfectly unflagging LGBTI acceptance.

So what can international advocates do to effectively support LGBTI rights in Hungary? Tamás Dombos, sociologist and project coordinator at Háttér, told me, “LGBTQI organizations in Hungary need funds to keep their struggle alive against the law.” Dombos also wants German activists to press companies, such as German Telekom, to stop supporting LGBTI rights selectively: displaying rainbows Pride on their Western European platforms while leaving them off in Eastern Europe. Pressing corporations to be more uniformly supportive could have an effect in Hungary, as has happened when U.S. advocates pushed corporations to speak out against anti-gay or anti-trans laws in U.S. states.

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Effects in Germany

Ironically, the European Championship protests may have their most important effects within Germany itself. For example, some commentators have called German politicians like Lars Klingbeil or Markus Söder hypocritical for speaking up on the stadium while not necessarily standing in favor of LGBTI rights in federal or state parliaments. Most members of Germany’s governing coalition recently voted against reforming an archaic German law that limits transgender rights. The protests also revealed some Germans’ own anti-LGBTI attitudes.

Meanwhile, advocates are criticizing UEFA for its contradictory stances on anti-discrimination: investigating Neuer’s armband and denying rainbow lights at the stadium as too political while supporting anti-racism and LGBTI rights in rhetoric.

Those who wish to support LGBTI rights in countries not their own may wish to take great care as they do so, keeping in mind that any efforts may have their greatest impact at home.

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Phillip M. Ayoub (@Phillip_Ayoub) is associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College and fellow at the Hertie School.