The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe’s deepening divide on gay rights

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After a February assault on a same-sex couple at a Rome train station, calls heightened for what Italy lacked: A hate crime law to combat homophobia. “Two young men beaten up for a kiss,” lamented Nicola Zingaretti, governor of Lazio, the Italian region where Rome sits.

What happened next became a case study of how gay rights have surged to the forefront of Europe’s culture wars. The Italian far-right dismissed the proposed law — which would have also extended new protections to women and the disabled — as “homosexual propaganda.” The Vatican fretted that Catholic schools might need to hold events for a national anti-homophobia day, decrying infringement on freedom of thought.

In a showdown last week, the Italian Senate rejected the bill in an act that roused conservative lawmakers to a standing ovation. Supporters labeled the defeat as out of step with Western European values. Pina Picierno, an Italian member of the European Parliament, went as far as to call the vote “one of the worst pages in the history of the Italian republic.”

The contentious debate in Italy is more evidence of how Europe is struggling with what writer Mark Gevisser has called “the pink line” — or the division between and within nations over gay rights. On the same continent that served as the cradle of same-sex marriage, the divide is becoming an existential issue for the world’s most ambitious political and economic bloc.

Simmering disputes between Brussels and the arch-conservative governments in Poland and Hungary are rapidly coming to a head. Taking a page from the Russian playbook, Polish lawmakers are working on a law that could ban gay pride parades. Italy’s rejection of the anti-homophobia law happened in a country that remains Western Europe’s biggest holdout on same-sex marriage. In neighboring France, where nationalist doyenne Marine Le Pen had leaned in to modest outreach toward gay voters, her newly surging far-right challenger Éric Zemmour is toeing a less inclusive line.

“It is a desecration of marriage,” Zemmour recently declared about same-sex marriage. “It’s a parody of marriage.”

The gay rights debate in Europe has echoes of the U.S. battle over “wokeness” — a still novel, if growing, concept for many on the other side of the Atlantic. It fits more directly into the box of what some rights organizations have called “political homophobia,” or homophobia as a political strategy. It’s one that remains common, as William F. Felice, professor emeritus of political science at Eckerd College, recently noted.

Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham wrote that a conservative lawmaker in Texas is looking into whether same-sex marriage can be undone within the state using a similar legal lever as the state’s strict abortion law. In Europe, meanwhile, Poland is locked in a bitter and costly legal dispute with the E.U. over its politicized courts, which have determined that Polish laws supersede European ones in a challenge to the bloc’s founding principles. But framing its fight with the E.U. as a stand against liberals in Brussels who promote gay rights is a far easier sell to religious conservatives.

The jury is out on whether opposition to gay rights can be a winning political strategy in Europe. Though Italians poll below other Western Europeans on acceptance of gay rights, surveys there showed broad support for the hate crime law. In France, Zemmour’s rancor, VOA’s Jamie Dettmer noted, might actually help President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s election by ratcheting up the anti-right protest vote.

The chasm in Europe is still primarily a West-vs.-East divide, with Western Europe home to the region’s most liberal nations on gay rights, and Eastern Europe including some of the most hostile.

Nevertheless, the heated LBGTQ debate on the continent suggests that equal rights are not quite the done deal in the West that some gay activists once thought, particularly as the movement has broadened its focus to include gender identity — a hot-button topic that has riled the right on both sides of the Atlantic for years. The gradual extinction of political moderates in Europe and the United States hasn’t helped. In Europe, Politico recently noted, the center-right is buckling, “squeezed on the right, by more extreme populists and nationalists, and on the left by liberals and especially the Greens, propelled by concerns about climate change.”

Far-right views in Europe are, of course, nothing new — and have been strengthening in fits and starts. But European far-right leaders like Holland’s Geert Wilders and France’s Le Pen have more often targeted migrants, not gay people, even labeling themselves as protectors of the LBGTQ community from what they describe as the dangers posed by Islamist fundamentalism. In 2017, I wrote about the seemingly improbable emergence of Alice Wiedel, a lesbian mother, as the new voice of Germany’s far right.

Liberal European lawmakers have blamed Putin, as well as Christian fundamentalist groups in the United States tied to the Republican Party, for funding activism against nontraditional gender roles, LBGTQ rights and abortion in Europe. Nowhere is the issue more of a risk to the E.U.’s integrity than in Poland and Hungary, where anti-gay legislative efforts backed by right-wing governments have been challenged by Brussels.

These countries are now at the heart of the debate not only over “core European values,” but whether they can and should remain within the European Union.

Hungary may be a bellwether of whether making gay rights a wedge issue pays off. Facing a tough challenge from a united opposition in elections next year, the autocratic President Viktor Orban — who long promoted “Christian values” while largely refraining from a Poland-like war on gay rights — is now apparently calculating that the issue is a political winner. He has sought to rally religious conservatives by holding an upcoming referendum on his controversial new law, opposed by the E.U., which claims to protect children by prohibiting or limiting access to content that promotes or portrays homosexuality or gender change.

“The anti-gay campaign in Hungary came out of almost nowhere this summer; it’s as if they cut and pasted the issue from the Polish government,” Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, told me. “In Hungary, you really didn’t have a political tradition of anti-gay politics before. But now you do.”

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