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The Worrying Rise of Homophobic Voices in Europe

01 October 2021

A new wave of violent anti-LGBTIQ+ attacks across Europe have resulted in nationwide protests and calls for change. Just recently in Amsterdam West, a student accommodation became the target of a series of arson attacks as their pride flags were burnt one after the other, ending in an arson attack that left the eighth floor uninhabitable. Since the incident, the flying of flags has been banned by the student housing association DUWO, due to fire safety –  a move which has been described as giving in to intimidation by COC Amsterdam chairman Margriet Veeger. Indeed, as Amsterdam celebrated 25 years of pride this summer, one of its inhabitants (14-year-old Frédérique) was hospitalised after being beaten by a group of boys for simply responding to the question of whether they were a boy or a girl with: “I am who I am, and you can be who you are.”

Further from home, the death of Georgian journalist Alexander Lashkarava on 11 July 2021 sparked major protests. Lashkarava was working as a cameraman at the Pride of Georgia, organized in the capital Tbilisi on 5 July when violent mobs, motivated by conservative and religious voices, descended on the pride event and its attendees. The limited police presence was overwhelmed, and the event was swiftly cancelled. However, the damage was done. Lashkarava was discharged from the hospital after sustaining facial fractures from the beating but was found dead in his home in the early hours of Sunday. On the southern tip of Europe, in the Galicia region of Spain, on 3 July a young nurse named Samuel Luiz was beaten to death by seven men whilst on the phone to a friend. Luiz’s friend testified hearing the men use homophobic slurs and stated that they showed no mercy whilst a defenceless Samuel begged them to stop.

Less than a week before these attacks Spain had held its annual pride celebrations and the government had approved a draft law to protect and strengthen the rights of LGBTI people. However, these attacks point to a darker reality for LGBTIQ+ rights in Europe. According to a study published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on LGBTIQ+ rights in Spain, 41% of participants had experienced some form of anti-LGBTIQ+ harassment within the last 12 months. In addition, ILGA Europe reported in their 2021 Annual review that there has been a “substantial rise in hate speech, both from official sources, in the media and online.

The continued fight for LGBTIQ+ Rights

“Today’s LGBT march poses a threat of confrontation. The majority of our population considers today’s rally unacceptably which is why I do not think it should be held on Tbilisi Avenue.” – Irakli Garabashvili, Georgian Prime Minister.

These inflammatory words by the Georgian Prime Minister were, according to rights’ groups and opposition activists, incitement for the violent events that took place later on in Tbilisi.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on LGBTIQ+ people. Whilst moving of the civil rights space online gave way to a number of positive initiatives such as online pride events, on the whole, the pandemic has resulted in a backsliding in LGBTIQ+ safe spaces across the world.

LGBTIQ+ rights groups in Albania for example, report that, mid pride month in June, there was an unprecedented outbreak of homophobic hate speech. A discussion surrounding LGBTIQ+ parenthood where a lesbian couple wished to register as the parents of the two girls catalysed a virulent discussion in both traditional media and social media. Xheni Karaj, from NHC’s partner organisation Aleanca, was targeted due to her appearance on television where she tried to defend the couple and explain the misconceptions surrounding the LGBTIQ+ movement. Unfortunately, her attempt to generate understanding fell on deaf ears. Instead, many threats were made against her and other LGBTIQ+ persons and whilst the issue is widely discussed, hate speech persisted and was even in some cases turned into action, where in Tirana a trans woman was attacked in the streets.

In addition, Human Rights Watch indicated that in Hungary, Viktor Orbán abused the COVID-19 emergency powers to speedily implement discriminatory legislation against trans people. This abuse of power is not foreign to a country that has recently come under increased scrutiny from the EU after further anti-LGBTIQ+ laws by Orbán’s government. Find out more about NHC’s work on the worrying trend of systematic rule of law backsliding in Hungary and the wider European Union here.

Polarising politics

The steady chipping away of LGBTIQ+ safe spaces and the horrific events against LGBTIQ+ people point to a feverous rise in polarising politics and systematic Rule of Law backsliding in Europe. Whilst the triggering of Article 7 by the European Council highlighted the issues at play in Hungary, this is only the tip of the iceberg. For more than ten years our societies have been dominated by stories of division and many of Europe’s politicians are abusing this polarisation to further assert their power. Leaders tell us stories not of unity, but of us versus them. Where minority groups, such as the LGBTIQ+ community, fall victim to this political propaganda and become the symbol of the anti-society.

Action points top down and bottom up

We at the NHC believe that a functioning democracy should operate differently. Words, movements and other non-violent ways should be used to demand attention from political representatives.

Our leaders therefore need to rethink their words. Hurtful, populist slogans combined with unrealistic promises for the future have created frustrated and violent groups in our societies. People that do not get what they want and blame the minority groups that their leaders have singled out.

However, the aforementioned deadly attacks were also the straw that broke the camel’s back. Both in Georgia and Spain the attacks were met with nationwide protests and outrage. The exact result of these protests cannot be quantified however, what they did bring was the empathy, support and understanding that is required by both citizens and leaders alike to work towards a better and more inclusive future.