It was just one year before I was born that the World Health Organisation finally removed homosexuality as a listed disease. Today is 29 years since this took place and is marked as International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. In nearly three decades, victories were secured and laws changed. However, the forces of populism across Europe are now strangling progress in many parts of the continent for the first time in a decade.
This week the annual LGBT Rainbow Index that charts LGBT+ protections across Europe was published. While the report noted that a number of countries are legislating for more inclusive gender recognition laws that allow self-determination – mainly thanks to the tireless work of trans and intersex activists and allies – we are seeing many governments stripping existing laws and policies.
It’s happening right now in the EU. In Poland, where the populist Law and Order Party is in government, sexual and reproductive rights have been removed for single women. Homophobic textbooks are being distributed in Polish schools and former mayor of Gdansk Pawel Adamowicz, an outspoken proponent of LGBT+ rights, was stabbed to death during a public event in January.
In Bulgaria, the right of trans people to legally change their name or gender in official documents has been removed, while Viktor Orban has presided over Hungary falling down the rankings due to failing to uphold basic civil and political rights over the last year. Hungary and Poland also successfully pressured Member States into removing references to LGBT+ persons in an EU report by the Health & Social Policy Council.
In Western Europe, we are seeing populist parties now target the support of LGBT+ voters as a way to peddle their anti-Islam and anti-migrant rhetoric. They have refashioned themselves as being champions of equalities and characterising Muslims as the enemy to all. And what’s worrying is that it’s working. Marine Le Pen supposedly attracted one-third of gay people in France at the final round of voting in the French presidential election in 2017. While in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has proclaimed: “We believe that like Christians and Jews and women and journalists, gay people are also one of the first to pay the price of... Islamisation”.
This frankly disgusting attempt to package racist and xenophobic policies as being progressive for LGBT+ people is however nothing short of a sham. Because we can see what is happening in Eastern Europe at the hands of these populist forces: the very bed fellows that Le Pen and Wilders seek to have in the European Parliament. Rights stripped away. Freedoms removed. And anti-LGBT+ sentiment stirred up. Last year an EU report on hate crime on social media found that homophobic language was the third most commonly used online.
The populist forces may not have the same hold in the UK, but our progress on LGBT+ rights is slowly grinding to a halt. We have slipped from first place in the Rainbow Index to eighth place in just five years. This should sadly not come as much of a surprise. As Brexit sucks the life out of policy making in Whitehall, plans to overhaul the Gender Recognition Act have stalled and the very existence of LGBT+ people in schools is now subject to daily bombastic media debates. While on the campaign trial the leader of the party tipped to top the polls is standing by the claim that people living with HIV shouldn’t be allowed to enter the UK.
All of this renders next week’s European Parliamentary elections even more important.
Across Europe voters need to wake up to what is happening to LGBT+ rights and freedoms because the evidence is there: we are sliding backwards. Populist parties may try to flash a bit of ankle to LGBT+ voters but this is nothing less than a farce. And despite the continued Brexit uncertainty, it’s even more important that the UK sends progressive voices to Brussels to push back against the wave of populism that is seeking to erode LGBT+ rights across the continent.
Despite what’s long been assumed, progress is no longer the default direction of travel and that should worry us all. The fightback must start now.