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The Global Backslide of LGBTQ+ Rights: what’s happening and what you can do about it

CW: homophobia, transphobia, mention of violence towards LGBTQ+ people

As Pride month draws to a close, it can be comforting to look back on the advancement in LGBTQ+ rights which much of the world has witnessed over the past three decades. In the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, 66% of respondents said there was nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, up from 11% three decades prior. However, LGBTQ+ people in the UK still face discrimination and are disproportionately victims of hate crime, showing that Britain is by no means a perfect society when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. Internationally, the picture is more alarming still. From Hungary to the USA, conservative governments have launched an all-out assault on LGBTQ+ communities, seeking to deprive them of hard won civil rights. Therefore, while Pride should be a celebration of Britain’s vibrant LGBTQ+ community, we must also always remember that queer people still face discrimination, even across much of what we would consider the developed world.

In recent decades following limited liberalisation in the wake of the USSR’s collapse, Russia has become the epicentre of LGBTQ+ rights backsliding. Infamously in 2013 the Kremlin enacted laws criminalising so-called “LGBTQ+ propaganda”. This has been seen by many as an attempt by Putin to sure-up his conservative base following economic stagnation; however, it created a deeply hostile environment for LGBTQ+ people within Russia, one which has only grown the years since. On the 1st of July, Russians voted in a constitutional referendum to, as well give Putin wider dictatorial powers, further entrench homophobic attitudes in Russian law. In particular, it will give constitutional authority to the view that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. These reforms have won the blessing of, among many prominent Russians, Russia’s deeply reactionary Orthodox Church. Alongside this, the violent persecution of LGBTQ+ people continues in the southern region of Chechnya, as documented on the new film “Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge”, which will be available on the BBC in July. This documents how since 2017 the Chechen regional government have launched a violent crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights going beyond even any of Putin’s edicts, as gay and trans people face state sanctioned torture and abduction.

While Russia’s persecution of LGBTQ+ people is well known in what is considered the West, gay and transgender rights have also been under assault in countries like Hungary and Poland, both members of the EU and NATO. In Hungary, the totalitarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, emboldened by new emergency powers, has passed transphobic legislation as the rest of the EU deals with coronavirus. Under Hungary’s new laws, legal acknowledgement of transgender people has been ended. The edict defines gender as based on chromosomes at birth, meaning trans people will be given neither medical help to transition nor legal recognition of their gender identities. The law also prevents people from changing their names to align with their gender identity, meaning their name on official documents may appear disjointed from the outward appearance of trans people. Opposition leader Bernadett Szél has pointed to this as a particularly repressive clause, as in Hungary it is required to show ID cards for a number of daily activities like collecting post, thereby meaning trans people will be forced to out themselves on a daily basis. In a country where 69% of the vote went to far-right parties, this obviously presents a danger to LGBTQ+ people’s safety.

Similarly, Poland has over the past five years seen increasing government repression towards LGBTQ+ rights. While this has been less extreme than in Hungary or Russia, the ruling Law and Justice Party are nonetheless avidly homophobic, having supported the creation of “LGBTQ+ free-zones” in more than 80 of Poland’s municipalities. However, on July 12th, Poland is going to the polls in a presidential election to choose between incumbent Law and Justice president Andrzej Duda and the more liberal Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski. The former has campaigned on a heavily anti-LGBTQ+ ticket, calling LGBTQ+ acceptance an “ideology worse than communism” and vowing to defend Poland’s children from the so-called “ideology”. Duda has committed support from Poles in rural areas, with a majority of Polish men saying in a recent survey that the LGBTQ+ rights movement was the greatest threat to the country. Trzaskowski on the other hand, while having avoided LGBTQ+ issues on the campaign trail, has in the past supported protection for LGBTQ+ people and marched in Warsaw’s 2019 gay pride parade. In the first round of voting Duda won 44% of the vote to Trzaskowski’s 30%, with polls stating that the run-off vote is too close to call. Were Trzaskowski to triumph, he would be able to use the president’s veto power to block attempts by the Law and Justice controlled parliament to enact further discriminatory legislation.

However, it’s not enough to think that it is only in the ‘illiberal democracies’ of Poland and Hungary that LGBT rights are under threat. Under Donald Trump the US government in 2019 banned transgender people from enlisting in the armed forces unless they did so under their birth sex assignment. Further, in June 2020, in the middle of Pride month, the Department of Health said it would be basing its interpretation of sex discrimination on biology at birth. In effect, this meant that hospital and insurance companies would now be able to refuse cover for transition-related care. However, unlike in Hungary and Poland, American institutions have proven more resilient to Trump’s attacks on LGBTQ+ rights. This was evidenced by the Supreme Court’s 15th June ruling that workplace discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity was illegal, going against the policy of the Trump administration.

Other so-called Western countries have also seen a pushback against LGBTQ+ rights; notably in Spain the Vox Party, which calls for curbs on gay Pride parades and a ban on same-sex adoption, won 14% of the vote in last year’s election.

Therefore, while we might be tempted to celebrate the success of the LGBTQ+ rights movement, we must always be vigilant of following the dangerous path of places like the US. It is particularly worrying that British Social Attitudes mentioned at the start of this piece actually recorded a 2% drop in the acceptance of same-sex relationships compared to 2018. As well as being aware of the dangers our own society faces, LGBTQ+ people and allies should do all in their power to help the victims of LGBTQ+ discrimination abroad.

For readers in EU countries, the most effective way might be to contact your local MEPs to encourage the EU to bring action against Hungary and Poland. For Britons, while we are no longer a member of the EU, we can still write to our MPs to lobby for increased government action against regimes which threaten LGBTQ+ rights.

It is crucial that we remain constantly aware of the campaigns which brought us our civil rights, and continue the struggle to maintain them both at home and abroad. The cases of Poland, Hungary, and the US show the dangers of complacency, and we owe it to the disempowered in those countries to do what we can to stand with and support them.

Readers can find below a list of Stonewall’s partner charities for the countries mentioned in this article, many of which desperately need support.

Russian LGBT Network

Polish Society of Anti-Discrimination Law

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network


For confidential advice and support, you can contact Switchboard at 0300 330 0630, 10am to 10pm, every day, or email them at [email protected]. All phone operators are LGBTQ+.

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