From physical attacks to online abuse and legislative setbacks, the LBGT community in Central and Eastern Europe had little to cheer about in 2021.
Populist governments in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere were able to exploit frustrations and fears, some stoked by church leaders, some by the grinding COVID-19 pandemic, to push through anti-LGBT legislation.
It was, however, part of a wider trend over a wider swath of Europe, argues Evelyne Paradis, executive director of the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe).
"Poland and Hungary are not anomalies. In the past year, we've seen increased political repression against LGBT people, a stark rise in socioeconomic hardship, and the spreading of LGBT-phobic hatred on the streets and online across the region," Paradis told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
Low points of the year included an attack on a LGBT community center in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, led by a far-right leader who ran in the country's presidential election; a new law in Hungary banning information in schools deemed to promote homosexuality and gender change; and several so-called "LGBT-ideology free zones" continued to operate in Poland.
Much outrage was directed at the new Hungarian legislation, which critics say equates homosexuality with pedophilia, but which Budapest and its nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban argued would protect children and families. EU leaders condemned the new Hungarian legislation with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling it a "shame." But nearly all the leaders of former communist Eastern Europe refused to sign a letter condemning the Hungarian law.
It highlighted a wider rift across the continent, with some analysts arguing an "Eastern European Union" is emerging based on positions that contradict fundamental EU values such as the rule of law, human rights, media rights, and LGBT rights.
"I think that the whole attitude of this alignment is very anti-European. It shows signs of an establishment of some sort of a new Iron Curtain," said Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of journalism and media policy at the University of Ljubljana, in comments to Reuters back in July.
From LGBT Leaders To Laggards
It wasn't so long ago that things were different. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Central and Eastern Europe was generally welcoming to LGBT people.
Going back even further, many countries in the region were at the vanguard of advancing such rights, at least on paper.
"In the former East Bloc, these countries were really progressive towards LGBT rights. Poland, for instance, decriminalized homosexuality in 1932, which was really early," said Agnieszka Koscianska, a visiting professor at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, in an interview with RFE/RL.
Hungary decriminalized homosexuality in 1961 as did then-Czechoslovakia. Bulgaria followed suit seven years later in 1968. Other countries lagged behind. In Romania, the last person imprisoned for being gay walked free in 1998. Three years later in 2001, the country decriminalized homosexuality while harmonizing its laws with the EU to gain membership. Yugoslavia began chipping away at its anti-homosexual laws. However, homosexuality remained illegal in Serbia and Kosovo until 1994, in Macedonia until 1996, and in Bosnia-Herzegovina until 1998.
People in Western and Eastern Europe differ in attitudes to the LGBT community, polling numbers show.
A majority of those polled in all Western European countries support same-sex marriage, according to polling data from the Pew Research Center. In nearly all Eastern European countries -- with the exception of the Czech Republic -- the majority oppose it.
The divide widens the further one moves west to east, said Jacob Poushter, Pew's associate director for global attitudes research.
"Support for the position that homosexuality should be accepted by society is quite high in Western Europe. So, in Germany the figure is 86 percent, in the Netherlands it's even higher at 92 percent, in Spain it's 89 percent. But once you pass the dividing line, on the other side of the former Iron Curtain, those numbers begin to drop very sharply and get even lower as you go into Russia," Poushter told RFE/RL in an interview.
According to 2020 data presented by Poushter, 47 percent of people in Poland and 49 percent of people in Hungary say homosexuality should be accepted. In Bulgaria, that figure drops to 32 percent. In Russia, it's 14 percent. Even in the more liberal Czech Republic the figure is only 59 percent.
Anti-LGBT, Anti-Vaxxers, Cut From The Same Cloth?
While general attitudes may diverge, anti-LGBT sentiments are often associated with nationalist and the far-right movement in both Eastern and Western Europe, explained Heleen Touquet, chair of European values at the University of Antwerp.
"Members of far-right parties and movements have expressed conservative, heteronormative, and binary views of gender and sexuality that seriously limit the self-expression and freedom of LGBT people and people who challenge what are seen as traditional gender norms and norms of the family. This is something that the far right in Western Europe has in common with politicians like [Slovenian Prime Minister] Janez Jansa, [Hungarian Prime Minister] Viktor Orban, and the [ruling] PiS (Law and Justice party) in Poland," Touquet told RFE/RL.
In Bulgaria, Boyan Rasate, a notorious far-right figure who also unsuccessfully ran in the country's November presidential election, was accused of leading an attack in Sofia on October 30 on the Rainbow Hug, a gathering place for the LGBT community.
"I started shouting, 'No!' to stop them from coming in," explained Gloriya Filipova, the group's project coordinator. "[Rasate] hit me and just kept coming. Everyone else followed him in," Filipova told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Negative Messaging Fanned By Russia
Perhaps not as toxic, but hostile LGBT attitudes are not limited to the fringes of Eastern Europe's political classes.
In July, 17 of the EU's 27 leaders penned an open letter criticizing Hungary's new legislation. Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were the only former communist countries to sign it.
Among other things, the changes to the Hungarian Constitution in December 2020 altered the definition of families to exclude transgender and other LGBT individuals, defining the basis of the family as "marriage and the parent-child relationship." It declared that "the mother is a woman and the father is a man."
Milos Zeman, the president of the relatively liberal Czech Republic, told CNN local affiliate CNN Prima earlier this year that transgender people "truly disgust" him.
The LGBT community is increasingly finding itself being targeted by populist politicians, Dunja Mijatovic, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, wrote in August.
"Scapegoating LGBTI minorities has become a tactic applied by ultraconservative and nationalist politicians posing as defenders of so-called "traditional values" to strengthen their base and gain or stay in power. I have observed that stigmatization of LGBTI people is particularly pronounced in the run-up to elections and votes," Mijatovic said.
"Negative public discourse by politicians" has impacted social attitudes toward LGBT people, a survey by the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency's (FRA) found in 2020.
"Too many LGBTI people continue to live in the shadows, afraid of being ridiculed, discriminated. or even attacked, FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty said.
In Central and Eastern Europe, Russia may be stoking some of this sentiment, argued Accept Association Executive Director Teodora Ion Rotaru, whose LGBT rights group organizes Bucharest's annual pride festival.
"We see in the media and social media a significant amount of Russian meddling and dissemination of fake-news, aimed to incite conflict. We have seen this most clearly with the anti-vax movement, which, of course, overlaps with the anti-LGBT rights and anti-gender movements in terms of people and resources," Rotaru told RFE/RL.
"We should realize that security experts already see this type of behavior as part of a hybrid war that Russia is waging on the EU, by attacking our core European values -- freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and equality," she added.
Staunchly conservative governments in Central and Eastern Europe are not only stoking anti-LGBT attitudes but complicating efforts to protect LGBT people as well.
In October, EU justice ministers failed to adopt a common position on the EU strategy for the rights of the child when Poland and Hungary vetoed references to LGBT content.
"There's an almost complete standstill on LGBTI rights and equality in the EU and Europe, which is extremely worrying especially at such a critical time for LGBTI communities. The movement that is attacking women's rights, LGBTI rights, sexual and reproductive rights has become a lot more present, resourced, and active across Europe," Paradis warned. "In some countries there's a real regression, and rights that had been recognized are now being challenged."