Homophobia in the Baltic States: The Eurobarometer

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning “propaganda” of nontraditional sexual relations in 2013, similar legislative homophobia has steadily spread into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Copycat bills gained traction in a few of Russia’s neighbors, and there has been a distinct uptick in hate speech among leaders who support the Kremlin.

While it’s generally accepted that these politicians are exploiting bigotry among their populaces, it’s hard to know whether they’re reflecting the public or shaping it, or both. A new survey sheds lights on the views of people in countries where anti-LGBT laws and rhetoric have surfaced.

Earlier this month as part of the Eurobarometer project, the European Commission published its findings on discrimination in the European Union. In its 42nd year, the report is a useful indicator of perceptions. This edition highlights societal views on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. There were some telling results, especially from the Baltic countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

These countries were all part of the Soviet Union. Since its dissolution in the early 90s, the Baltic governments generally distanced themselves from Russia. Yet conservative factions are now taking Russia’s lead and championing causes that rely on entrenched homophobia. Lithuania, for example, passed the Law on the Protection of Minors against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information. The law, which prohibits promotion of sexual relations or concepts of marriage or the family other than as expressly stated in the Lithuanian Constitution and Civil Code, went into effect four years after similar legislation surfaced in Russia. In Latvia, anti-LGBT groups collected signatures in hopes of introducing a Russian-style propaganda ban in late 2013. Fortunately, they failed.

Which brings us to back to the Eurobarometer report. How similar are levels of homophobia in the Baltics compared to Russia, which has an alarming 74 percent public disapproval of homosexuality rate? Does the data reflect popular support for denying basic rights to Baltic LGBT communities, or does it show that while some legislators may cater to Russia, the general public is more evolved? Lastly, how is homophobia, if prevalent, manifesting in each state’s laws?

The results are mixed.

In Lithuania, the poll revealed that support for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is highly prevalent, with 50 percent of participants indicating that LGB people should not have the same rights as heterosexual people. The poll also shows that 79 percent would feel uncomfortable if their child dated a person of the same sex, and 82 percent if dating a transgender person—the highest homophobia and transphobia ratings in the E.U.

And in the Lithuanian parliament, there are a number of troublesome measures slated for the fall agenda: The Law on the Fundamentals of Protection of the Rights of the Child, which would prohibit “adoption of Lithuanian citizens by same-sex couples,” a proposed amendment to the Constitution which would define the concept of family as strictly based on a heterosexual relationship, potential fines for those convicted of so-called “denigration of constitutional family values” under the existing propaganda law, and an effort to exclude sexual orientation from laws prohibiting hate speech.

Latvia, whose propaganda law failed to gain momentum in 2013 and 2014, is less legislatively aggressive. But the Eurobarometer poll indicates similar levels of homophobia. Less than a quarter of respondents approved of relationships between members of the same sex. Yet in a historic move for the Latvian LGBT community, Riga was the host-city for this year’s Europride, the pan-European celebration of LGBT communities that began over 20 years ago in London. The event was a success, with over 5,000 attendees and few protests by religious anti-gay groups. Only ten years before, participants at Latvia’s national pride event had to be evacuated after widespread attacks by neo-Nazi thugs.

Estonia, on the other hand, has shown great progress. In the poll, 40 percent approved of relationships between members of the same sex, while 44 percent indicated that LGB people should have the same rights as heterosexual Estonians. While numbers are a good 27 percent below the E.U. average, there are other indicators that Estonia stands apart from Russia on respecting the rights of LGB people. Specifically, 65 percent of respondents indicated that school lessons should include information about diversity in terms of sexual orientation and LGB people (2 percent below the EU average), and 59 percent supported inclusion of information about gender identity (5 percent below). Given that the foundation of Russian-style propaganda laws is essentially concern trolling, claiming the need to “protect” minors from information about the LGBT community, such support is refreshing. Lastly, in late 2014, in another blow to conservative groups aligned with the Kremlin, the Estonian Parliament voted in favor of the Cohabitation Act, which confers all the rights of heterosexual marriage to same-sex partnerships. The law will go into effect in January, making Estonia the first former Soviet state to pass such a law.

Last year, Russian politicians were shocked when Conchita Wurst won top prize at Eurovision. These homophobic megaphones lamented the openly gay man’s victory as the end of Western Civilization, and declared that Europe had entered a state of moral turpitude under the direction of Brussels and Washington. Conchita won the title via popular vote, even among many highly homophobic formerly Soviet states. At the time, many hoped this would be a forerunner of positive change for their embattled LGBT communities. While those hopes have not yet been fulfilled, the Eurobarometer findings show that the Baltics are not where the Kremlin would like them to be.

For more information on Human Rights First’s recommendations on how to best combat the spread of homophobic legislation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, read our blueprint How To Stop Russia From Exporting Homophobia.

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Published on October 21, 2015

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