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LGBT rights in Central Europe (2/2): Poland and Hungary, gay rights in Europe’s illiberal strongholds

Brno, Czech Republic – The question of LGBT rights in Central Europe, including in Poland and Hungary, is not as much of a hot topic as it usually is in other Western democracies. While this topic rose to the front-scene of public debate right at the borders of the V4, with Germany and Austria both legalising same-sex marriage despite being run by conservative-leaning governments, this poses an interesting conundrum for Central European countries.

Could the change in Austria, a country historically and culturally close to the region’s other states, be indicative of what might happen relatively soon among Visegrad Group countries? Given that the states and nations east of Germany and Austria are known to be more conservative, is it even a possibility to consider?

After examining last week the state of LGBT rights in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, let’s lift the veil on how the issue plays out in Poland and Hungary.

Poland: LGBT rights as a political battleground

Participants march in front of artistic installation
The Rainbow Monument in Warsaw, burned down several times, became a symbol of the struggles of Poland’s LGBT community

Poland has an interesting and contrasted stance on many European and social issues. Even though the government regularly clashes with and blames the EU (along with George Soros, like Hungary) for the (fantasized or real) problems in the country, backsliding into authoritarianism or illiberal democracy, as some would rather call it, the Polish population has a completely different view and ranks among the most pro-European nations in the bloc.

Poland is a deeply religious country, one of the most devout in Europe, with over 85% of the population stating to be a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Although support for the Catholic Church has taken a hit in recent years amid growing child abuse scandals and criticism of its influence in day-to-day politics, Catholicism remains deeply rooted in Polish culture (including due to its role in toppling down communism and the popularity of former Polish Pope Jean-Paul II). It should therefore come as no surprise that a country with such deeply-cemented religious beliefs holds generally negative views regarding LGBT rights.

According to a poll from 2017, 32% of people in Poland support gay marriage, while 59% are firmly against it. Ahead of two key elections this year, the ruling PiS party has tapped into this issue to single out LGBT rights as a threat to traditional values and Polish identity: according to Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS chairman and the de-facto leader of Poland, LGBT rights are “an attack on the family, and an attack conducted in the worst possible way, because it’s essentially an attack on children” (reacting to the 12-point LGBT+ declaration signed by the opposition mayor of Warsaw).

Poland and Slovakia, the two most religious countries in Central Europe, therefore share rather similar views on LGBT issues, which in both cases translate into a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages or adoptions. Although there is a slight hope for change in Poland, with one party in 2018 having introduced a proposal to allow registered partnerships. This will most likely get turned down by the Sejm, controlled by the ruling and conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, but it is still interesting to note that a party would ‘risk’ bringing it into the spotlight.

Along with other recent developments like the rise of Poland’s first openly gay and liberal politician Robert Biedron, it might also signal a progressive change in attitude among the Polish population, which might be becoming more and more accepting on this issue, and increasingly willing to combine its conservative and religious sentiments with values of equality, openness and tolerance.

Hungary: LGBT community under attack

The Budapest Pride March 2018 attracted tens of thousands of people

Hungary’s current government presents an interesting conundrum. Viktor Orban’s macho-leadership style might remind people of Vladimir Putin of Russia, while his government’s Christian-conservative stance brings him closer to Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland.

Poland and Hungary have many things in common and even share a sort of brotherly relationship or camaraderie, rooted both in the past (during the 1956 revolution, the Polish massively donated blood to the Hungarians to help, for instance) and the present (with the hanging threat of Article 7 on Poland and Hungary, both countries agreed to veto any form of sanction against one another, binding themselves in a mutual protection pact).

Hungary, as with many other issues, is on a similar page as Poland on LGBT rights. Like other European countries, Hungary is bound to recognize foreign gay marriages and partnerships due to the recent EU ruling. However, in 2012 the Hungarian government passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, even though registered partnerships have been allowed since 2009, with the new constitution even containing no guarantees of protection from discrimination on the account of sexual orientation. The joint-stance of Hungary and Poland was also obvious, when they opposed the inclusion of LGBT people in the promotion of gender equity in EU employment and social affairs – and is part of their wider political agenda aimed at promoting a so-called “cultural counter-revolution” based on the defence of traditional values and Europe’s Christian roots.

But polls reveal a mixed picture regarding the acceptance of LGBT rights in Hungary. A recent survey published in 2017 by Pew Research Center says that 27% of Hungarians support same-sex marriage, while 64% oppose it. Moreover, 53% of the population see homosexuality as morally wrong, according to the same study (5 pp higher than in Poland). But another 2015 Eurobarometer survey found that nearly half of the population (49%) agrees with the fact gay couples could have the same rights as heterosexual ones. While taking into account the current situation and varying poll results, it’s still safe to say that Hungary remains, along with Poland, much more conservative than other Central European countries on this divisive issue.

What can we expect in the future?

Regarding the future prospects of gay marriage or LGBT acceptance, there is no single prediction that might appropriately prophesize what’s to come. It is obvious that Czechia stands out as the most progressive country in the region and is leading with its civil partnerships and the potential vote on the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Poland and Hungary share a similar viewpoint (even a similar progress, it might be argued), that is closely linked to both governments and leaders’ short-term political agenda – but which can have long-lasting consequences as well. Both house conservative Christian governments that are firmly against granting more rights to the LGBT population and that have turned gender equality into a hot-button issue to cement their conservative voter base, while the stance of the population is evolving, albeit slowly.

Slovakia has problems of its own. While the public opinion is split right in the middle, with roughly half of the country supporting LGBT rights and the other half against it, it can be assumed that the pendulum will slowly swing in the favour of LGBT acceptance: if Slovakia continues to follow the general trend of the EU, and if the election of Zuzana Caputova as the country’s new president is any indication at all, the future might be brighter than it looks for the country’s gender and sexual minorities.

Written by Márk Szabó

An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Check out his latest articles here!

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