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6 July 2020updated 26 Jul 2021 11:56am

In a dismal year for queer rights, campaigners in central and eastern Europe are fighting back

Pride Month saw the movement innovate – and embrace other progressive causes.  

By Maksym Eristavi

This year may well be been the worst year for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe in a decade. Even the countries that would once have led the way are now falling behind on the commitments.

First, the Covid-19 lockdowns have been disastrous for queer people. Marginalised groups suffer particularly in such moments and, as the UN has noted, queer people are especially vulnerable to the epidemic. I think of Madona Kiparoidze, a trans woman from Georgia, who in April set herself on fire to protest against the lack of support from the government during lockdown. Or of Bekzat Mukashev, a young gay man from Kazakhstan, whose plan to escape his homophobic parents collapsed because of border closures imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19. It is alleged that they then abducted him and forced him to undergo brain surgery “to cure him”.

While, as a journalist based in the region, I always pay extra attention to the often under-reported stories from eastern European, lockdown has hit queer people in the West equally hard too — whether it is worsening mental health, rising homelessness among LGBTQ+ kids, lack of protection for sex workers or the increasing isolation of LGBTQ+ migrants.

Second, autocrats and populists often abuse minority rights and deploy disinformation to deflect public frustration with the Great Shutdown. Within the EU, consider the way that democracy is degenerating in Hungary and Poland, where leaders are scapegoating queer and trans citizens to fuel their culture wars and distract from their ongoing power grabs. The method, by the way, owes a debt to Russia’s homophobic president, Vladimir Putin, who this year used it yet again: incorporating a formal and explicit ban on marriage equality into a package of constitutional changes that will also allow him to run for two more terms and thus rule until 2036.

More widely, the pandemic also risks distracting from the violence against LGBTQ+ people, especially trans folk. Whether from France, the UK or Azerbaijan — it is on the rise across the continent. Meanwhile Europe’s largest LGBTQ+ crime since the Second World War, queer pogroms in the Russian province of Chechnya, remain unchecked.

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At the end of another Pride Month (June), the picture is gloomy. But the past month’s events have also shown something positive: that the queer rights movement is mobilising to push back against the wave of oppression by being politically innovative and bold.

For one thing, while most offline Pride events this year were cancelled because of the pandemic, some used innovative methods of online campaigning instead. In Russia, gay pride events have in any case been banned since the 2000s. But this year’s online LGBT+ march in St Petersburg attracted thousands, and hundreds openly joined the #RussianQueerPride initiative — a refreshing outburst of Russian queer visibility in a country that criminalises public expressions of LGBT+ identity and pride. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, my Kyiv Pride family has been fighting for years to hold a march on the city’s main street, and getting a rainbow flag hoisted at the tallest statue. This year that street was “occupied” thanks to a geo-tagging flashmob during an online equality march, and a drone helped reclaim the statue by hanging a vast Pride flag on it.

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The explosion of video streaming during lockdown also helped queer right campaigners in eastern Europe to circumvent the usual barriers to media representation. Getting proper coverage of queer issues by mainstream media outlets dominated by straight men has long been a headache. As a queer journalist, I live that struggle. But many queer organisations and individuals seized the opportunity to double down on online broadcasting and tell their stories without a filter. At all political levels, from the global one to small European towns, that yielded breakthroughs. For example Global Pride, an online 24-hour livestream, made history as the largest queer event ever. And what was supposed to be an inaugural Pride march in my hometown of Zaporizhia in eastern Ukraine turned into days of Instagram Live broadcasts with thousands of viewers and high-profile speakers from all around the world. It wouldn’t be possible to pull it off offline.

Yet something bigger is brewing and in many places in Europe this year’s Pride Month may run on beyond June. My friends and allies on the front line of the European queer rights movement have been experimenting with a daring tactic. Few here know much about the 1969 Stonewall riots in the US that kickstarted the Western movement for greater LGBTQ+ rights. But many are inspired by Pride, a 2014 British film based on the real story of how lesbian and gay activists in the UK joined the 1984 miners’ strike, helping to pave the way to broader queer acceptance. In a similar idea, queer eastern Europeans have played an important role in pro-democracy risings in recent years, from Ukraine and Georgia, to Moldova and Armenia.

The global pandemic has accelerated these trends.

In Ukraine this year, Pride organisations have joined protests against police brutality and corruption over plans for the annual equality festival (not politically easy, as it sometimes means being shoulder-to-shoulder with far-right nemeses who are also opposed to governments). In Georgia, activists put on hold their second-ever LGBTQ+ pride march and led the campaign for key constitutional reform and protests against Russian aggression. In Belarus, queer activists are at the front of the ongoing uprising against the country’s dictatorial president Alexander Lukashenko.

The strength and visibility of the queer movement in eastern Europe is, as I see it, closely linked to its embrace of wider progressive causes. I would encourage others to learn from that. Elsewhere in Europe, the public outcry over racial and other social injustices in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement had greater prominence than Pride Month events. There too there is much still to do, as anyone knows who has been to the segregated settlements of Romany people in my current home of the Czech Republic, “no-go zones” in migrant neighbourhoods in Sweden, or isolated outer Paris suburbs.

Instead of seeing this as a case of one or the other, I urge the rest of the European queer community to take the fight against racism to its heart and integrate it into our struggle (Pride events, for example, too rarely give prominence to queer Europeans of colour). The risk, if we do not adopt this “intersectional” approach, is illustrated by the situation in the US: yes, the supreme court approved marriage equality, but without filling the general inequality gap that ends up advancing LGBTQ+ rights for a select, white, cisgender group, while leaving others behind.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that there are bigger problems now and that the European queer liberation should take a back seat. Quite the opposite, in fact. As one of the few openly queer eastern Europeans, I spend 90 per cent of my public debates arguing that LGBTQ+ rights are not special rights. As a marginalised community, we have a severe communication problem, with the majority of folk still failing to see our push for equal rights as integral to a bigger vision for a more just society.

This vision might be emerging at the front lines of numerous uprisings during this year of discontent. And although I’m not an activist, as a queer European I care about how our liberation movement’s story goes down in history. When we look at 2020, I want us to be able to remember not only the growing assaults but also how queer communities helped to lead the way to a better, more just Europe for all.

Maksym Eristavi is an eastern European journalist. His work explores the intersection of identity politics, disinformation and Russian colonialism