30 Years After The Fall Of The Berlin Wall: LGBTQ As The State Enemy of Eastern Europe?

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a gulf of liberalism embarked the European continent. Simultaneously the LGBTQ-movement started to flourish. Many Western European countries introduced LGBTQ-equality in their legal framework. Also, behind the former Iron Curtain, LGBTQ-groups started to form and professionalise. 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall state homophobia is back like it never left.

In the nineties it seemed like geopolitics was changed forever. Countries who were formerly classified as communist authoritarian dictatorships turned well-developed liberal democracies. Even the former Soviet Union started the process of democratisation. This positive image led academics like Francis Fukuyama to predictions that liberal democracy would at some point be the ultimate form of state governance around the world. A prediction Fukuyama later had to adjust.

Liberal democracy was not working out in Russia. Corruption flourished, and the popular demand for a more authoritarian state grew. The take-over by Vladimir Putin is interpreted as the end of liberal democracy in the former USSR. A decade after Putin’s rise to power, also the politics of member states of the European Union who were originally part of the Warsaw Pact started to show a backlash in liberal values.

Just as in Russia, in countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland, state homophobia became an important narrative of the ruling political elite. This article examines whether a new Eastern Bloc is forming around traditional sexual values 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Therefore, I will compare the queer history from before 1989 and the nineties in the former USSR, Hungary, and Poland with the current political narrative in these countries.

Former Soviet Union

With all the tricks at their disposal homosexuals seek out and win the confidence of youngsters. Then they proceed to act. Don’t under any circumstances allow them to touch you. Such people should be immediately reported to the administrative organs so they can be removed from society.”

1964 Book On Sex Education by Soviet Ministry of Defence
(Retrieved from De Jong, 1982)

During the Soviet Union, the (legal) views of homosexuality evolved over time. After Lenin and Trotsky their 1917 Revolution, the moral views and codes were relatively open-minded, especially in comparison with Western Europe. This changed drastically when Joseph Stalin rose to power. In 1933 a new criminal law made “voluntary pederasty” punishable with 3 to 5 years of imprisonment (De Jong, 1982). Pederasty, in the most strict sense of the word, is any sexual activity between a man and a boy. As was common in Soviet courts, the laws were interpreted broadly, and this provision eventually outlawed any form of (male) homosexuality.

A USSR-China Friendship Propaganda Poster.

In a 1960 revision of the Soviet Criminal Law, article 121 dealt with pederasty. This time the punishment was more vague. While in 1933, a minimum of 3 years imprisonment was provided by law, the 1960 revision provided ‘just’ a maximum of 5 years imprisonment for voluntary pederasty.

As Professor Ben De Jong already wrote in 1982, it did not seem like the Soviet authorities were explicitly targeting homosexuals, mainly because of practical reasons. Nevertheless, article 121 was used with double standards.

As case law proves, the Soviet authorities used article 121 in combination with their political goals. They used it to legitimise the prosecution of political dissidents, and even dared to falsely accuse people from homosexuality (See Viktoras Petkus v. Lithuanian Soviet). They also used it to blackmail citizens and turn them into KGB-agents (See Case Gennady Trifonov).

Homosexual intercourse was very common between prisoners and labour camp (‘gulag’) detainees, and their guards. Rape and prostitution in the all-male camps were widespread, and sexual roles were clear. Once you were (used as) a passive (bottom) partner/victim, you would stay like that for all your time in the camp. The active partners (tops) were the predators and were often very proud about their ‘catches’ (See Anatoly Marchenko’s ‘My Testimony’ [1971; Penguin]). In some of the camps even brothels existed, where detainees could make some ‘living’ from other detainees by prostituting themselves. Camp guards tolerated the practices in exchange for free services by the prostitutes (De Jong, 1982).

“There was no public gay activity at all during Soviet times.”, Andrii Kravchuk from the oldest Ukrainian LGBTQ-organisation Nash Mir told me a few years ago during an interview in Kyiv. For obvious reasons LGBTQ-people did everything to stay under the radar. “The public toilet in the park around the Arch of Nations was very important and around it was the main cruising area in Kiev. […] In all other Ukrainian cities, there were similar cruising places for gays.” I once visited such an old ‘Soviet’ cruising place myself on a queer city tour organised by GenderDoc-M in the Moldovan capital Chisinau. The toilets were so smelly I couldn’t imagine how people ever had sex in there, but that was the only option LGBTQ-people had during the Soviet rule.

The Nineties: Human Rights & Corruption

Kiss-In Bolshoi
The Soviet Union started to open up and USA and Soviet activists staged a kiss-in in Moscow. (Retrieved from Out/Look Winter 1992 Edition)

This all changed since the fall of communism. “The fall of the Berlin Wall was a landmark event, primarily for the development of democracy in Russia”, Misha Tumasov, Chairman of the Russian LGBT Network, told me. All around the former Soviet Union, LGBTQ-people started to organise themselves. In cosmopolitan cities like Kyiv, Moscow and Saint-Petersburg a queer nightlife scene emerged, one that still exists. There was a considerable increase of the visibility of LGBTQ-people in the former USSR.

“Unlike Europeans, Russian LGBTQI did not hold on to the momentum and disappeared within internal conflicts and a lack of strategy.”

Lyosha Gorshkov (Queer Russian Professor living in exile in the USA)

But besides these possibilities for human rights organisations, the nineties were primarily symbolised by crisis, corruption, and an drastic rise of criminal organisations. A high-level official of the Ukrainian Police once told me: “Growing up in the nineties was hard. I don’t describe myself as gay and I never did. Nevertheless, the gangs in my neighbourhood bullied me using terms as ‘pidor’ [‘faggot’ in Russian]. Just because I was different. I was reading books instead of playing football and hanging out all day. Being different was linked to being gay.”

Putin Made LGBTQ-People The Enemy Of The State

Especially in Russia, the possibilities the nineties brought for LGBTQ-people disappeared gradually. Tumasov: “Unfortunately, it is a time which might now be forgotten, but which I am sure has not yet.”

“The fall of communism brought Russian queers a new way of thinking and expressing themselves, and a new way of fighting. Although that moment did not last. Unlike Europeans, Russian LGBTQI did not hold on to the momentum and disappeared within internal conflicts and a lack of strategy.”, Lyosha Gorshkov, a queer Russian professor living in the USA, told me.

Especially since 2011, LGBTQ-people are being singled out as one of the main enemies of the state in Russia. During the anti-Kremlin protests after the presidential elections, homophobic discourse became more frequent. Both the pro- and anti-Kremlin demonstrators used homophobia to scrutinise each other. This rose all the way up to the highest level of government. At some point, Vladimir Putin even compared the protesters their symbol, a white ribbon, with condoms. He said that he thought they were ‘AIDS-activists’ (which was at that time very much linked to the LGBTQ-community) (Sperling, 2015:116).

Demonstration_against_Chechen_LGBT_persecutions-IMG_8233The introduction of the anti-LGBTQ narrative in Russian politics eventually led to the the adoption of the infamous anti-gay propaganda law in 2013 by the Russian Duma. Legally speaking, the law prohibits the spread of information about non-traditional relationships to children. In practise, it basically outlawed the whole LGBTQ-community. Russian conservative academics argue that these pieces of legislation are necessary to prevent a further declining population. They base themselves on the ‘demographic winter theory’, a Alt-Right theory accusing homosexuals of the demographic decline.

Suddenly, LGBTQ-people found themselves in the centre of political persecution. Openly LGBTQ-public servants like Professor Gorshkov had to flee Russia. The famous lesbian journalist and writer Masha Gessen nowadays also lives in exile in the USA, after government officials threatened to take-away her adopted daughter (Read more on Russia’s queer exiles in ‘The Compatriots’ by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan; ‘The Future is History’ by Masha Gessen).

The LGBTQ-people who remained in Russia live their life’s in fear. After the adoption of the anti-propaganda law in 2013, radical right groups, like ‘Occupy Pedophilia’, emerged. These groups lured (primarily young) LGBTQ-people through dating apps to deserted places to ‘learn them a lesson’, often leading to so-called ‘golden showers’, getting beaten up or in the extreme cases even murder.

In the beginning of 2017, the news about the many atrocities against LGBTQ-people by authorities in the Northern Caucasus Republics of Chechnya and Dagestan led to a shock wave in the West. Putin refused to thoroughly investigate the allegations and the purge attempt on the LGBTQ-community in the region continues until Today.

Earlier this year, a kill list of LGBTQ-Russians was launched by the radical right group ‘Pila‘ (‘Saw’ in Russian). Lesbian activist Elena Grigoryeva was killed. Amongst others, Misha Tumasov was on the list as well. Nowadays, he spends most of his time outside Russia.

The fear to lose your job, or end up in a ‘gulag’ because of your sexuality, evolved to a fear for your life. The many atrocities against the LGBTQ-community led many older LGBTQ-people from the former USSR to the conclusion that life was better during Soviet times. Whether this is true or not is up to the people living in Russia and the concerned post-Soviet republics. But it is clear that the human dignity of LGBTQ-people in Russia is, at least, as much at stake as it was during the Soviet Union.

Poland & Hungary

Devastated by World War II and still shocked by the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany on its territory, Poland decided not to legally target any of the minority groups that were affected by the Holocaust. But that, of course, didn’t mean it was all champagne and caviar for the LGBTQ-community. As archives later would prove, the Polish secret service was explicitly singling out LGBTQ-people for blackmail purposes.

The after-war government in Hungary held different views towards LGBTQ-people. Very hostile policies towards homosexuals were still in place. The ‘unnatural fornification’ act (§241, 1878 Hungarian Penal Code) introduced under Habsburg rule in the 19th century was still being used. People found guilty of ‘perversion against nature’ could be punished with imprisonment up to one year (Takács, 2007: 157-158). In comparison with the Soviet Union, this was a rather light sentence.

In the late 1950s, a change in the attitudes of the Hungarian government officials towards homosexuals can be noted. Instead of a criminalisation approach, a biomedical approach towards homosexuality became more common. This led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1961. This decriminalisation did not entirely wipe all basic inequalities since the age of consent was set on 20 for homosexual relationships. The age of consent for heterosexual relationships was 14. In 1978 the age of consent for homosexual intercourse was lowered to 18, but it took until after the fall of communism to make the age of consent equal for heterosexual and homosexual relationships in Hungary (Takács, 2007: 165).

For several purposes, before, during and after World War II, the police authorities made lists of suspected homosexuals. These practises persisted during the Communist Rule as well. Lists of homosexuals were made as an addition to a common practise within communist police states: blackmailing (Takács, 2007: 164-165).

Blackmailing practises existed both in Poland and Hungary. The largest and most remarkable event is the Polish Secret Service’s Operation Hyacinth. Operation Hyacinth took place in 1985 and 1986 and interrogated more than 10.000 homosexuals. The official explanation is that the operation was conducted to locate criminals attacking LGBTQ-people, but the real reason remains unanswered on Today. According to scholar Pawel Kurpios, Operation Hyacinth was mainly to ‘intimidate the leaders and activists of the nascent social movement of homosexuals’ (Read more on Operation Hyacinth in an article by Dr. Łukasz Szulc).

The first non-governmental organisation focussed on homosexual men in Hungary, Humerus (National Association for Hungarian Homosexuals), (LA Times, 1988) was recognised in 1988, one year before the fall of communism. As a grassroots organisation, the Ministry of Health found that the NGO could be helpful to reach out to one of the main target groups in their policies for HIV/AIDS prevention. Also in Poland, LGBTQ-people were forming groups already before the fall of communism.

An New Era For Central Europe

A major milestone in LGBTQ-politics in Hungary was the 2002 equalisation of the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual couples by the Hungarian Constitutional Court. This was directly requested by the European Union during Hungary’s pre-accession period. A 1998 Special Declaration of the European Parliament stated that the EP would not support the “membership of countries who don’t recognise the human rights of homosexuals” (Takács, 2007: 3).

987ee5ea-e63a-4255-9fd5-442080bc6e9cAnother milestone in Hungarian LGBTQ-politics was the introduction of civil partnerships for same-sex couples in 2007. With this law same-sex couples can get their relationships recognised in Hungary since the 1st of January 2009 (Pinknews, 2007).

Poland didn’t know such a positive development of LGBTQ-rights in the first 20 years after the fall of communism. While the LGBTQ-movement was starting to be very well organised, the counter-movement did the same. During the first Pride in Cracow in 2005, a confrontation between LGBTQ-and far-right activists led to Poland’s own Stonewall Riots. Several politicians tried to introduce civil partnerships for LGBTQ-people, but they always failed in gathering a majority in time. Nevertheless, more and more politicians became openly supportive of the LGBTQ-community

It Did Not Last

The political party of Viktor Orban was the first to win elections over illiberal and traditional values. Since then the political discourse towards LGBTQ-people became more conservative and aggressive.

In 2011, the Fidesz-led Hungarian government constitutionally limited marriage to a union between two persons of the opposite sex (Kovaczs, 2012:193). In a interview I had with Hungarian LGBTQ-activist and researcher Tamás Dombos, he said that this was to prevent an attempt to legalise same-sex marriages by a ruling of the Hungarian Constitutional Court.

In 2019, the Orban administration banned all academic degrees on Gender Studies in Hungary, which targeted the transgender community. The far-right government see gender issues rather as an ideology instead of something academic.

A propaganda poster used by the Polish ruling partner in their campaign against ‘LGBT+ Ideology’.

Since the Polish ‘Law & Justice’ party took over the power in 2014, there was no possibility for the LGBTQ-movement to advance their rights. Nevertheless, in the first years of the far-right rule, the LGBTQ-movement wasn’t specifically singled out. That changed during the pre-election campaign in 2019. Polish LGBTQ-activist Dominik Kuc told me: “With the previous general elections in 2014, their common enemy were Muslim migrants. Since almost no migrants with a Muslim background came to Poland, they could not use this strategy again. That’s why they’ve chosen for LGBTQ-people this time.”.

The whole of conservative Poland gathered to start a war against the LGBTQ-community. From PiS-party leader Jarosław Kaczyński declaring he will stop the “LGBT+ Ideology”, to the Polish archbishop comparing LGBTQ-people to Nazis and Stalinists. In the week after the 2019 General Elections, PiS attempted to introduce a law prohibiting sex education in Polish schools, specifically referring to so-called ‘homosexual propaganda’. Teachers who do not comply with the law could face a punishment of up to 5 years imprisonment.

Both Poland and Hungary also take a pro-family stance on an international level, with blocking several pro-LGBTQ directives in the Council of the European Union and attending ultra-conservative conferences all over the world.

A New Eastern Bloc?

The contemporary political narrative and order around the LGBTQ-community in Russia, Poland and Hungary shows a particular resemblance with the times before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia currently has, without any doubt, the most restrictive laws towards the LGBTQ-community between the three countries. Also during communist rule, both Hungary and Poland held a light version of restrictions for LGBTQ-people in comparison with the Soviet Union.

Through international pro-family organisations, like the World Congress of Families, Polish, Russian and Hungarian government officials have set up a network for possible cooperation over traditional family values. As my own research proves, Hungarian high-level government officials are in direct contact over LGBTQ-rights with Russian intelligence operatives. These same Russian intelligence operatives are also in contact with the leaders of conservative Polish NGOs that are responsible for the broad conservative support of the current Polish government (Read more on my research about Hungary and Poland and their connections with Russia over LGBTQ-issues).

Despite the facts I listed above, it would too easy to state that a new Eastern Bloc is forming around sexuality and gender identity. There are at least as much similarities, as differences between the current and Soviet state homophobia. During communist rule there was almost no possibility to advocate for LGBTQ-equality in all three countries. Despite the several backlashes on NGOs, LGBTQ-organisations still find ways to advocate for their causes in all three countries, especially in Poland and Hungary. Poland and Hungary are also member of the European Union, which does provide at a least a legal basis to prevent serious human rights abuses towards the LGBTQ-community. In all three countries, especially younger people become more and more accepting towards the LGBTQ-community.

Only the future will tell whether or not the Eastern Bloc will rise from its ashes. But the current evolutions should be a wake-up call to all people that find freedom and human dignity the most essential characteristics of a modern society. The LGBTQ-community finds itself in the center of the fight for and against democracy. It is in the interest of all of us that we weaponise ourselves and that we start a fierce battle for our freedoms, for our dignity.

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