Europe’s deepening divide on gay rights

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After a February assault on a same-sex couple at a Rome train station, calls heightened for what Italy lacked: A hate crime law to combat homophobia. Two young men were beaten for a kiss,” lamented Nicola Zingaretti (Governor of Lazio in Italy, where Rome is located).

In a showdown last week, the Italian Senate rejected the bill in an act that roused conservative lawmakers to a standing ovation. The defeat was criticized by supporters as being out of line with Western European values. Pina Picierno, an Italian member of the European Parliament, went as far as to call the vote “one of the worst pages in the history of the Italian republic.”

The contentious debate in Italy is more evidence of how Europe is struggling with what writer Mark Gevisser has called “the pink line” — or the division between and within nations over gay rights. The world’s most powerful political and economic bloc is facing a crisis on the continent which was once the birthplace of gay marriage.

Simmering disputes between Brussels and the arch-conservative governments in Poland and Hungary are rapidly coming to a head. Taking a page from the Russian playbook, Polish lawmakers are working on a law that could ban gay pride parades. Italy’s rejection of the anti-homophobia law happened in a country that remains Western Europe’s biggest holdout on same-sex marriage. While Marine Le Pen, the nationalist doyenne, had tried to reach out to gay voters in France, Eric Zemmour, her new far-right opponent, is taking a more inclusive line.

Boston Globe columnist Renee Graham wrote that a conservative lawmaker in Texas is looking into whether same-sex marriage can be undone within the state using a similar legal lever as the state’s strict abortion law. Meanwhile, in Europe, Poland and the E.U. are locked in bitter, costly legal disputes. Over its politicized courts that have ruled Polish law superior to European laws in an attempt to challenge the bloc’s founding principles. It is easy to frame its battle with the E.U. as a stand against liberals in Brussels who promote gay rights is a far easier sell to religious conservatives.

The jury is out on whether opposition to gay rights can be a winning political strategy in Europe. Though Italians poll below other Western Europeans on acceptance of gay rights, surveys there showed broad support for the hate crime law. In France, Zemmour’s rancor, VOA’s Jamie Dettmer noted, might actually help President Emmanuel Macron in next year’s election by ratcheting up the anti-right protest vote.

The chasm in Europe is still primarily a West-vs.-East divide, with Western Europe home to the region’s most liberal nations on gay rights, and Eastern Europe including some of the most hostile.

Nevertheless, the heated LBGTQ debate on the continent suggests that equal rights are not quite the done deal in the West that some gay activists once thought, particularly as the movement has broadened its focus to include gender identity — a hot-button topic that has riled the right on both sides of the Atlantic for years. It hasn’t been easy for political moderates to disappear in Europe and America. In Europe, Politico recently noted, the center-right is buckling, “squeezed on the right, by more extreme populists and nationalists, and on the left by liberals and especially the Greens, propelled by concerns about climate change.”

Hungary may be a bellwether of whether making gay rights a wedge issue pays off. The autocratic president Viktor Orban, who has long advocated “Christian values” but largely avoided waging war against gay rights in Poland, is apparently trying to win over the opposition by holding an election next year. He has sought to rally religious conservatives by holding an upcoming referendum on his controversial new law, opposed by the E.U. , claims it protects children by preventing or restricting access to content which promotes, portrays, or glorifies homosexuality.

“The anti-gay campaign in Hungary came out of almost nowhere this summer; it’s as if they cut and pasted the issue from the Polish government,” Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, told me. You didn’t really have an anti-gay political tradition in Hungary before. But now you do.”

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