EU “naïve” over the reality of gay acceptance

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Human rights activists have criticised the EU for being naïve in thinking that legislation alone would change social attitudes in the former communist countries of eastern Europe.

Hate crimes against LGBT people and ethnic minorities are on the rise across the former Eastern Bloc, with attacks on gay pride parades in Latvia and Estonia merely high-profile examples of everyday harassment.

“I simply don’t think everyone understood what joining (the EU) would mean, the overriding interest to join was so strong,” Ilze Brands-Kehris, head of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, told Associated Press.

“And it’s also possible the EU was so eager to expand that maybe it didn’t look hard enough at the situation either.”

The former communist governments had strict laws against homosexuality, and in many countries the resurgent Christian churches have ensured the stigma is still there.

There is a widespread view that homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured. This new religious intolerance is most evident in Poland, the largest accession country.

Gay and lesbian Poles had hoped that the death of Pope John Paul II would lead to a more tolerant atmosphere, but in fact the opposite has happened.

The country recently elected an ultra-nationalist right-wing government, who think that Western tolerance is un-Polish.

While mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski banned gay right marches and said: “It would be dangerous for our civilization to put homosexual rights on equal footing.”

In order to gain entry into the EU, accession countries had to pass legislation specifically guaranteeing the rights of gay and lesbian people. Chillingly, Kaczynski is now President of Poland. His twin brother, who lives with his mother and never married, is prime minister.

Racism is another serious problem, and one that many eastern European governments appear to have no stomach for tacking. The US State Department advises black citizens to exercise caution when visiting a whole swathe of eastern Europe.

As repored on, the Dutch ambassador to Estonia asked to be recalled after repeated attacks on his boyfriend, who is black.

Hans Glaubitz said that Estonia is far from being ready for gay relationships, never mind inter-racial ones.

“It is not very nice to be regularly abused by drunken skinheads … and to be continuously gawped at as if you have just stepped out of a UFO,” he told reporters.

With the Ukraine and Serbia lined up for accession talks, it is clear the EU has to think again about what actual social change there will be in these countries.

Others would argue that the only way to even begin a debate about gay and lesbian rights in these countries is to let them into the EU and then make them abide by the rules.

The major problem might come with Turkey, who have been in negotiations to join the EU for over 40 years. Could a predominantly Muslim country guarantee rights to gay and lesbian people?

Latvian gay rights activists remain cautiously optimistic, however. The pace of change may be part of the problem.

Linda Freimane, co-founder of gay rights organisation Mozaika, told AP:

“The other countries on this EU train have had 50 years of cooperation and have gone rough these issues at relatively the same pace.

“And we expect these 10 new countries to catch up and to implement all these changes at once? It’s a lot to ask.”