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“Anti-LGBTIQ hatred or violence have absolutely no place in the European Union” – EU discursive responsiveness and the anti-gender movement

Puck Overhaart

“We will defend God, country and family. Those things that disgust people so much.” In front of the logo of known anti-gender organisation Manif Pour Tous, newly-elected Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni used the arguments these movements are known for: “they” are coming to take away your family, your religion, who you are. She is not the only leader of an EU member state adopting anti-gender discourse: in his election campaign, Polish president Andrej Duda said: “LGBT is not people, it is an ideology”. This contrasts starkly with the position of the EU: in 2020, the European Commission (EC) launched its first-ever LGBTI* Equality Strategy. LGBTI rights have become considered “core values'' of the Union, included in external and internal policy. In addition, EU actors actively promote LGBTI rights through their discourse, in speeches and other forms of communication. To what extent is this EU discourse responsive to the harsh anti-LGBTI rhetoric offered by the anti-gender movement, however? I suggest we see responsiveness when EU actors adopt elements of anti-gender discourse in their own messaging, in order to counter them.

LGBTI rights have become politicised and threatened from within the Union. This comes partly from anti-gender movements that campaign against what they call “gender ideology”. This term is used to refer to the social rather than biological understanding of gender differences, as well as feminism and LGBTI rights activism. The movements claim to protect children, the virtue of the family, and traditional gender roles. They often tap into nationalist, religious and conservative rhetoric, for example identifying “gender ideology” as destroying the Christian foundations of the nation state. Earlier research has shown that there is a vast network of anti-gender movements throughout Europe.

Anti-gender movements are often associated particularly with Central and Eastern European (CEE) politics. Prominent examples include the Polish “LGBT ideology-free zones”, and the Hungarian law which bans the dissemination of “LGBT propaganda” to children. However, anti-gender movements are present throughout Europe. For example, the Spanish far-right party VOX equated homosexuality with bestiality, and Dutch parliamentarian Thierry Baudet referred to sex education as part of a movement aimed at “the breaking down of family and the sanctity of sex”.

Although they may differ in their targets, anti-gender movements in CEE and Western Europe have strong discursive similarities. They frame movement towards LGBTI rights as the spreading of a harmful ideology, calling it “violent dissemination of LGBTQ propaganda”, which aims to drive out Christian morality. Additionally, the anti-gender discourse prominently features the protection of marriage and the traditional gender roles that come with it.

So how do EU actors discursively protect LGBTI rights? I studied opinion pieces written by EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli and published in CEE and Western European media. I found that significantly different discourse is used in both regions. Despite the discursive similarities between Western and CEE anti-gender movements and the fact that they are present throughout Europe, EU actors are only responsive to their discourse towards CEE audiences.

Towards Western European audiences, the EU’s discourse regarding LGBTI rights can be characterised by two elements. The first is the diversity frame:

“LGBTIQ people exist and are part of our diverse societies everywhere.”

This frame argues that LGBTI rights should be protected because they are a crucial aspect of a modern and diverse society. This frame shows the perceived self-evidence of LGBTI rights protection in Western Europe as part of a broader “equality for all” value-frame. Threats to LGBTI rights are seen as backlash from conservative minorities in society versus a legislative progress towards LGBTI rights. Although these frames defend LGBTI rights, they are general and do not reference anti-gender discourse, showing no evidence of a recognition of the presence of it in Western European politics.

The “European core value frame” is dominant towards CEE audiences: the EU is described as an “LGBTIQ Freedom Zone”, decision-makers should “uphold European law”, and a warning is given: “(…) for the European Commission, respect for LGBTIQ rights is non-negotiable”. In contrast to the self-evidence of LGBTI rights described vis-à-vis Western European audiences, this frame, far from showing unity between member states, criticises internal resistance and seeks to depoliticise the issue by tying it to agreed-upon treaties. In this piece, the threat to LGBTI rights is the implied divide between overall progress in Europe and the “regressive practices” by some EU governments. This creates the image of member states that are moving “backwards”, while the rest are moving “forwards”.

In the CEE opinion piece, the discourse of anti-gender movements is referenced directly:

“Being yourself is not an ideology. It’s your identity. No one can ever take it away.”

Additionally, Dalli appeals to moral responsibility, an attempt to expand the accepted frame of morality that anti-gender discourse so heavily taps into to include LGBTI rights. These discursive elements can also be found in the discourse of Western anti-gender movements. The fact that they are not reflected in the EU’s protection of LGBTI rights towards Western European audiences suggests the Commission is strategically altering its discourse according to the audience of the message.

What does it mean that the EU is responding to anti-gender discourse towards CEE, but not Western European audiences? Mainly, it suggests that the perceived political significance of anti-gender movements is larger in CEE member states. This is understandable considering the prominent anti-LGBTI legislative proposals made in Hungary and Poland in recent years. However, the focus on CEE anti-gender movements serves to conceal their (political) relevance in Western Europe. They are regarded as a minority opinion in otherwise progressive and diverse societies, even though 58% of the LGBTI people surveyed by FRA in 2019 said that they avoided public places due to a fear of violence, with no clear difference between Western European and CEE respondents. The fight for LGBTI rights cannot be contained to legislation: on-the-ground experiences of LGBTI people must equally be considered. Anti-gender powers remain present and can come to political prominence anywhere. On LGBTI rights, the EU cannot have a blind spot.

LGBTI is an umbrella term for many gender identifications and sexualities. The acronym ‘LGBTI’ is in a constant state of development, which means that many sources use different acronyms, from LGBT to LGBTQIA2S+. This blog uses LGBTI consistently, but the used acronyms in quoted sources are respected.