By Francesca Romana Ammaturo

graffitied wall with two diamond shaped windows showing lush green forest behind

Photo by Sijmen van Hooff on Unsplash

A Divided Union?

On 11th March 2021, the European Parliament adopted a Declaration that designates the European Union as a ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’. Supported by a wide range of MEPs across the various political groups of the EU, this is a direct response to the earlier moves by the Polish government to declare part of these countries ‘LGBT Free Zones’. As a passage from the adopted text reminds us, since 2019 more than a hundred between regions, counties and municipalities have declared themselves to be free from so-called ‘LGBT Ideology’ or have adopted ‘Regional Charters of Family Rights’, which indirectly discriminate against families that fall outside the model of the heterosexual nuclear family.

The Declaration represents the culmination of at least two years of direct confrontation between Poland and institutions of the European Union, in particular the Commission and the European Parliament. The document adopted on 11th March 2021, which is not binding, contains a detailed description of the existing socio-legal framework within the EU for the protection of LGBTIQ rights, as well as a description of the various ‘incidents’ that have happened in at least four of its member states (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania).

When it comes to its substantial contents, however, the text only contains one article: “The European Parliament (…) hereby declares the European Union an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’”. The Declaration, therefore, ends with a cliff-hanger. What happens next? What does the expression ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ mean exactly? Given the elaborate premise, one would expect an equally articulated definition of the concrete form that this ‘freedom zone’ would take, but this is nowhere to be found. The adoption of such a succinct text leads to question what discourses are played out in the European arena today when it comes to LGBTIQ politics and human rights, and what are the effects of these narratives across the continent in relation to the creation and circulation of broader discourses on LGBTIQ rights.

To answer this question, in this piece I suggest turning the attention to two main areas of analysis. Firstly, I will discuss the expressions ‘LGBTIQ Free Zone’ and ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ to understand the spatiality of European discourses on LGBTIQ rights, bringing to the surface the performative character of these symbolic utterances. Secondly, I will engage with the oppositional discourses on human rights that are mobilised within the European Parliament itself. I will then contextually reflect on the existing interplay between nationalist and homonationalist discourses that currently foreground the ongoing confrontation between seemingly ‘LGBTIQ friendly’ and ‘non-LGBTIQ friendly’ states in the EU.

‘LGBTIQ Free(dom) Zone’: from Utterance to Performance?

Whilst the question of ‘space’ is currently at the core of the debates on LGBTIQ rights in Europe, it is less clear what is the specific meaning of concepts such as that of ‘LGBTIQ Free Zone’ espoused by the Polish government, or the concept of the EU as an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ contained in the Declaration.

When does an utterance become a performance? The mere fact of declaring various Polish locations as ‘LGBTIQ Free Zones’ does not inevitably produce them as such. Polish LGBTIQ persons, as well as their families and relationships, will continue to exist regardless of these acts. Similarly, the proclamation of the EU as an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ does not inherently transform the twenty-seven member states in ‘safe havens’ for LGBTIQ persons across the EU. Both statements, however, bear an enormous performative power because of their iterative character, particularly visible in the case of the Polish ‘LGBTIQ Free Zones’. Through the obsessive repetition by religious, social, and political actors affirming that specific territories are, effectively, ‘de-queered’, the threat is transfigured to reality when words are followed by acts. Lawsuits against LGBTIQ activists are a case in point. Here the term ‘de-queering’ can be understood as both an attempt to ‘filter queerness out’ of the fabric of Polish society or deny or invalidate the existence and experiences of LGBTIQ persons in Poland.

When it comes to the Declaration, however, its performative power plays out differently. Firstly, as many MEPs during the Parliamentary debate on 10th March have highlighted, the progress on the adoption of a comprehensive anti-discrimination Directive has been stalling at the EU Council for the last ten years. Whilst the Polish government or local authorities have swiftly adopted punitive measures against LGBTIQ persons in the country, the encumbering bureaucratic machine of the EU has a hard time reacting swiftly to these changes as they have happened on the ground. In this regard, passing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation seems to be an objective far in the future for the EU, not lastly because of several worrying political developments across the EU, fuelled by conservative and far right actors, such the steady rise of ‘anti-gender’ movements across Europe, the  tepid, defensive or hostile responses of European governments to the  Black Lives Matter movement, or the recent dangerous French debate on the so-called ‘Islamo-gauchisme’ (Islamo-leftism).

Secondly, as critical geographers such as Oswin (2006) argue, ‘queering space’ is often the result of a complex process of negotiations, often with conflicting perspectives and diverging interests at play. Among these, one must ask, for instance, whether the establishment of an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ represents a liberating (radical) move within the logics of inherently queer/heterosexual spatial dynamics (Bell 1995; Binnie 1997; Valentine 2003), or whether it buys, instead, into the ‘(…) extending [of] the norm, not transgressing it or challenging it’ (Oswin 2006). In this regard, the establishment of an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’ by the EU can be read more as an attempt to make queerness ‘European’ – that is offering a homonormative paradigm of belonging to the EU for LGBTIQ persons across the EU without questioning its inherent heteronormative matrix – rather than embarking on the radical project of ‘queering’ the EU as a whole, which would require a radical questioning of its institutional, political and social architecture beyond heteronormativity, whiteness, Christianity, as well as ableism, among many factors.

Hence, both the performative ‘queering’ or ‘de-queering’ of local, national and supranational spaces across the EU by different actors (Poland vs. European Institutions), appear more as performative utterances that signal equally disembodied utopias of sexual and gender politics in Europe, positing ‘space’ as a blank slate upon which a rainbow flag can be staked, or removed, rather than a space in which contradictions between political decisions, societal perceptions, and legal change on LGBTIQ issues and human rights can be addressed by both the EU and its member states. In this symbolic battle to appropriate European space by ‘queering’ it or ‘de-queering’ it, the substance of what this means in practice for LGBTIQ persons across Europe becomes watered down, and LGBTIQ rights almost become an empty vessel saturated by competing political rhetoric.

Mobilising Human Rights Discourses: Empty Signifiers or ‘Civilisational Tools’?

The question of language also features prominently in relation to the articulation of discourses on ‘human rights’ during the Parliamentary debate  on 10th March 2021. The debate shows how the language of human rights can serve different (political) purposes and, thus, becomes relatively deprived of that alleged transformative or emancipatory value often attributed to it. As Simin Fadaee (2014) has argued, building on the work of Estévez (2008), human rights can be conceived as ‘empty signifiers’ that have no intrinsic meaning, and which only acquire meaning depending on specific contexts. The polysemic character of human rights is particularly visible in the recent Parliamentary debate, during which several MEPs invoked the language of human rights to support the adoption of the Declaration, equating LGBTQI rights to human rights (MEP Comin, MEP Angel, MEP Karleskind), or framing specific issues, such as the possibility of having one’s gender identity recognised, as a fundamental right (MEP Spurek); whereas others resorted to mobilise the language of ‘freedom of speech’, ‘family rights’ and ‘children’s rights’ to oppose the adoption of the text (MEP Madison, MEP Legutko, MEP Jaki, MEP Procaccini). This example shows how tenuous discourses on human rights can be, especially when actors appropriating the language of human rights inhabit highly polarised camps, as it is the case in relation to LGBTIQ rights.

Furthermore, the Declaration represents a significant development in the definition of a European discourse on LGBTIQ rights grounded in a  consolidation of a two-tiered European space where LGBTIQ rights are geographically and temporally distributed according to notions of ‘freedom’, ‘tolerance’ or ‘progress’. This observation does obviously not discount the necessity of protecting the rights of LGBTIQ persons across the member states of the European Union who are still strongly affected by transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, lesbophobia and intersexphobia, often compounded with other forms of discrimination such as racism, sexism, and ableism. However, it is limiting to look at Poland or Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania, and locate within them the locus of the problem – thus ‘othering’ them – without seeing how these discourses are interlinked at the international level.

These discourses are not merely endogenous to Polish or Hungarian societies: there is nothing inherently Polish or Hungarian about this alleged ‘protection of the (traditional) family’. Instead, it is possible to witness the application of widely circulated ideas across the whole European continent, which have found fertile terrain in either Poland or Hungary (or elsewhere), but are the complex product of a very well organised network of diverse actors across the continent, ranging from ultra-conservative, far-right, Christian and Catholic actors, as well as ‘anti-gender’ movements, that are united in their attempt to halt any progress in the field of gender and sexual equality (and in some cases also in relation to the fight against racism, the rights of migrants, etc.). Ironically, therefore, many of these national(ist) or populist movements, use arguments that should seemingly protect the nation-state (and its heteronormative reprocultural fabric), whilst drawing from globalised discourses which depict an a-historical, decontextualised ‘traditional family’, which loses any cultural specificity.

Simultaneously, another relevant aspect of the Parliamentary debate, was the pervasiveness of ‘civilisational’ (neo-colonial) and homonationalist tones used by various MEPs to support the adoption of the Declaration. One statement in particular by MEP Comin is worth of scrutiny:

‘Europe’s strength in the world depends on how it defends human rights within its borders’. It has to defend the right of LGBTIQ people but if we don’t defend it, we are encouraging it [discrimination?] around the world. We are endangering millions of lives around the world’.[1]

This statement vividly encapsulates the mission civilisatrice that the EU has assumed upon itself in the last ten to fifteen years in relation to LGBTIQ issues. This statement, together with many others of a similar character, inextricably tie the very identity of the EU to its respect and ‘promotion’ of human rights. As Puar (2013) has observed, ‘(…) the narrative of progress for gay rights is (…) built on the back of racialised others, for whom such progress was once achieved, but is now backsliding or has yet to arrive’. What this statement does is exactly that: building the narrative of progress in the EU for LGBTIQ rights on the back of racialised others in the Global South whose lives are considered to be at peril, allegedly because of the actions of the EU.

What is striking is that, within the same space of the Parliamentary debate preceding the adoption of the Declaration, MEPs effectively managed to mobilise a two-pronged homonationalist discourse with the first prong directed towards the ‘unruly’ states of Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania), whilst the second prong firmly pointed in the direction of countries ‘across the world’ which allegedly depend on the actions of the EU in order to ‘advance’ or ‘progress’ in the field of LGBTIQ rights. Moreover, some MEPs (MEPs Bruna, MEP Fest) tried to hijack the debate and attribute the cause of discrimination of LGBTIQ persons across the EU not to the actions of the countries called into question (e.g. Poland), but to the presence of Muslims across the EU.[2] This form of racist and Islamophobic scapegoating represents a particularly worrying aspect, whilst not being surprising, giving its ubiquity in the political repertoire of far right, as well as conservative and some liberal, movements across the European continent.

In light of the discussion during the Parliamentary debate, therefore, it becomes much easier to contextualise the succinct article of the Declaration whereby the EU is declared an ‘LGBTIQ Freedom Zone’. This Declaration is a performative warning with a prefigurative character: ‘we are not an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone yet, but we intend to become one and we are calling out on you – either inside or outside of the EU – to follow suit or face the consequences.’ Interestingly, several MEPs (MEP Comin, MEP Kuhnke, MEP Guillaume) during the debate suggested withdrawing European funds from member states that adopt discriminatory measures towards LGBTIQ persons, a measure that has already been adopted towards Poland recently.

In closing, the critique contained in this analysis does not seek to discount the dire situation for LGBTIQ persons on the ground in various contexts across the world. However, it shines a light on the shortcomings of the language of ‘human rights’, as well as the imbrication of human rights narratives on LGBTIQ rights in the EU with homonationalist practices, racist and neo-colonial discourses about Europeanness. As I showed throughout the piece, the latter deepen the wedge between ‘Western’/’Eastern’ Europe whilst, simultaneously, through the prism of ‘white innocence’ (Danewid 2017), put in the spotlight countries in the Global South which are – allegedly – awaiting the EU to act ‘as a beacon of hope’.[3]

Dr Francesca Romana Ammaturo is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and human rights at the University of Roehampton. Her expertise is in the field of LGBTQI issues and human rights, LGBTQI social movements, European human rights and European Citizenship. Francesca’s works is interdisciplinary, versatile and with a strong critical edge. During the last few years, she has been contributing to the field of LGBTQI+ studies by writing on a range of issues, from homonationalist sexual citizenship in Europe to debates on “gestational surrogacy” in Italy. She has published several single-authored articles in several international peer-reviewed journals, as well as having authored the monograph titled “European Sexual Citizenship: Human Rights, Bodies, and Identities for Palgrave in 2017. Dr Ammaturo has also conducted ethnographic research at the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. Currently, her research focuses on LGBTQI activism and human rights in Southern Europe.

[1] Please note that the original intervention was in Italian, and the text here is the translation offered by the translator at the European Parliament and, therefore, may not be entirely accurate.

[2] To this accusation, MEP Björk responded by saying ‘(…) not in our name you will be able to use LGBTI rights against other people, Muslims or any other European’.

[3] From the statement, during the Parliamentary debate on 10th March 2021, by the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs: ‘the EU, imperfect as it is, is still the beacon of hope for many across the globe. We must make sure that the example we set is a good one’.