The LBGT Movement in Europe

While a growing number of countries now offer their citizens the chance to legally sanction same-sex marriage, some major challenges remain. For instance, in 2018, Romania held a referendum to introduce a constitutional ban on gay marriage; the amendment was defeated due to poor turnout.

In general, the public remains supportive of homosexuality in Western Europe. But this support drops dramatically across the former Iron Curtain.

Sweden

Sweden is one of the most progressive nations in Europe when it comes to LGBT rights. It was the first country to legalize same-sex sexual relationships, it declassified homosexuality as a mental illness in 1979 and allowed people to change their legal gender after undergoing hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery in 1972.

Despite this, the nation still struggles to address discrimination against transgender people. It took three decades before the government established a special office for LGBTQ rights, called the Homo Office (HomO). The office investigates grievances and files class action lawsuits on behalf of individuals.

The office also takes on parliamentary initiatives and submits proposals for changes to legislation. Its efforts were rewarded in 2008, when Sweden added “transgender identity and expression” to its hate crime law.

While there is much to celebrate, the movement has its challenges in countries such as Hungary, where a rising tide of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and violence has led to more brutal attacks on members of the community. But the fight for equality is far from over.

Denmark

Denmark is known as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly countries in the world. It has a high ranking in the ILGA-Europe Rainbow Europe Index and allows same-sex marriage and adoption rights. It even allows co-mothers to split maternity leave after the birth of their children and has removed being transgender from the list of mental illnesses.

But despite the advances, Denmark’s LGBTQ community faces many challenges. Homophobic hate crimes and attacks have increased across the country. And the COVID-19 pandemic has halted many of the progress made in the past decade.

In Denmark, Edelberg says, “The acceptance of queerness has become a natural part of the narrative in our culture instead of being a revolution like Stonewall in 1969.” However, she warns, “We can’t forget about the struggles that remain for the community.” As states prioritize prevention and lockdown plans, the ongoing processes to ensure access to legal gender recognition, trans-specific healthcare and more have been paused. “The state of emergency will further halt our progress and could cause us to lose ground,” she says.

Slovenia

Slovenia, a small Alpine country with the capital of Ljubljana, is a hub of queer activism and culture in Europe. But this vibrant scene has been facing pushback since the end of Yugoslavia.

In the first phase, activists built a strong base in the capital, which is a center of LGBT activism and pride events. The city also has the highest proportion of gay residents in the country, and local organizations host a variety of safer-sex workshops. The national lesbian and gay magazine Lesbo started publishing, and the bulletin Kekec re-appeared after two-and-a-half years of break.

The second phase began in 2009, when the center-left government drafted a new Family Code bill that would allow equal rights for same-sex couples, including marriage and adoptions. This move was met with a challenge by right-wing actors allied to established political parties and backed by the Catholic church.

They organized a referendum against the law and won, with more than 60 percent of voters saying no. Since then, Slovenia has slipped in the ILGA rankings. But in 2022, its Constitutional Court ruled that the law denying marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional and gave parliament six months to amend the legislation.

Croatia

Homosexuality was still taboo in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. It was hard to find public figures who were willing to speak about it freely and it was impossible to hear pop music with homosexual-influenced lyrics. Only one old song described a same-sex relationship, Bollywood style “Ramo, Ramo” by traditional Gypsy folk singer Muharem Serbezovski.

But in the 1980s Croatian new wave music band Xenia with frontwoman Vesna Vrandecic recorded a classic pro-lesbian song “Moja prijateljica” (My Girlfriend) which was huge hit and marked the start of the LGBT movement in this macho man land. Later in the same decade Zagreb punk pioneers Prljavo kazaliste (Dirty Theatre) with frontman Igor Zivoti gave birth to a unique pro-lesbian/gay scene which was not only accepted by the music establishment but also found support among youth.

Today the situation has improved somewhat but not without problems. According to the report by Eurobarometer Discrimination 2015 a majority of Croatians think that same sex couples should have equal rights but many people are against it. Also, a representative of the Center for LGBT Equality reports that government representatives and parliamentarians rarely explicitly condemn cases of homophobia (Center for LGBT Equality 29 Mar 2012). Also a law recognizing homosexual couples has been in effect since 2003 and there is labour legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (ILGA May 2011, GlobalGayz Dec. 2010).

Moldova

In Moldova, a country of 3.6 million wedged between Romania and Ukraine, many LBGT people still face verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse. Last year Chisinau city authorities blocked a demonstration organized by the NGO GenderDoc-M to support a law against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. It prohibits “propaganda of prostitution, paedophilia and other relations outside those related to marriage and family” and carries fines. The legislation, which took eight years to get off the ground, faced opposition from the Orthodox Church and conservative politicians.

Nevertheless, some have seen a rise in tolerance. ILGA-Europe cites research showing that attitudes are more positive than before, though a survey by the NGO GenderDoc-M showed that nearly nine in ten people think LGBT people are bad for society.

Still, it will take a lot more than a few victories to change the situation for most. According to ILGA-Europe, “as shown by the Rainbow Map, the resurgence of anti-LGBT rhetoric from anti-democratic forces, instrumentalising false anti-trans narratives, is a serious concern.” Nevertheless, the NGO lauds the progress made in the countries that made the top 10. “We are very proud of them and hope they can inspire others.”.