From Ostrava with Love

Human rights in the EU are under attack. But against the backdrop of this democratic decay, solidarity continues to travel across borders. Yesterday, I shared Raymond’s message of hope, which expressed disappointment with recent developments in eastern Europe, while acknowledging global progress. Today I would like to share Dominik’s letter, another response to my earlier post on Europe Day 2020:

I am Dominik and I live in the Czech Republic. When the first Polish municipality proclaimed itself as an LGBT-free zone, it was shocking news to me. I could not believe that this was happening only a few kilometres from my home city. However, I was sure that other villages and towns would refuse this repugnant strategy, aimed at attracting attention and gaining political points. A huge disillusion came when other municipalities supported this vision of social exclusion. This flurry of hatred and discrimination suddenly invaded a third of the Polish territory and took away from thousands of young people the liberty to express their sexuality freely. I keep asking myself: Do we not teach children to be tolerant and open-minded? Isn’t genuine love the value we praise most in our society? Is it really so difficult to understand and accept that others might have different feelings? For some, seemingly, it is, and the LGBT-free movement unfortunately proves that. However, despite this massive lack of sensibility and understanding in some individuals, there are hundreds of brave young people in Poland who do not give up and express their disagreement by organizing protests, speaking out loud about the problem or signing petitions. I much admire these people, who risk verbal aggression, physical attacks or threats on a daily basis. They do not fight only for themselves, but also for their friends and other oppressed groups. If you are one of these heroes, I would love to let you know that you are not alone. The queer community from all over the world is watching the situation in your country and will support you in your fight against bigotry. You are creating a new positive movement, helping your peers who live in an environment where hiding is the only way to survive. Thank you for your effort and solidarity!

Dominik, your words of encouragement are much needed. Yesterday, on May 19, the Hungarian parliament passed the much dreaded law ending legal recognition of trans people. And although this law seems to violate international human rights norms, case law of the European Court of Human Rights and previous rulings of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, this will bring little comfort to those Hungarians who are now being deprived of their fundamental rights by the biggest bully they have ever met: their own government. 

Another development this week comes from Slovakia, where members of Smer-SD, Slovakia’s ‘social democrats’, joined forces with extremists to create a Platform for Slovakian Values, attacking virtually everyone deviating from their ideal-type of white traditional families. This move confirms fears that, generally speaking, Smer-SD provides a platform for divisive and hateful politics. Just as a reminder: in Europe, this party places itself in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. Being Dutch myself, I believe that such developments deserve a higher place on the political agenda in the Netherlands and in Dutch media. We need to be aware of the bullies in our political system and recognise the pain they cause around us. That way we can provide counterweight, each in our own way. 

I really hope more people will share a personal story or perspective, and as I promised before, I will do my best to forward your messages to activists and politicians in the aforementioned regions, so that the whispers may trigger more whispers!

From Hong Kong with Love

Last week I wrote a blog post on Europe Day, in which I called upon readers to send in a letter of hope, encouragement or understanding to those Europeans currently suffering from minority marginalization, in particular in Poland’s LGBT ideology-free zones. Writing from Hong Kong, Raymond was the first person to reply. Below I’ll share his letter, for which I am very grateful:

Taiwan
Taoyuan City, Taiwan

I am a gay guy living in Hong Kong, coming from a traditional family with whom I’ve lived together for decades. With all the social pressure and our cultural background, I can understand what life is like being gay in this society. I am sure I am not the only one in Hong Kong, let alone in Asia, and I would say we have more or less come to accept our fate as a minority. However, in recent years we saw the equality movement all around the world and the success that people have achieved, prominently in Europe and the US and recently in Taiwan. It gives us hope and goal to pursue: one day we may be able to achieve the same. That’s why, when I read your blog post and learned what’s going on in some eastern European countries, I was totally disappointed. Isn’t the EU or in general Europe our role model for rights and equality? Why does the EU, which positions itself as the global defender of human rights, tolerate discrimination and bullying of such a disgraceful scope? Maybe those in charge are unfamiliar with what it’s like being LGB or T, but they need to be reminded that all kinds of discrimination and racism are the same and equally unfair. And those who remain silent and tolerate what’s going on are just making themselves accomplices. I really hope that people in the EU, the politicians and officials, will look into the matter and stop this non-sense as soon as possible. Treasure what you have achieved! And lastly, I would like to send my regards to those who are suffering under these conditions. Please remember: you are never alone.

Thank you, Raymond. Your hope is inspiring and the deception you experienced recognizable. The achievements in Taiwan meant a lot to us, too. The world is surely moving in the right direction, and, especially for European countries, this creates the opportunity to show that systemic discrimination is a thing of the past. However, political decisions are not always based on ideologies or dreams of a better future. Since you live in Hong Kong, you will understand the ruthlessness of power games much better than I do. I fear that minority stigmatization is often a tool for politicians to position themselves in the here and now. And, as you write, not knowing what it’s like to feel excluded for who you are, politicians who apply such strategies may not even be aware of (or care about) the personal traumas they create. Living in a democracy, the question that keeps spinning in my head, however, is: how is it possible that this even works as a strategy? Who are the voters so willing to take away my individual rights and liberties? What about the person standing behind me in the queue at the supermarket? What about my neighbor?

But then your words of encouragement kick in: you are never alone. Your letter is proof of this. Even in Poland and Hungary today, movements for justice and equality are pushing for change. It’s precisely for that reason that incumbent leaders have to try so hard to stay in office. The only reason they intimidate journalists, judges, scholars or opposition leaders is because they know they wouldn’t make it in a full-functioning democracy. The strength of these Strong Leaders is their ability to cheat. What we can do is to point out the cheating, and to provide the strongest antidote to screams of division: millions and millions of whispers of love and solidarity.

I really hope more people will share a personal story or perspective, and as I promised before, I will do my best to forward your messages to activists and politicians in the aforementioned regions, so that the whispers may trigger more whispers!

 

Europe Day 2020

For most people I know, Europe Day can be summarized by the little gesture you make as you get out of bed, drowsily check your phone, and swipe away the automatic reminder popping up from your digital calendar. Even under normal circumstances, it’s not easy to interrupt your daily routine to actually take a moment to appreciate something as abstract as 70 years of relative peace and unity in Europe. What’s there to celebrate anyway, now that a significant member of the club has voluntarily abandoned these concepts in a sad attempt to restore national glory, while others are rapidly dismantling the rule of law and can barely still be considered to be democracies?[1] And while the Corona-silence makes for some enchanting dolphin encounters in Europe’s ports, we know that European states have drastically failed to meet their target of halting biodiversity loss by 2020, with only 16% of protected European habitats being in good health.[2] There are too many cracks in the wall for a celebration in this house. Living in a Union that self-identifies as a defender of human rights, how do you celebrate peace knowing that authorities in that same Europe, right here and now, endorse nazi-like LGBT-free zones? [3] How do you celebrate peace when you’re humiliated to the bone by the conditions in Europe’s refugee camps? Personally, I just have one answer to that: you don’t, really.

That’s not to say that I’m ungrateful for the wealth and the rights and freedoms I enjoy thanks to the EU. If I had lived in Europe at really any random moment in history, I’m well aware, some famine, infection or ambitious leader’s family quarrels would already have put an end to me. I’m not ungrateful, but just no longer in the mood to celebrate. Instead, I’ll take today, which I still consider a remarkable day in many ways, as a moment of reflection. What the actual **** is happening around me and how do I continue my life not feeling guilty or worried all the time, without becoming indifferent?

Thanks, Mr. Schuman

Indifference is a normal response to life for anyone sharing my tendency to wallow in the misery described above. I need to actively remind myself of the things I’m grateful for in order to stay alert and motivated enough to defend the freedoms that past generations have given so much for to establish. So, before I go on writing that I believe we shouldn’t take certain rights and values for granted, maybe you, too, can take a moment to imagine what your daily life would look like, not living in the EU. Would you have your current job? Would you be eating the same kind of food? Would you have met all your friends? It’s an artificial thought experiment, but it creates awareness of what’s actually at stake when we talk about topics such as democratic decay. Throughout the history of the EU, a lot of great people have done a lot of really difficult work to achieve my status-quo: peace, wealth, freedom. Here’s my little, incomplete gratitude list:

  • I’m glad I’m not dead because of some authoritarian figure’s need to defend or expand a fatherland I don’t really feel any spiritual connection with in the first place. So, thanks for the creation of economic interdependencies between states, the creation of -some- checks and balances between political institutions across the continent, and the relatively successful attempt at protecting and anchoring democratic values in most member states.
  • I’m really happy I’m not dead because of some authoritarian regime’s disapproval of my lifestyle, activities and opinions. Thank you for trying to protect the rule-of-law, although I really wouldn’t mind if we could step up our game here, and thank you for trying to safeguard freedom of expression and information.
  • I’m glad I’m not being separated from my boyfriend because my right to reside in his country of origin has expired. Thank you for protecting my freedom of movement, which not only allows me to be here, but also allows me to rent an apartment without price discrimination, start a master’s program without having to pay an extra fee, work and know that my worker’s rights apply, pay my taxes here, access health care facilities, join clubs, establish companies, or, in other words, live my life to the fullest (ignoring that family law still discriminates LGBT+ couples in half of the Union, which, obviously, is a huge burden on the freedom of movement)
  • I’m glad I’m not dead due to famine, thirst or severe food poisoning. Thanks for the protection of my rights as a consumer, for the protection of our public health, for our agricultural policies, which, highly problematic as they are, have always provided plenty of food throughout my life, and the trade policies, which have made all sorts of healthy and nutritious products affordable and available, at least in my region. These policies may need some serious rewiring today, but I’d be insane not to appreciate the tremendous progress in terms of food security that has been achieved between the generation of my grandparents and my own.

Crumbling foundations 

At the same time, I’m concerned about the stability of these rights and benefits. I grew up thinking they were pillars, so strong they could easily carry all the burdens of the future. I no longer believe this. As we’ve been taking our temple for granted, a toxic mold has grown all over it. Today, on Europe Day 2020, EU leaders released a collective video expressing their commitment to European cooperation. It shows Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán filming himself with a mobile device (yes, someone is literally filming how he films himself), sharing the inspiring words: “there has never been greater need for cooperation among European countries than there is today.”[4] He finishes his video with a dubious “Good luck, Europe!”. Good luck? Why does the prime minister believe we need luck? Is it, perhaps, because he’s been actively undermining European cooperation ever since he gained and sought to maintain a supermajority in parliament? Is it a sinister hint to Europe’s minorities, virtually all of which have been demonized by his party’s propaganda campaigns? Or does the prime minister warn us for the possibility of other states following his example in dismantling the rule of law and democratic institutions, without any real repercussions coming from other member states or supranational institutions? Whichever it is, we’ve been warned.

Continue watching the video and you’ll hear Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki remind us that “Europe is a promise of the future in which the fundamental rule of action is solidarity.” We may wonder what definition of solidarity the prime minister has in mind. His party’s domestic policies certainly seem to indicate that solidarity only comes within clearly defined, subjective and discriminatory boundaries. Under his government’s rule, critical judges have been silenced, judicial reforms are threatening the rule of law, and minorities have become increasingly marginalized. Those regions and municipalities that have officially adopted anti-LGBT measures together cover about a third of the country’s surface. [5] At this very moment, in our EU of solidarity, Polish authorities target already marginalized groups of citizens, limiting their freedom, destructing their sense of belonging, and instigating public hostility towards them. And although I do feel a sense of solidarity towards those groups, for me, there’s little solidarity to be found in the Union that Morawiecki envisions.

This is a video of leaders who are bound together by the fragile threads of newborn institutions, hiding their divergent takes on even the most fundamental issues. It shows us the leader who steadily and publicly built the first ‘illiberal democracy’ in the EU, encouraging us to believe in the spirit of cooperation.[6] This video is not an invitation to celebrate peace and unity. It’s nothing but a sad illustration that terms such as ‘cooperation’ and ‘solidarity’ are empty words that you can use to cover up even the greatest divisions.

Now what?

If this video doesn’t fill you with gratitude or hope for the future either, there are ways in which you can express your concerns about Europe. And that communication does not always have to take the form of interaction with European institutions or MEPs (but it sure can). You can let your own MPs know that you care about what happens elsewhere in this Union. There are so many ways to reach out nowadays. Encourage your national parliament to hold your government accountable for what happens elsewhere in the European sphere. You may wonder: if fellow Union citizens are being marginalized by undemocratically behaving governments, why doesn’t my government take a stronger stance against this? If you live in a partner city of a Polish LGBT-free municipality, you could ask your local authorities what their stances on this issue are. It may also be worthwhile to check with which parties your national party forms an alliance in the European Parliament, and, if you have questions about this cooperation, hold your representatives accountable by reaching out to them or even by adjusting your voting behaviour. You are allowed to question the policies of another member state and so are your representatives. By sharing your opinion, you do not breach the concept of sovereignty.

At a more personal level, I believe everyone could contribute to breaking down the taboo against political conversations among friends and family. Many of us have opinions that we’d sometimes like to share, or questions to ask, but we don’t, because we don’t want to be that friend. Naturally, nobody likes to kill the mood. And we’re all a bit scared of opening topics we don’t think we have enough expertise on. But knowledge is gained by sharing, and opinions become more nuanced through conversation. What is the purpose of all our contact, our friendly smiles, our joyful parties, when our self-imposed indifference allows the foundations upon which that happy life is built to crumble? We’d be dancing on a volcano, ignoring the first signs of a massive eruption.

Mateusz Morawiecki says Europe is all about solidarity. Maybe he’s right after all. In the spirit of Europe Day, I would like to ask anyone reading this blog post to send me a short letter of support, addressing an unknown fellow European citizen from the LGBT+ community living in one of Poland’s LGBT-free zones. Write about some hardship you’ve had to face in your life, how it got better at some point, or your ideas for a brighter future. With your permission, I’ll post some letters on my blog, but I will also do my best to reach out to activists or progressive politicians in the targeted areas to see if they can share your letters of support among the right audiences. Europe Day may not be a time to party, but it could be a great reminder that in our very imperfect society, there’s always someone, somewhere, who could use some support.

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[1] In Freedom House’s 2020 report on nations in transit, Hungary dropped from being a semi-consolidated democracy to a transitional/hybrid regime, while Poland dropped from being a consolidated democracy to being a semi-consolidated democracy:   https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2020/dropping-democratic-facade

[2] The WWF scrutinizes EU policies in the area of biodiversity protection: https://www.wwf.eu/what_we_do/biodiversity/

[3] Explanation of the LGBT ideology-free zones: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_ideology-free_zone

[4] Video of EU leaders on Europe Day 2020: https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/09/long-live-europe-our-home-european-leaders-celebrate-europe-day-in-renovated-cooperation

[5] The Atlas of Hate showing the municipalities and regions endorsing the LGBT ideology-free zones: https://atlasnienawisci.pl/

[6] Already in 2015, Orbán openly defended the idea of an illiberal state: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/hello-dictator-hungary-orban-viktor-119125