LGBT rights and EU accession process in Southeast Europe

Katja Kahlina

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE working paper series and is available for download here.

The growing awareness of the close interplay between citizenship and sexuality facilitated the emergence of the notion of sexual citizenship, which reveals how citizenship, despite its claims for universality, is a source of inequality based on sexuality. In particular, if we conceive citizenship in the broad sense as ‘social membership in a nation state, as a set of rights and responsibilities associated with that membership, and as a set of practices defining membership in the community’[i], then sexual citizenship could be broadly defined as membership in a particular polity that is established on the grounds of sexuality. Sexual citizenship thus commonly refers to the ways in which sexuality is implicated in the scope of rights that form the basis of citizenship, such as civil, social, and cultural rights, and which determine the unequal citizenship status of sexual minorities, i.e. of those individuals whose sexual practices do not comply with the heterosexual norm.

In the past two decades the unequal citizenship status of sexual minorities became an object of serious contestations across the globe. Criticism posed by the global LGBTIQ movement brought about the re-definition of sexual citizenship towards less discriminatory practices and facilitated the emergence of new discourses of tolerance towards sexual minorities. At the same time, the actual scope of rights which determine citizenship status of sexual minorities differs significantly from state to state and it has largely been a product of tensions between global tendencies and dominant socio-political processes taking place at the national level.

Complex global-local dynamics are particularly relevant when it comes to re-definition of sexual citizenship in the post-Yugoslav context, where the nation-building processes of the 1990s were soon followed by the European Union accession process. In what follows I will critically reflect upon the ways in which the tensions between nationalism and nation-building related to the disintegration of SFR Yugoslavia, as well as the transnational process of EU enlargement, influence the transformation of sexual citizenship in the context of the new states of South East Europe. I will focus on three particular cases – post-Yugoslav Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro – as the contexts in which we can observe a clear transformatory role of the (aspiring) EU accession process when it comes to the citizenship status of sexual minorities.

EU accession and changing nationalist discourses

As feminist scholars have pointed out, sexuality played an important role in nationalisation processes and struggles over self-determination in relation to the dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia. In this context normative assumptions about gender division and reproductive heterosexuality can be observed as becoming instrumental in the making of new ethnicity-based nations in this context as important markers of ethnic homogeneity. The dominant sexualised constructions of nation and nationalist heteronormativity both allowed and gave legitimacy to homophobic discourses in the public space. They were also reflected in the unequal citizenship status of sexual minorities. Laws that would protect sexual minorities from discrimination were completely absent while at the same time sexual minorities were deprived of numerous civil and cultural rights granted to heterosexual families through the Family Code and other acts.

However, the 2000s were a period of significant change for dominant socio-political and symbolic processes. Among others, this decade was marked by the EU accession process that has influenced the emergence of pro-EU visions of national identities and desired futures. Sexual citizenship was at the centre of the new national(ist) visions and socio-political changes. In particular, since the beginning of 2000s the values of inclusive plurality and tolerance have become part of the new changing national identities in all three states in question. The implementation of these allegedly European liberal democratic values served as ‘proof’ of ‘Europeanness’ and a desired ‘European’ future. Under the influence of EU enlargement politics and rhetoric, sexuality and the rights of sexually marginalized people were incorporated into the newly emerging liberal democratic nationalist imaginary. 

The inclusion of sexual minorities in the discourse of tolerance and liberal pluralism was mainly influenced by the changes taking place in the European Union. In the last decade the unequal status of sexual minorities has been increasingly addressed in EU policies and legal documents that deal with human rights and rights of minorities. What is more, protection of sexual minorities against violence and discrimination gradually became part and parcel of requirements which any state applying for formal membership in the EU should meet. It is precisely the incorporation of LGBT rights into the EU human rights agenda and subsequently into the accession criteria which can be regarded as having the strongest impact on the changing citizenship status of sexual minorities in the new states of South East Europe.

Legal changes

The impact of EU policies is mostly visible in the similarities related to the anti-discrimination laws and institutions that should monitor their implementation, and which are part of the obligations imposed by the EU in the context of the (aspired) EU accession process. Until now, all three states have introduced the Anti-discrimination Acts, which explicitly condemn discrimination on the grounds of ‘sexual orientation’. In addition to the Anti-discrimination Act, anti-discriminatory measures have been included in numerous acts including those that refer to fields of labour, media and education.

Thus, discrimination on the grounds of ‘sexual orientation’ has gradually been recognized as an issue that engenders social inequality and as such is sanctioned by law. However, at the same time, these changes have some limitations. In case of Montenegro and Serbia there is no mention of the alternative, non-heterosexual, relationships, which means that people living in such communities do not enjoy numerous benefits granted to monogamous heterosexual couples. In Croatia, the law now recognizes only monogamous same-sex partnerships and this has been done in a way that is far from the full equality. The incorporation of same-sex relations as ‘special minority rights’ into the legal framework constructed the ‘homosexual population’ that stands in contrast to a ‘normal heterosexual majority.’

Gay Pride Marches

In addition to the legal field, EU officials and international NGOs have paid considerate attention to Gay Pride Marches in this region regarding them as important markers of democratisation and human rights promotion. The role of the EU as facilitator of change is particularly visible when it comes to the activities of the civil sector. In all three states in focus the EU regulations and recommendations constitute a crucial part of the strategies and lobbying activities employed by local NGOs dealing with the issue of sexual equality.

Apart from the impact of the EU accession, Pride Marches in the post-Yugoslav states have also been influenced by the global LGBTIQ movement. Soon after the ‘Stonewall Rebellion’ in 1969 the organisation of Pride Marches became one of the main driving forces behind the transformation of the politics of sexuality in North America, Western Europe and Australia. With the development of communication technologies and the fresh influx of capital coming from Western donors, the global LGBTIQ movement became an important source of influence for the emerging politics of visibility and transformations of sexual citizenship in the post-Yugoslav space.

There is little doubt that Pride Marches, as the backbone of a sexual politics of visibility, have immensely contributed to increased visibility and different, non-stigmatising representation of sexual minorities, thus improving the overall social position of sexual minorities. However, at the same time, the politics of visibility has also provoked negative public reactions and significant resistance to on-going transformation of sexual citizenship. As I will show in the following paragraphs, both the way in which the EU has been supporting LGBT rights and the rhetoric of pro-EU state officials in relation to transformation of sexual citizenship can be regarded as playing the role in homophobic nationalist mobilisation by feeding the anti-EU arguments coming from the right-wing (hetero)nationalist perspective.

Sexual citizenship as a contested terrain in post-Yugoslav context

The EU’s support for LGBT rights in the EU, mostly in its eastern part, has not been without controversy. As some scholars have noted (e.g. Butterfield, Graff, Kahlina, Kulpa), in the past decade the violence against sexual minorities and the lack of Pride Marches in the region of East Europe have been used as important markers of difference that framed the Eastern European states as not ‘European’ enough. In opposition to homophobic Eastern Europe, Western Europe has been framed as a place of rights and safety for sexual minorities, which certainly strengthened its image as a role model of liberal pluralism and democracy for Eastern Europe to follow. In this way, the problematic ‘catching up’ model that secures the Western leadership position while keeping the (South)East in the need of help from the West has been reinforced.

As for the rhetoric employed by the pro-EU state officials, my findings revealed that, when speaking in favour of Pride Marches and adoption of non-discriminatory acts, they have been rarely using the language of social equality. Instead, in most of the cases, they tend to justify their position on LGBT rights by referring to mandatory legal harmonisation and adoption of ‘European standards’. In other words, despite the differences between the three states, the rhetoric of pro-EU state officials in these contexts can be viewed as more apologetic than progressive.

As a result, the discourses produced by the EU officials and local pro-EU elites have reinforced the already existing perception common among anti-gay-rights protestors that the new conceptions of sexual citizenship represent values that are foreign to local contexts, and thus can be harmful for its identity and tradition. In this way, the rhetorical strategy employed by the EU officials and local pro-EU elites in post-Yugoslav context has facilitated the joining of homophobic, nationalist, religious, and anti-EU discourses in the mobilization against the transformation of sexual citizenship.

Lessons to be learned

As the case of on-going transformations of sexual citizenship in post-Yugoslav space shows, globalization and EU-isation open up a space for introducing positive practices related to sexual citizenship into the local contexts. However, as this case also reveals, the improvement of citizenship policies may easily be instrumentalised by different actors involved at the national and international arenas. Thus, more attention should be paid to the ways in which LGBT rights intersect with other discourses and relations of power on the global and local levels.

[i] Cossman, B. (2007). Sexual citizens: The legal and cultural regulation of sex and belonging. Stanford: Stanford University Press, p.7