When Violence Is a Part of Public Life – Civil Society and the Top-Down Polarisation
World NGO Day – Webinar
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak and share my perspective on the topic at hand. In between all of you, I do so in great modesty and with great respect for your opinions and the organisations you represent. My name is Wielie Elhorst. In my daily life, I am a Reformed Minister. I serve two parishes of the Protestant Church in The Netherlands. In 2016, I was especially appointed as a minister for the LGBTI+ community in Amsterdam. I have been involved in the movement for emancipation and social acceptance of LGBTI+ people of faith since 1989, when I started raising questions in my own church, then the Salvation Army. I have been involved in the work of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups since 2003, from 2015 to 2019 as its co-chair. At the moment, I serve the European Forum as its volunteer for political advocacy. The European Forum has a participatory status in the International NGO Conference of the Council of Europe since July 2016.
I feel my contribution in this space and under this topic is a little bit divergent, but I would like to share it with you nonetheless. My contribution will highlight a few cases. As I am mainly active within the Christian LGBTI+ movement, the cases I present will be mainly from this perspective. I do not feel facilitated nor authorised to speak for LGBTI+ people of other faiths or beliefs. In recent years, the LGBTI+ movement in general has seen the rise of a new danger: a growing alliance of religious-right organisations and some churches. To name just a few of these organisations: The Alliance Defending Freedom, The World Congress of Families, The Family Research Council, the European Center for Law anf Justice. Already in 2014, the European Forum identified these organisations in a report. They contest both the LGBTI+ movement and the women’s movement in their striving for equal rights, referring to traditional values that are undermined by the goals of the aforementioned movements. The gender equality that women’s movements have been striving for and of which the Istanbul Convention of 2011 is an expression, has been qualified as “gender ideology”, a term already coined in the Vatican in the nineties of the last century. Clearly, qualifying the fight for gender equality as an ideology, disqualifies the people aiming for this equality but has thus far unfortunately been quite a succesful narrative, especially in Eastern and Central European and Central Asian countries. In the same manner, the support for LGBTI+ equality has been denounced as an ideology, prompting the Polish President Andrezj Duda to state that “there is no such thing as ‘LGBTI+ people’, there is only and LGBTI+ ideology, which threathens the very fundaments of society.”
What is especially dangerous—and here I connect to the topic at hand: the effect of top down polarisation—is how traditional religious narratives have been and are used to build a country’s national identity. And to be clear, these religious narratives not only “have been (ab)used”, in most cases churches and religious organisations have been all too keen to cooperate with political entities, at least in the public debate, as they saw their conservative sexual and gender values very easily conveyed and supported. I want to mention just a few cases that are exemplary for this development. In 2018, the European Forum was planning its Eastern European and Central Asian Conference for LGBTI+ Christians in Yerevan, Armenia. The Conference was to take place one month before the country’s first free elections after the so called “Velvet Revolution” in the spring of that year. In the middle of the election campaign, our conference was identified and became the focal point of heated debate that litterally resulted in violence against LGBTI+ people (and because of which we had to cancel our conference altogether). Its central question: can an LGBTI+ person be Armenian at the same time, with “Armenian” being defined both political as well as religious? Prime Minister Pashinyan, afraid of traditional sentiments stated that (I paraphrase) “LGBTI+ people have always been part of society, their question always a headache and the people should decide on how to resolve the issue”, basically outlawing them in a country with no non discrimination laws and policies in place. Hardly ever speaking ex cathedra, the patriach of the Armenian Orthodox Church Karekin II stated that “advertising for homosexual behaviour poses a threat to traditional national values”. Karekin II concluded, “God created commandments and moral norms for people. However, attempts are being made to escape from these norms and spread under the guise of ensuring human rights and freedoms. The Holy Church of Christ has already expressed its position in connection with homosexuals—calling this phenomenon unacceptable and urging those, who have sinned, to repent. The actions of the LGBT community are reprehensible.” This is a clear example of top-down polarisation that very much discriminated against and violently threatened a minority, in this case, especially the minority of LGBTI+ people of faith. The fundamentalism we speak about here is not that of a minority movement or group but is institutionalised conservatism, which makes it even more dangerous for minority groups that cannot adhere to its principles.
Two other examples of this dynamic of bringing together religious and political forces—first and foremost, as we see it to gain moral and political power over people—are (1) the case of the referendum held in Romania in the autumn of 2019 to find a majority support for the definition of marriage in the constitution as a union between one man and one woman, for which the Romanian Orthodox Church campaigned vehemently, and (2) an ever growing LGBTI+ phobia in Poland stirred up by the country’s leading party PiS and the statements of the Polish bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, resulting concretely in many municipalities and regions declaring themselves “LGBTI+ free”. In the summer of 2020, the bishops together pleaded for the erection of state funded clinics to “help” LGBTI+ people to contain or even change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only a few days after the publication, the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki embraced this idea publicly. Other than Armenia, these countries do not represent conflict or post-conflict regions, but the top down polarisation created by political and religious authorities resulting in a very threatening situation for LGBTI+ people and women, for that matter, is evident. Especially in Romania, the campaign to define marriage heteronormatively has been supported by religious-right organisations, for example bringing Kimbery Jean Davis, the Texan clerk that defied same-sex marriage law in the United States in 2015, to tour through Romania.
The developments described here, of course, are not isolated to Eastern and Central European and Central Asian countries. Also in Western European countries, these dynamics can be observed, although there they are much less part of creating a national identity that seeks to build a firm power base. For example, in France, we have seen the widely supported movement “Manif pour tous” against same-sex marriage, openly supported by the Roman Catholic Church. An interesting case in my own country was the reaction to the Dutch translation of the so-called “Nashville Declaration” in January 2019 that states that acceptance of homosexuality and a transgender identity is alien to Christian faith. Noteworthy was the complete silence of both extreme-right parties in our parliament, probably because they seek to cooperate with the very right-wing Christian party and conservative organisations in nationalist and populist politics that are against immigration and that are very islamophobic. One of these extreme right parties has a steady political base of at least one and half million people, which shows the threat of their still not very open but potential LGBTI+ phobia.
There is no easy solution to these developments and threats. What we can do as NGOs is actively seeking to identify minority voices that can create a counter-narrative, amplifying this voice on platforms of likeminded organisations and work together with less hesitation than we maybe do sometimes now. Of course, this is also a question of capacity and of much easier access to financial means of, for example, the European Union that needs to better identify also the smaller but very relevant voices here.