As Pride month draws to a close, activists warn public debate on a number of issues is becoming increasingly polarised and violent.
Going out in the street in fear, letting go of your partner's hand or avoiding public displays of affection are increasingly common in seemingly free and tolerant European cities. Spain's capital, Madrid, is a good example.
Reports of homophobic attacks in Spain have soared in the first quarter of the year. One of the most recent cases is that of two young men who were assaulted by a group of five boys while kissing on the beach during the Saint Joan festivities in Barcelona.
Ramón Martinez is a writer and COGAM activist.
He points to the beating to death of Samuel Luiz in A Coruña, two years ago, as a key turning point. "Since then, many of my friends started looking for self-defence classes," he says. "Many people began to realise that the problem was getting worse" He says they fear that Spain will continue to take steps backwards until it reaches the same situation as that in Poland or Hungary.
Hate has 'come out of the closet'
Hate has 'come out of the closet' unashamedly encouraged by far-right parties such as Vox.
After last May's regional and municipal in Spain, alliances between the right and the far-right have allowed Vox to enter numerous city councils. One of its first measures was the elimination of rainbow flags from public buildings and the prohibition of demonstrations against male violence.
"The problem we have right now is that we are still in the process of symbolic regression," says Martinez. "The next step is already starting to scare me, because it would not be symbolic, but legal, opening the door to a social change that I fear could happen." He worries that opinion polls ahead of general elections in Spain on 23rd July point to a victory for the Popular Party with Vox.
"What we are unfortunately seeing more and more is that there are anti-democratic and populist forces that are using LGBTI people and their rights to drag them into the middle of debate," says ILGA-Europe Policy Director Katrin Hugendubel. "These are strategies to distract from problems such as corruption as is happening for example in Hungary."
Hate speech turns into violence
Some claims these strategies are just the beginning of a wave of regression of lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, intersex, intersex and queer rights that follows the rise of the far right across Europe.
In Italy, the recent rise to power of the far-right Giorgia Meloni has already had consequences for same-sex parent families. The public prosecutor in the northern city of Padua declared the birth certificates of 33 children born to lesbian couples illegal.
The government had instructed municipalities in March to stop registering children of same-sex parents in a country where same-sex marriage is still not allowed by law. It did legalise same-sex civil unions in 2016 under a centre-left government.
Added to this are the anti-LGBTQI laws in Hungary, which have also been copied in Romania.
"Violent incidents on the streets have increased, but also discrimination in schools and in the workplace," says Hugendubel, "because of the 'transphobic hatred' surrounding the new 'trans law' of Pedro Sánchez's progressive government."
Violence against LGBTQI+ people in Europe has reached its highest level in a decade, according to a 2023 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Association of Europe (ILGA-Europe).
A year ago, an attack on a queer venue in Norway, in which a gunman opened fire, killed two people and injured 21 others.
In the same year in Slovakia, two people were shot dead by a right-wing extremist outside a shop in Bratislava.
These are just a few examples of the "unprecedented" homophobic violence between January and December 2022 reported by ILGA-Europe in 16 European countries, including France, the UK and Germany. According to the organisation, there is a clear cause-effect relationship between hate speech and this violence "that will not disappear or diminish until policy makers understand that they have to get ahead of the problem."
But, for Ramón Martínez, hate speech is not the only culprit. "It is almost a consequence of the success of the LGBTQ movement," he explains. He believes the rights won are provoking a reaction that goes hand in hand with the rise of the extreme right.
Some positive developments
Katrin Hugendubel believes that "the complacency" of a few years ago is over and "there is a mobilisation going on that is working". At the European level, she welcomes the fact that countries are coming together to force members such as Slovakia or Hungary to respect LGBTQI rights.
The Rainbow Map, produced annually by ILGA-Europe, demonstrates the legal and political situation of LGBTI people in 49 European countries. It also shows positive measures such as the introduction of laws in favour of the group.
Last week, Estonia became the first Baltic state to legalise same-sex marriage. In addition, several countries have introduced legal gender recognition by self-determination and a ban on Intersex Genital Mutilation in the last twelve months.
"Finland, Scotland and Spain have adopted very advanced laws, so good things are happening," Hugendubel stresses. "Even Poland has been moving up this year because the courts have banned sterilisation requirements."
But she insists progress cannot be taken for granted and that "we all need to be braver and make more noise, with all the tools that exist to make sure we don't go backwards."