UCL European Institute


Go West? How intra-EU migration can help reduce intolerance towards LGBT citizens

27 April 2017


While the EU has introduced a number of specific policies aimed at reducing discrimination against its LGBT citizens, a more successful way the EU can promote tolerance towards gays and lesbians, argues Richard Mole, is by encouraging the free movement of people between member-states.

While the legal situation for gays and lesbians in post-communist Europe has witnessed some marked improvements in the past 25 years, social attitudes towards homosexuality in the Eastern half of the continent remain less positive. According to the European Social Survey - carried out biannually by the European Science Foundation since 2002 - the percentage of respondents accepting the proposition that 'Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own lives as they wish' is continually far higher in Western than in Central and Eastern Europe, with the advances made in some post-communist states even reversing in recent years. Why is this?

The collapse of communism in 1989 and the social, economic and political upheaval that followed resulted in a sharp rise in nationalism as people tried to deal with their difficult present and uncertain future. To create a sense of social cohesion and stability, nationalist politicians harked back to the golden age of the inter-war period and what they saw as its traditional norms and values, including norms on gender and sexuality. Many societies also experienced a marked increase in religiosity, which had a negative impact on attitudes towards homosexuality, as the Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran Churches used their new-found political power to propagate highly conservative social agendas. As the impact of the post-communist transition waned, attitudes towards homosexuality did improve but continued to lag behind most West European societies. However, the liberalisation of attitudes has been constrained recently by the rise of populist politicians, who have used homophobic discourse to discredit opponents and shore up support among nationalist and conservative voters, a sizeable proportion of the electorates. It is the supposed alienness of homosexuality and its association with Western values that prove particularly useful to politicians, allowing them to construct gays and lesbians as disloyal enemies of the state and reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is a foreign import.

At the same time, the post-communist period has witnessed unprecedented levels of East-West migration, a process which can result in migrants' attitudes to gays and lesbians becoming more tolerant over time. What our recent research shows is that the longer CEE migrants had been in London, the less intolerant they became towards homosexuality. A number of factors help explain this outcome. First, by extricating themselves from the mechanisms of social control in their home states (especially religion, the media and politics), migrants are less likely to be exposed to the homophobic discourse of priests, newspapers and politicians, and are now living in a society in which homosexuality, while not viewed in universally positive terms, is nevertheless more accepted. The perception of homosexuality as 'normal' can be attributed in part to the greater public visibility gays and lesbians enjoy in the UK compared with most CEE states. A factor that has an even greater positive impact on attitudes towards homosexuality is personal contact with gays and lesbians. Often CEE migrants meet 'out' gays and lesbians for the first time after moving to Britain. Research has shown that, under certain conditions, contact with out-groups is the most effective means of reducing prejudice. The main idea behind this approach is that, if members of the in-group engage with members of the out-group, the former are more likely to see the latter as individual human beings, with the same fears and desires as themselves, rather than perceiving them as an undifferentiated mass, while the interactions will also provide information to help challenge stereotypes perpetuated by politicians and the media.

Nevertheless, a number of further factors also limit the migrants' acceptance of sexual minorities. Firstly, gays and lesbians are more likely to be accepted if they conform to traditional gender norms in terms of appearance and behaviour. This can perhaps be explained with reference to the retraditionalisation of gender roles in CEE discussed above. Secondly, even those who express tolerant attitudes towards gays and lesbians do not always support public manifestations of homosexuality. In other words, improved attitudes towards gay men and lesbians in private do not always translate into support for public visibility. Finally, what may have changed as a result of migration to London may not necessarily be attitudes towards homosexuality per se, but rather the awareness that public utterances of homophobic comments are less likely to pass without comment in the UK compared with their home country. In other words, migrants learn to perform tolerance in the UK rather than become tolerant.

Overall, however, it is increasingly clear that migration can have a positive impact on attitudes towards homosexuality not only among CEE migrants in London but - given the circular migratory patterns and transnational existence of many migrants as well as the circulation of ideas about issues such as sexuality - also has the potential to improve attitudes among those who stayed behind. 

The research upon which this blog post is based is part of a larger project on the 'Sexual attitudes and lifestyles of London's East Europeans', conducted by the author, Christopher Gerry, Violetta Parutis and Fiona Burns.

  • Richard Mole is Senior Lecturer in Political Sociology at the UCL School of Slavonic Studies.