The European rainbow and the meandering march of history

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current publications, Publications

Cover_AyoubIn December of 2013 Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian foreign affairs committee, warned Ukrainian protesters about an expansion of “gay culture”, which he then described as “the official policy of the EU.”  It is with this ominous quote that Phillip M Ayoub and David Paternotte start their new book, LGBT activism and the making of Europe: a rainbow Europe.

Both Pushkov and Putin have evoked a “moral foundation” of ‘’traditional families” as a defining contrast between Europe and Russia. (The preference to support ‘’traditional families” is widely regarded as a dog-whistle code for homophobic policy.) This characterisation of Europe is also prevalent in Africa and the Middle East where many deeply religious communities have sought to identify themselves in contrast to western values. It is this association between gay rights and the European identity that interests Ayoub, a Max Weber fellow and assistant professor of political sciences. He tells the EUI Times that he and Paternotte co-authored the book to “better understand the emergence and the historical development of the special relationship that unites issues of sexuality and Europe.”

In the book, Ayoub and Paternotte contend that gay rights were initially linked to the idea of ‘modern Europe’ by civil rights activists who often travelled across borders to campaign across the continent. “Our research” Ayoub explains “showed that LGBT movements were inspired by specific ideas about Europe (democratic values and a responsibility towards human rights), which they sought to realise through activism.”

Today, Europe is considered to be among the best places in the world to be gay, and yet LGBT rights did not simply emerge overnight. It took years of effort by activists, fighting for the recognition of a sceptical political class to achieve the rights that many of us take for granted today. According to Ayoub and Paternotte, “the earliest notions of the idea that Europe had a special relationship to LGBT rights first appeared in activist discourses long before it was adopted and championed by European national institutions.”

Ayoub tracks a history of nomadic campaigners, who often had to convince politicians to support their cause in the face of public opposition, not only did they change Europe forever, they also redefined it in the eyes of the world.

There is still a long way to go. Discrimination and hate crimes remain far too prevalent (this will be true until they are confined to history) and Ayoub does not consider total equality as a certainty, nor does he expect history to move in one uninterrupted direction. He warns that “backlashes are very common in response to LGBT legislation” and notes that “it remains risky to think of progress as an inevitable and linear trajectory.” It may be that his work comes to act, not just as a history book, but as a manual too.