A Question That Will Divide the Nation Despite Its Answer

Centre’s communication manager Mirjam Savioja proposes solutions for countering the spread of hatred and misinformation against the LGBT+ community while politicians tussle over the upcoming marriage referendum. The article was originally published as part of European Liberal Forum’s blog series “How to Counter the Populist Narrative of Scapegoating?”

The far-right government party members burst out more and more homophobic statements, as Estonia is approaching the plebiscite on the concept of marriage. The Minister of Interior told gay people to run to Sweden, while the chairman of the party’s council called TV hosts of public broadcasting “sodomites”. Despite the overflowing hatred towards the LGBT+ community, the Prime Minister from the Center Party does nothing, and the coalition stays intact. Even though the first (!) point in the coalition agreement is that the parties enhance a caring and tolerant society, and condemn all divisive rhetoric. 

The far-right Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) has been in the governing coalition since the last elections in March 2019, when the Center Party formed a coalition with EKRE and also right-wing Isamaa. This is when the political persecution of the local LGBT+ community really took off. In fact, one of EKRE’s requirements in the coalition agreement was putting the marriage definition on a referendum. The aim is to ask the citizens whether marriage should be defined only as a union between a man and a woman. While other countries move forward and vote for marriage equality, the Estonian government is lingering in the past. With bigger issues, like a global pandemic and economic instability on the table, this referendum, that is to take place at the end of spring 2021, serves no other purpose than to demean a certain group of people. No matter the results, this question will divide the nation, harming the LGBT+ people and their families the most along the way. 

Attacks against LGBT+ people on the rise 

The proposed referendum does not provide a platform for meaningful discussion, but rather it allows for the spread of hatred and misinformation against the LGBT+ community. It is easy to make an enemy from a minority with dehumanising and homophobic political rhetoric. The way the LGBT+ community is framed by politicians spills on to the public discourse, streets, workplaces, online comments sections, and dinner tables. According to the Estonian LGBT Association, the threats and violent attacks on LGBT+ people have become more frequent in recent years. More and more LGBT+ people feel unsafe and unwelcome in their home country. The members of EKRE have attacked and protested againstevents organised by the association. Furthermore, another crucial aspect that allows hostility towards minorities to flourish is that hate speech is still not criminalised in Estonia, even though we have already received a formal notice from the European Commission calling on the country to criminalise hate speech and hate crimes. And to make the matters worse, in July, the Ministry of Finances, led by a minister from EKRE, also suspended financing of equality projects by NGOs like Estonian Human Rights Centre and LGBT association.  

Not as powerful as one might think 

EKRE’s way of shaping public opinion has paved the way for normalising hostile rhetoric in society as well as caught the interest of international media. This creates an illusion that the far-right populists have more power than they actually do. According to the last ratings, EKRE picked up 16,6 percent of public support, making them the third most popular party in Estonia. Naturally, not all who think marriage should be only between a man and a woman support EKRE. However, we have a reason to believe that the majority of Estonian people would support LGBT+ couples to have equal rights to hetero couples. According to a survey commissioned by the Estonian Human Rights Centre in 2019, the opponents of the Registered Partnership Act were for the first time in the minority with only 39 percent, while 49 percent of Estonian residents supported it. This was already the forth public opinion survey about LGBT rights, commissioned by the Centre. Next it will be conducted at the beginning of 2021. We believe that due to the marriage plebiscite, the public opinion is further polarised, yet there is reason to remain optimistic about the results. The surveys have shown a minimal, yet regular increase in tolerance towards LGBT+ community in Estonia. How much these positive developments have been affected by having the far-right politicians in the government, the results will show in spring. 

So what can we do? 
  • First, we need to support the LGBT+ community. While the LGBT+ community in Estonia is feeling unsafe and losing spirit, we cannot expect them to fight alone for their rights. Luckily, there are hard-working NGOs like LGBT association who work daily on this. Also, solidarity events to support the community and marriage equality have been organised. But the work on a national level might not always be enough, which is why broad international attention on Estonia’s situation, and support towards the LGBT+ people are very important, too.  
  • Secondly, criminalisation of hate speech and hate crimes plays a key role in tackling hatred against minorities and in holding people accountable for inciting hatred. Everyone, especially politicians who hold public office and have access to a wide audience through the media, have to take responsibility for their words. 
  • And last but not least, it is too far-fetched to hope for the change in the government and cancellation of the referendum as one of the main attacks on LGBT+ rights. So firstly, we need to contact the elected parliament members to vote against the referendum so it would not get passed in parliament. If that won’t work, we need to continue to raise awareness about LGBT+ rights and equity and rally for people to vote in a way that would support marriage equality. For this, LGBT+ people and allies from different spheres of the society are already putting together a so-called “no” campaign team. 

The precondition for a democratic and human rights respecting society is that the rights of all, including minorities, are respected. We cannot tolerate the farrights members of the Estonian government to scapegoat a certain group of people, our people, especially if the politicians have signed a coalition agreement that should prevent this. Human rights for minorities should not be of someone’s generosity, but a fundamental value of a country, which is why the rights of Estonian LGBT community are worth fighting for. 

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