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Michael Pelz on LGBT rights in the European Union

Photo of: Michael Pelz in Montenegro.

Michael Pelz in Montenegro.

Applying to get into the European Union is good for human rights. Actually succeeding? Not so much.

That’s the counterintuitive lesson that U of T political science graduate student Michael Pelz has learned during his research into LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights in the European Union.

Pelz presented his results at the WorldPride Human Rights Conference, held at University College in June. His research took him to Montenegro – a candidate country for EU membership – where he interviewed government and police officials as well as LGBT activists.

LGBT rights vary considerably in Europe – even within the European Union, Pelz says. For example, according to the European LGBT rights group ILGA’s Rainbow Europe scale, on a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of strength of LGBT rights, England rates 82, France 64, and Italy only 25. Pelz attributes the differences to a number of reasons, such as level of economic development, religiosity, history and constructions of national identity.

One finding which concerns him is that countries often improve their LGBT rights while vying to be admitted to the EU, but don’t follow through once they are actually admitted.

“The European Union has played an incredibly important role in advancing human rights for LGBT persons within the Union, but its influence should not be overstated,” he says.

The reason is simple, he says. Before countries are admitted to the EU, they must meet certain conditions, including passing a multitude of laws supportive of LGBT persons. However, once a country has been admitted, the EU has less influence, and there is the chance a country will regress, especially if social views haven’t really evolved.

Pelz is worried that that might happen if Montenegro is accepted into the EU.

Montenegro is a beautiful country, but its attitudes towards LGBT people are still evolving, he says. “For me as a Canadian going over there, there’s a bit of culture shock for sure in terms of how socially conservative they are, especially on LGBT issues. You have large pluralities of people saying that homosexuality is a sin, it’s a disease, people shouldn’t have these kinds of rights. When I went there, I was not out. I would not feel comfortable publicly talking about my sexuality.”

He attributes Montenegro’s conservatism to a number of factors, including the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and a general lack of awareness of LGBT issues. Ironically, he says, the government has passed some very progressive legislation. “What you have in Montenegro is you have a government which is increasingly willing to pass laws; for example they have very good anti-discrimination protection in their human rights legislation. But what is not present in Montenegro is social acceptance.

“One activist I spoke to said, ‘We don’t actually want Montenegro to get in the EU for the next 10 years, because we really need peoples’ social views on this subject to change; we need these laws to be in place and be properly enforced, and the concern is that if we’re in, the EU is going to stop bothering us about this,” Pelz says.

But Montenegro is actually more progressive in its attitudes towards LGBT persons than other Balkan countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, he says. Attitudes vary in the Baltics, his other area of study, as well. The Latvian government has resisted addressing LGBT rights, while the Estonian government has shown greater willingness to, and is currently debating introducing gender neutral registered partnerships, he says Both joined the EU 10 years ago.

“It’s interesting how those two countries have moved on LGBT rights. Part of my research is trying to sort out that puzzle.”

Pelz not only studies LGBT rights, but also actively tries to strengthen them. Besides being a PhD student at U of T, he also works with Egale Canada, lobbying the Canadian government for more inclusive policies towards LGBT persons overseas.

“I often find that the Canadian government will say the right things to support LGBT communities overseas, but they don’t back it with programming or funding to help groups on the ground in hotspots like Nigeria and Uganda,” he says.

“I think of myself as straddling the academic/policy work divide. I’ll probably leave the academy for a period of time and do more policy work. Ideally I’d like to come back and teach again.”