Conor O’Dwyer

Coming Out of Communism describes the rapidly evolving politics of LGBT activism in postcommunist Europe. The book offers a comparative framework of broader relevance describing the conditions under which transnational pressure and domestic politics may interact to build robust activism, or not.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

O’Dwyer: This is a region where it is still very difficult to organize an LGBT movement. It’s a region in which for a host of reasons – some going back to the experience under communism, some going back even further – LGBT people were not able to participate in public life as LGBT citizens. Sexual orientation was hidden, and sexual minorities faced discrimination and repression in a variety of forms. It’s also a region where the legacy of weak civil society has handicapped postcommunist social activism in general. This is also, however, a region that in a very short span of time shed the cocoon of Cold War isolation to become integrated into transnational structures like the EU. My book asks what happens when these societies became exposed to transnational institutions like the EU and the minority-rights norms that they promote. Is activism boosted by the infusion of resources from transnational networks? Or does transnational pressure bring backlash, inflaming antigay attitudes and driving activism further underground? In short, what kind of LGBT movements will emerge out of this unique context?

I found that there isn’t one movement trajectory. There is surprising divergence in the organization of LGBT activism across countries. My book focuses primarily on Poland and the Czech Republic from the late 1980s through 2012; but I also include a chapter on Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. I was surprised to discover that over this period Poland’s LGBT movement emerged as one of the best organized in the region, despite experiencing strong political and social backlash as it developed. I was also surprised to discover that its Czech counterpart, which began from a position of strength in the early 1990s, experienced lots of organizational turmoil and, I argue, decline over the same timespan. Based on this comparison, I argue that domestic backlash against transnational rights norms has in fact been a primary catalyst for organizational development in the region’s most robust LGBT movements.

I think that the need to understand the role of hard-right backlash in social movement development is more pressing than ever given the present surge of populist-nationalists in the US and Europe. Parts of Eastern Europe had the dubious distinction of being ahead of the curve in this respect, having experienced hard-right breakthroughs already in the mid-2000s, following their accession to the EU. It’s instructive to look back at this earlier wave to find clues about the present one.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

O’Dwyer: I didn’t follow a direct line to this topic. Since my graduate training was as a political scientist and East Europeanist, I had focused on some of the more traditionally political science aspects of the “transition” from communism in my previous work: the development of political parties, the reform of state institutions, and so on. That said, I was always most interested in the contradictions, missteps, and unintended consequences of the “transition,” and I think the evolution of the region’s LGBT activism over the last three decades demonstrates unintended consequences in abundance.

It wasn’t until a series of conversations with a colleague about her experiences attending a Pride parade in Riga, Latvia in 2005 – a parade that was attacked by counter-demonstrators – that I came to realize that sexual citizenship was perhaps one of the most illuminating indicators of how the “transition” was really progressing. Given the current crisis of liberalism in Europe, it’s perhaps hard now to recall the general atmosphere leading up to the EU’s eastern enlargement in 2004. It had felt like Francis Fukuyama was right: history had ended, and liberalism had carried the day. And yet, as my colleague’s experiences highlighted for me, this victory was not so clear cut: in Riga and Warsaw, citizens exercising their civil rights of free speech and association by participating in Pride parades were being attacked and their parades banned. I burrowed into this anomaly, following the development of LGBT movements over the following years and across an expanding set of countries. The tensions between the “Europeanization” and sexual citizenship became only more striking and, I would argue, enlightening as a means of thinking about deeper aspects of the region’s democratization, what Jeffrey Weeks has called the “long process of the democratization of everyday life.” I was particularly struck by the resilience of LGBT movements in those new EU member-states like Poland where hard-right populists made political breakthroughs in popular elections.

Having laid out this story and seeing now the further expansion and even consolidation of hard-right political gains, I of course have many unanswered questions. The main one is whether LGBT movements will continue to be resilient in the face of backlash. Eastern Europe’s backlash in the mid-2000s occurred against a backdrop of relative political stability in Western Europe and the US. That backdrop has since changed. I don’t know what the future holds, but one thing that the study of LGBT activism over the first two and half decades of the “transition” taught me is that cycles of contentious politics are long, and it takes time for cycles of social movement mobilization and counter-mobilization to yield new organizational adaptations and breakthroughs.

NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

O’Dwyer: It speaks to the study of social movements, for one. In particular, how do social movements organize when resources are few and social attitudes inhospitable? What counts as social movement success? Is it only about changing public policy? Or is it more about building resilient and durable organizational structures? What lessons can be drawn from postcommunist LGBT movements for other movements, and for LGBT movements in other countries, particularly those outside of the US and Western Europe? A second theme is that of transnational norm diffusion and the mechanisms by which it occurs. This theme relates very clearly to the European Union, but is broader than that. Finally, as mentioned earlier, I think this book has resonance for those concerned with the current populist moment and the challenge of democratizing the deep-level social practices underpinning liberal democracy.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? (What sources did you use, were there any especially exciting discoveries, or any particular challenges, etc.?)

O’Dwyer: The book uses a variety of methods and sources. It draws on trips to the field over several years, during which time I did interviews with activists, participated in or observed Pride parades, art exhibitions, rallies, and public discussions. I was also very fortunate to be able to draw on an emerging scholarship on LGBT issues by historians and scholars from the region, much of which was literally being published as I was doing my fieldwork. (There are too many names to cite here, but as representative examples I would mention Jan Seidl in the Czech Republic and, in Poland, Anna Gruszczynska and Ireneusz Krzemiński and his collaborators). The detail and nuance of this scholarship is very inspiring. Unfortunately, though, much of it is not available in English.

For an outside scholar like myself, and a non-historian to boot, it is a challenge to match the detail of this emerging historical literature. On the other hand, I’ve also been struck that most of this work takes the form of single-country studies. For all the work of transnational groups like ILGA-Europe, it is somewhat surprising how rarely scholars, and often activists themselves, theorize developments in their near neighbors. My book is unusual in that it comparatively traces Eastern European LGBT movements over the longer arc of history. I think that this comparative historical approach illuminates deeper dynamics of the LGBT movements in Poland and the Czech Republic and their neighbors in a way that no amount of digging into the details of one country could get at.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

O’Dwyer: Since my focus was on the development of LGBT movements after communism, I spend less time on the movement’s predecessors under communism. My discussion of that period pertains mainly to the late stages of the old regime, that is, to the 1980s. I think that the story of the movements’ communist-era precursors is fascinating, though. It’s particularly interesting to consider how communist regimes dealt with homosexuality because, unlike other issues like gender equality or ethnic-minority rights, the Communists did not even make a pretense of being more progressive than the West. (Of course, most of the “progress” on these other issues was just that, ideologically-inspired pretense.) Again scholars from the region such as Jan Seidl, Lukasz Szulc, and Agata Fiedetow, to name just a few, are beginning to explore this topic, uncovering a surprisingly rich history if not of activism then of an underground gay and lesbian milieu, some of which carried over after 1989.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?

O’Dwyer: Yes, it certainly did. When I first began working on this topic, during the time when I was carrying around the idea of the book in my head rather than actively writing it, I had a very different view of the prospects of the LGBT movement in Eastern Europe. As I mentioned earlier, I started following the movement in Poland in the mid-2000s, when it was under attack from a hard-right government led by the Law and Justice party. (They’ve since returned to government in Poland.) At that time, Polish activists were very pessimistic, and they were particularly disappointed by the seeming impotence of the EU. Here they were, brand-new members in the club of democratic Western European nations, and their leaders chose that moment to crack down on minority rights. Despite all the academic literature on the EU’s democratizing influence, I was struck by the weakness of EU leverage and its seemingly invisible impact on social practices in the new members. Over time, however, I came to the opposite view: EU membership mattered, but not for the reasons that most of the political science literature said that it did. The EU mattered because it catalyzed a fierce domestic political debate about an issue that had previously been ignored and marginalized.

Frankly, this kind of inductive theorizing was not a comfortable process. It’s very difficult to reorient how you think about something. In my case, I think I was able to manage it only because I followed the topic for a long time and because I drew on an eclectic range of sources.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

O’Dwyer: Classes on gender, sexuality, and LGBT studies would be a natural choice, of course. Here, I think, my book would fit nicely with other recent works looking at the expansion sexual citizenship in comparative terms – especially as it is occurring outside of Western Europe and the United States. I have in mind, for example, such works as Omar Encarnación’s Out in the Periphery: Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution and Valerie Sperling’s Sex, Politics, and Putin: Political Legitimacy in Russia.

I also hope that Coming Out of Communism will be assigned in classes on social movements more generally. I certainly can’t claim to have foreseen it when I began this research, but I believe that we are now entering a cycle of heightened social movement mobilization and contentious politics, one whose most relevant analogue is the 1960s. Certain features of this social movement cycle are familiar, notably the back and forth stages of backlash and counter-mobilization. What, arguably, is new is the critical role of transnational actors in shaping the social movement dynamics in individual countries, particularly as catalysts of hard-right backlash. In this vein, I think my book would pair particularly well with two recent works exploring the transnational dynamics of social movements, namely Phillip Ayoub’s When States Come Out: Europe’s Sexual Minorities and the Politics of Visibility and Clifford Bob’s The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics.

The book would also suit comparative politics classes focused on postcommunist Europe and its integration into the European Union. In the 1990s and 2000s, scholarship on this area seemed to focus almost exclusively on topics like democratization, economic reform, and ethnic tensions. Now, I think, observers are becoming increasingly interested in the deeper societal underpinnings of the transition: how have understandings of identity shifted? How has the family changed? What aspects of societal beliefs and practices have not changed? I already mentioned Valerie Sperling’s Sex, Politics, and Putin, which exemplifies this kind of scholarship. Another good example, though coming from a very different methodological approach, is Grigore Pop-Eleches and Joshua Tucker’s Communism’s Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes. The treatment of homosexuality and LGBT rights offers one of the best lenses into these ongoing “deep” changes (and continuities), so these books and my own would offer students a good entry point to consider them.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

O’Dwyer: Coming Out of Communism examined the politics of homosexuality in postcommunist Europe from the vantage point of social movements and activism. In subsequent work, I’ve been exploring the related issue of attitudes about homosexuality held by individuals in society. A striking feature of postcommunist countries is that comparative surveys of public opinion find that they generally have significantly less tolerant attitudes regarding homosexuality than their European neighbors, even after controlling for various determinants of tolerance identified in the literature, such as level of economic development. In a paper with my colleague Dong-Joon Jung, we ask whether part of the reason for this persistent “tolerance deficit” might be demographic. During the course of the transition, rates of both mortality and fertility experienced very dramatic shocks in these countries, particularly in Russia. In short, fewer babies, more deaths, and even, at certain points, population decline. Fear-mongering about demographic decline is a trope among the region’s social conservatives. It’s a short step from there to blaming sexual minorities as threats to the family, and hence, the future of the nation, and so on. So in our current research, Dong-Joon and I are exploring the impact of such demographic factors over and above the other determinants of attitudes toward homosexuality identified by scholars. In recent years, researchers such as Anne Case and Angus Deaton have uncovered deteriorating demographic trends in the US as well, particularly with regard to mortality, so the lessons of postcommunist countries may well have wider significance.

Conor O’Dwyer is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. He specializes in comparative politics, with a regional emphasis on East Central Europe and the EU. In addition to his work on LGBT politics, he has published on democratization, comparative political parties, and postcommunist state-building.

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