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LGBT rights in eastern Europe: explaining financial benefits makes a big difference to people’s views – new findings

Gay Pride parade in Kosovo, with man in a robe walking in front of a many others holding a banner
Gay Pride parade in Kosovo in 2021. EPA

Across eastern Europe, it’s still very difficult to pass laws and policies designed to advance LGBT inclusion. With LGBT+ History Month underway, some Ukrainians are worried that their country’s fragile progress in LGBT rights will be set back by a Russian invasion. A top court in Hungary has just ruled that it was acceptable for a pro-government newspaper to run an article describing a book of queer fairy tales as “paedophilic”.

Georgia’s pride march was cancelled in 2021 after LGBT activists and journalists were violently attacked by far-right groups. Around the same time, Polish municipalities were declaring themselves to be “LGBT-ideology free zones”. And there was a spate of violent attacks against LGBT people in Turkey.

To combat LGBT discrimination in eastern Europe and around the world, one answer might be to demonstrate that equal rights might have widespread economic benefits. To this end, we have just published research into what determines support for sexual minorities in Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. We chose these countries because they have some of the lowest rates of social acceptance of sexual minorities in Europe, and among the most restrictive laws and policies towards LGBT people.

To test whether rational economic self-interest might overcome personal taste for LGBT people, we decided to give a group of people some information about the direct economic costs to their country from discriminating against sexual minorities. To do this, we asked them how much they thought that non-discriminatory policies could affect annual income in their country per capita in the medium term, and then showed them evidence-based forecasts.

We were also interested in understanding whether myths about homosexuality being a mental illness or disease might be driving anti-gay sentiment in these countries. So in another arm of our experiment, we tried to “debunk” this myth by informing individuals that the World Health Organization (WHO) does not consider homosexuality to be a mental disease.

In both cases, we did this as part of a randomised online survey experiment where a third of our respondents received the “discrimination cost” information, a third received the “myth debunking” information, and a third received information unrelated to LGBT people. The study involved representative groups of 2,200 people in each country, aged between 18 and 70.

What we found

Our experiment showed, with similar results in each of the three countries, that respondents who had received information about the economic cost of discrimination were about 50% more likely to support measures to safeguard equal employment opportunities for LGBT people. They were also more likely – albeit to a lesser extent – to support equal employment opportunities based on ethnic origin, religious beliefs, nationality, gender and disability.

At the same time, however, they were no more likely to support LGBT rights in other parts of life. The information that they received made no difference to their opinions about whether homosexuality was morally acceptable or justifiable, or whether LGBT people bring shame on their families or should be able to live their lives freely.

Woman with a gay pride bag being escorted by police with riot shields in Istanbul
Turkey is considered to have highly restrictive LGBT equality laws and policies. EPA

The group who were told that the WHO did not consider homosexuality to be a mental disease had their views shifted in the opposite way. They were not any more supportive of equal employment opportunities than the group that received no information about LGBT people, but their attitudes to sexual minorities in non-economic aspects of life appeared to have become 17% more liberal.

This was less marked than the shift in the group who received the economic information, but still significant. Interestingly, this was broadly only true of individuals who told us they trusted the WHO.

What it means

Our results shed new light on the global movement for protecting minorities from discrimination in a part of the world that is especially relevant for LGBT rights. Clearly, individuals in countries with negative attitudes towards sexual minorities can separate, say, their moral views of homosexuality from what they think of equal employment. Equally, however, moving the needle on more fundamentally held beliefs about homosexuality is more difficult than winning support for employment reforms.

Politicians who want to win support for LGBT non-discrimination laws in the jobs market should therefore consider running information campaigns that stress the costs of discrimination, as opposed to trying to change more fundamental views about homosexuality. You win this battle first rather than putting all your efforts into the wider war.

On the other hand, our results also indicate that changing those more fundamental views about homosexuality is not beyond the scope of information campaigns – particularly when framed in the context of trusted institutions like the WHO. That, hopefully, at least points to one way forward when it comes to changing attitudes more widely.

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