LGBTI discrimination still going strong in Europe, warns EU rights body

Woman with homosexual symbol and gay pride flag. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a new survey on LGBTI rights ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia. [Shutterstock]

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual people’s organisations have denounced a lack of progress in the recognition of sexual minorities rights in the EU ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on Sunday (17 May). 

“Imagine being afraid to hold your loved one’s hand in public, skipping office banter to avoid divulging with whom you share your life, choosing the long way home to side-step potentially hostile ground, or enduring ridicule every time you show your personal identification.

“In the year 2020, these remain realities for all too many lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people across the EU and beyond.”

This is how the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) report on LGBTI in Europe starts. In 2020, belonging to a sexual-orientation minority in the EU is still a source of discrimination when not just dangerous. 

The EU rights body has taken stock on the situation in Europe based on the results of a survey among around 140,000 people conducted in 2019 in the EU, North Macedonia and Serbia. And the results are not encouraging. 

While the situation varies significantly across countries, little progress has been achieved since the previous survey in 2012. In fact, data showed that discrimination has worsened in some areas. 

At least 43% of respondents said they have faced discrimination compared to 37% in 2019 and this goes up to 60% for trans people. Around 58% of the people interviewed admitted they have experienced some form of harassment compared to 45% in the previous survey while 5% say they have been physically or sexually assaulted. 

The report shows that everyday discrimination persists at work, in public spaces or even when trying to access housing, health care or social protection. Too often, those who are subject to hate crimes or discrimination are reluctant to report the incidents. 

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Visibility vs hate speech

Words, ideas and symbols matter. When people were asked what factors contributed to prejudice, intolerance or violence against LGBT, they mostly pointed to politicians and political parties but also to the lack of support by public figures. 

They mentioned the same factors, the same people when questioned about what made a positive difference. 

“Two things are in my view crucial for improving the situation of queer people in the EU: increase their visibility and eliminate hate speech from opinion-makers,” said an anonymous lesbian woman in Czechia whose testimony was collected in the report. 

The awareness and engagement of the authorities enforcing the law, such as the police, is key as well. “Their blind eye for homophobia is probably a major problem. If homophobia does not start to be punished, we will not move further,” another anonymous source from Slovakia said. 

Europe’s discrimination map

ILGA-Europe, an advocacy group promoting the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people at EU level, has also released its yearly updated LBGTI rights index. The group shares similar concerns to the ones expressed in the EU rights body report regarding the situation of queer people in Europe. 

The index rates countries taking into account equality and non-discrimination, family recognition legislation, hate crime and hate speech or legal gender recognition and bodily integrity.

According to those criteria, Malta, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Spain are the best ranked EU countries, while Lithuania, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia and Poland are the worst countries when looking at LBGTI rights recognition. 

“This is a critical time for LGBTI equality in Europe,” said Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe. “With each year passing, more and more countries, including champions of LGBTI equality, continue to fall behind in their commitments to equality for LGBTI people, while more governments take active measures to target LGBTI communities,” Paradis said.

She also warned against a spillover effect of the COVID-19 crisis. “We have every reason to worry that political complacency, increased repression and socio-economic hardship will create a perfect storm for many LGBTI people in Europe in the next few years,” Paradis added.

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A response needed 

The equality principle is embedded in the EU treaties and even though non-discrimination has been recognised in a number of EU regulations, the introduction of a Europe-wide law against discrimination has been stuck for over a decade. 

More broadly, the EU has limited competences when it comes to LGBTI rights recognition and protection which creates significant inequalities across the 27 member states.

“The FRA survey highlights why LGBTI rights need continued protection,” said Marc Angel, a Luxembourg lawmaker from the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group who is co-president of the European Parliament’s intergroup on LGBTI rights.

“We need an Equal Treatment Directive to protect against discrimination beyond employment to ensure their proper protection,” Angel said. 

Terry Reintke, a German Green MEP who is the other co-president of the intergroup, showed concern on the potential impact of the coronavirus crisis for LGBTI people.

In April, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party proposed changing the law so that birth, marriage and death certificates show “sex at birth” – reversing a policy that allowed trans people to change their legal sex to match the gender in which they live.

Reintke called on EU authorities to “remain vigilant to ensure no member state usurps this period to backtrack on rights already secured” and continue to fight “to further secure the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons EU-wide.”

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen appointed Helena Dalli as the first-ever Commissioner for Equality. Dalli was expected to launch an EU LGBTI strategy that has been now delayed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

During the presentation of ILGA’s index, Dalli stressed her commitment to helping member states develop LBGTI strategies. The Commissioner also acknowledged that the COVID-19 added a layer of complexity and could potentially increase inequalities.

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A draft Hungarian law to bar citizens from legally changing their gender sparked protest on Thursday (2 April) with EU lawmakers and the Council of Europe warning of greater discrimination if it passes.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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