• 'The main task for Europe now is to educate' (Photo: *Bloco)

Focus

Europe still best place to live for gay people

05.06.12 @ 09:54

  1. By Philip Ebels

BRUSSELS - Despite a recent surge in homophobia and differences between countries, Europe on the whole remains the most gay-friendly continent on the globe.

Nowhere on the old continent - except in Tukish-controlled north Cyprus - is homosexuality illegal, "making Europe a region that stands out," according to Ilga, a global umbrella organisation for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi- and transexual people's) rights, in a report released last month.

France was the first to decriminalise same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults shortly after the French Revolution in 1791. Armenia was the latest, in 2003.

By contrast, roughly 40 percent of countries - mostly in Africa and the Middle-East - still penalise homosexuality. Some even execute gay people - Mauritania, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as parts of Nigeria and Somalia.

There are countries outside Europe which are catching up on toleration, notably in Latin America. Argentina, for example, recently passed a law on gender change that experts say goes well beyond those adopted in Europe.

"Latin America has become a very, very important area, producing its own contributions to the political situation," Renato Sabbadini, secretary-general of Ilga, told this website. "Europe is not so special anymore."

Big differences exist within Europe, with the east being less gay-friendly in general. Sexual minorities in Russia in particular are not as well off as they would be in, say, Germany or the UK.

Russia's legal code lacks the most basic protection from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Recently, St Petersburg adopted laws banning the homosexual "propaganda" - a move widely regarded as contrary to the freedom of expression.

The European Parliament last week in a resolution singled out Russia along with Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary, where similar laws have been tabled, condemning homophobia.

But on the whole, Europe is the world's frontrunner in the equal treatment of LGBT people. "Europe is traditionally where the first steps are made," says Dennis van der Veur, LGBT expert at the EU's research agency for fundamental rights.

Of the 10 countries in the world that allow same-sex couples to marry, seven are in Europe. EU law prohibits LGBT discrimination in employment situations. Europe is alone in having openly gay heads of government - in Iceland and in Belgium. It is most intolerant of hate crimes and most compliant with allowing adoption for same-sex couples or with recognising gender change.

Yet for all the good news, problems remain.

According to a recent report by Ilga-Europe, Ilga's European branch, not one country can claim full legal equality for LGBT people.

The constitutions of only seven countries explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation; only one on the grounds of gender identity (Spain). A proposed EU law prohibiting LGBT discrimination in all spheres of life continues to be blocked since 2008 by a number of governments.

Meanwhile, legal protection from discrimination does not mean that it does not happen. According to an EU survey from 2009 (the most recent available), almost half of respondents think that discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation is widespread in their country.

Statistics on hate crimes are scarce.

Victims not always report them and police do not always file them as such. But surveys indicate that a quarter to half of lesbians and gay men in Europe have experienced forms of violence because of their sexual orientation. Late last April, a gay man was found dead in Liege, Belgium - believed to be the first homophobic killing in the history of the country.

"Legislation is very important," said Sabbadini. "But equality also needs to be part of the culture of a society. The main task now for Europe is to educate. Not only in schools, but also the media and the police."

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