Tuesday

23rd Jan 2018

Focus

LGBTI protection still lacking in EU

  • More than half LGBTI couples do not hold hands in public in the EU, let alone kiss (Photo: Lan Pham)

Rising populism, nationalism and xenophobia across Europe pose a considerable threat to LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex) communities who continue to face hatred, discrimination and violence on an everyday basis, activists have warned.

"When news about marriage equality introduced in another country hits the headlines, the general public and politicians tend to think that the work for LGBTI people is done. But it's not", Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe told EUobserver at the NGO's annual conference in Warsaw last week.

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ILGA-Europe - the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) - is an international non-governmental umbrella organisation bringing together 490 NGOs from 45 European countries.

Physical attacks, discrimination in education, employment, health care and access to goods and services, under-representation in public life - this is still a reality for the six percent of Europeans, around 30.5 million people, who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans or intersex, according to activists.

For example, they say, same-sex families cannot exercise their freedom of movement rights, trans people struggle with legal gender recognition, LGBTI workers have limited mobility options, and LGBTI asylum seekers' needs are failing to be met at reception centres.

"Due to huge incompatibility in legal regulations regarding LGBTI people across the EU, members of the LGBTI community do not enjoy equal rights as heterosexual citizens," Dominik Boren from the Network of European LGBTIQ Families Association told EUobserver.

Hate crimes on the rise

According to Stonewall, a British lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity, more than one in five LGBTI people in the UK have experienced hate crime incidents due to their sexual orientation or gender identity in the last 12 months, compared with 16 percent in 2013.

"Over last four years attacks on LGBT people surged almost 80 percent in the UK. One of the reasons is a divisive, xenophobic narrative coming from politics," said Lisa Power, co-founder of Stonewall.

In Poland – were this year's conference was held - one in three LGBTI people had experienced physical violence over the past five years, with the risk of experiencing it more than twice as high for LGBTI persons than for the general public.

"The most threatened are young people aged 18-24, mostly transsexuals, gays and bisexual man. The perpetrators often attack in groups," A. Chaber, from the Polish NGO KPH (Campaign Against Homophobia) told EUobserver, referring to the latest study from the group.

But not only direct physical violence poses a threat to the LGBTI community. Polish public opinion was recently shocked by the suicide of a 14-year old boy, Kacper, from the small town of Gorczyn, who killed himself as a result of harassment experienced in school over the years.

Two years ago the same happened to a 14-year old named Dominik, from another small town - Biezun.

"The situation in Polish schools is alarming. Without access to anti-discrimination education and training for teachers LGBTI children are left without proper support," the KPH spokesperson stated.

But currently, there is no political will to ensure the rights of LGBTI people. Quite the contrary - Poland's nationalistic government often incites hatred and discrimination, and stands on the side of perpetrators.

Just recently the minister of justice announced the annulment of a court ruling against a printer from Lodz who refused to print brochures for a LGBTI organisation. This had been the first time the court had ruled against discriminatory practices in access to goods in services even though Poland does not have specific laws protecting LGBTI communities.

LGBTI rights in EU: the current state of play

The Ilga published a map illustrating the legal and policy human rights situation of LGBTI people in Europe.

The countries with the highest rates of physical and psychological violence against LGBTI people are Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Bulgaria – the same member states who fall short on implementing legal acts and policies ensuring legal protection of LGBTI people.

Although it is important to stress that the situation for LGBTI people is difficult across all Europe.

As reports from European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights show, more than 50 percent of all LGBTI people in the EU avoid holding hands in public places for fear of being assaulted.

"There are countries in which you may get married one day and be fired the next day because the country doesn't protect you from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in a workplace. Or you may marry but you will have troubles finding a restaurant to organise a wedding because its owners may refuse you access to their services," Adela Horakova from Proud.cz, Czech NGO fighting for marriage equality, told EUobserver.

"Civil partnership is still about putting LGBTI people into the separate box instead of treating them like the rest of the society," she added.

Chilling effect of the far right

Despite recent achievements – marriage equality becoming reality in Finland, Malta and Germany, Slovenia introducing registered partnerships, Belgium, Ireland and Switzerland lifting lifetime bans for blood donations from men who have sex with men, some major wins at the European Court of Human Rights (e.g. against France to end forced sterilisation of trans people, setting important precedents for lawmakers) - over the last couple of years the progress of reforms had slowed down.

The rise of far-right parties led even very progressive countries like Sweden to back down from some promises.

The Swedish government had promised to introduce a legal gender recognition law, based on self-identification, before the end of its term, but – with the election coming next year – it does not seem they will be able to deliver.

"With the refugee crisis and growing xenophobia in the country it seems that taking care of the minority rights is no longer a priority issue," Magnus Kolsjo, vice president of RFSL – the Swedish Federation for LGBTIQ Rights told EUobserver.

LGBTI activists demand a gender recognition law based on self-identification rather than medical indications.

"It is against human rights to demand people undergo very serious surgical interventions or forced sterilisation in order to claim their gender according to their personal identity," Kolsjo explained to EUobserver.

Important achievements in that area have been made in the past year: Belgium adopted a new legal gender-recognition law, Denmark removed 'trans identities' from the list of mental disorders becoming the first country in the world to do so, while Sweden finally recognised forced sterilisation of trans people as a violation and offered compensation.

But 18 member states still require compulsory medical intervention in order to change sex, and 12 force their citizens to divorce in the process.

Poland lags behind

Poland is falling short in all six areas of LGBTI rights protection included in the Rainbow Europe Index – ensuring equality and non-discrimination, family wellbeing, legal gender recognition, protection against hate crimes and hate speech, the openness of the civil society space and protection of LGBTI asylum seekers.

During a conference debate with Polish politicians from opposition parties, Krzysztof Mieszkowski from the Modern party said that they are preparing a law on civil partnerships to be presented in the Sejm (Poland's parliament) this autumn, despite the fact that he sees "no chance for such law to be passed by this government."

Monika Wielichowska from Civic Platform revealed that her party is looking into "whether it makes electoral sense for them to openly stand for LGBTI communities in the coming election."

During eight years in government Civic Platform, led by prime minister Donald Tusk, the current president of the European Council, failed to introduced a civil partnership law, criminalise hate crimes and hate speech, or to work on a legal recognition act due to the lack of consensus inside the party.

Even EU commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, an LGBTI ally who addressed the conference, admitted in conversation with EUobserver that her party could have done more in the matter.

"Maybe we could have pushed harder but there was no social acceptance for such changes", she said.

Ilga-Europe and Campaign Against Homophobia issued a statement calling on Polish authorities to take action to improve the situation of approximately 2 million LGBTI people living in Poland, through "appropriate legislative initiatives and working towards increasing social acceptance for LGBTI people."

And the activists urged the Polish authorities to "refrain from any actions that lead to the shrinking of civil society and that weaken the democratic institutions in Poland."

Interview

Gay rights face backlash in Poland

Polish society is becoming more gay-friendly, but anti-gay activists are becoming more radical and the government is doing little to stop it, says gay right activist Agata Chaber.

LGBTI protection still lacking in EU

Despite some welcome advances, some legal rights for the LGBTI community are lacking in EU member states, and the rise of the populist right is making things worse, conference in Warsaw is told.

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