Written by Rosamund Shreeves,
Over the 2014-2019 legislature, the European Parliament has strongly condemned all forms of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual and intersex (LGBTI) people. Parliament has stressed the urgency of tackling increasing levels of hate speech and hate crime motivated by bias against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and put forward concrete proposals for combating hate speech and harmful stereotypes in the media. Parliament has also drawn attention to the human rights situation of LGBTI people outside the EU on many occasions. In February 2019, it asked the Commission to make LGBTI rights a priority in its work programme for 2019-2024 and to adopt a new LGBTI strategy for this period, joining the 19 EU Member States who had already urged the Commission to ensure a strong follow-up to the EU’s current strategy.
Advocacy organisations are reporting diverging trends in the situation of LGBTI people, both globally and in Europe, with a worsening environment in some countries due to repressive and discriminatory legislation and spikes in hate crimes, contrasting with legal and social improvements in others.
This May, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), plans to launch a major survey of LGBTI people’s experiences across the EU. A follow-up to the agency’s first survey in 2012, it will ask about issues affecting people’s everyday lives, including discrimination, harassment and violence – and will be extended to cover the specific experiences of intersex people.
The FRA’s first survey of more than 93 000 people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender painted a worrying picture of discrimination in schools, workplaces, healthcare settings and public places, and widespread experiences of harassment and violence. Almost half (47 %) of the respondents said they had felt personally discriminated against or harassed in the previous year because of their sexual orientation, with the figures highest for lesbian women and transgender respondents. One in two respondents said that they avoided certain places for fear of being harassed, threatened or assaulted because of being LGBT, whilst one in four said that they had been attacked or threatened with violence over the previous five years. However, only one in ten people had reported incidents of discrimination, and only one in five of the most serious incidents of violence were reported to the police, mainly because respondents believed that nothing would happen or change as a result. Some feared a homophobic or transphobic reaction from the authorities.
As we approach the European elections, it is worth flagging that almost half of all respondents to the first FRA survey believed offensive language about LGBT people by politicians to be widespread in their country of residence. Figures for individual countries varied from 1 % in Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, to 33 % in Poland, 42 % in Bulgaria, 51 % in Italy and 58 % in Lithuania. Monitoring reports by the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance data (ECRI) confirm their concerns. Between 2014 and 2018, ECRI recorded incidents of homophobic and transphobic hate speech from politicians – and failures to counter them – in several EU Member States, along with more positive examples where hate speech was systematically condemned. The European network of Equality Bodies, Equinet, has also reported that a growing number of election campaigns in Europe are marred by scapegoating and discriminatory language or hate speech against certain groups.
During the campaigning for the 2014 European elections, ILGA-Europe, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, received reports of 42 incidents of hate speech against LGBTI people and other minority groups. For the 2019 elections, the organisation is uniting with a broad spectrum of civil society organisations to appeal for ‘No Hate’ campaigning, calling on all candidates, politicians, the media and people in the public eye not only to avoid engaging in, or amplifying, rhetoric that could incite discrimination, prejudice or hatred on any ground, but also to counter it actively. In addition, ILGA-Europe is encouraging candidates to sign a pledge to stand up for human rights and equality for all LGBTI people in the European Union and beyond, by committing to listen to their concerns and work proactively to close gaps in legal protection, strengthen EU policy and support human rights defenders.
Two EPRS briefings published to mark this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), on 17 May, look in detail at the scope of the rights and protections against discrimination for LGBTI people within the European Union, the steps the EU and Parliament in particular have taken over the last term to further LGBTI rights, and EU external action in this area. EU external action focuses on Africa, where a majority of countries have legislation criminalising homosexuality and the public expression of sexual or gender behaviour that does not conform to heterosexual norms. For the EU, promoting LGBTI rights is complex, as in several African countries, the very notions of sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for discrimination are contested, and seen as ‘un-African’.