Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament Giles Goodall assesses the nature of LGBT rights across Europe.
The past year has seen major advances for LGBT rights in Britain, with equal marriage well on its way to becoming law, following the huge vote in favour by MPs – by a majority of 225 – in February. But how about for the rest of Europe? And what is the EU doing to promote LGBT rights?
Despite all the fanfare, Britain is far from first on the equal marriage scene. In fact, seven other EU countries pipped the UK to the post, most recently France – albeit with a lot more controversy than we’ve seen in Britain’s debate. The process is now underway in Luxembourg too. Tellingly, five of these countries had liberal parties in power when the laws were passed. Indeed it is very doubtful that Britain would be joining the list at all without the Liberal Democrats in the country’s coalition government.
But while Europe has made good progress recently in terms of LGBT rights before the law, the reality is not always so rosy. A major new survey by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, released to mark the International Day Against Homphobia and Transphobia, shows that discrimination against LGBT communities in Europe is far from dead. After asking almost 100,000 people all around the EU, the survey found that fear, isolation and discrimination are commonplace in Europe’s LGBT community.
Two out of three people reported hiding their sexuality when they were at school (68% in the UK), while 60% were bullied or called names. Discrimination at work is banned thanks to EU legislation, yet 20% of people still felt they had suffered in the workplace because they were LGBT (again the UK is close to the EU average with 19%). This clearly shows that greater efforts are still needed to make sure legal rights are properly enforced and that people know where to go for help if discriminated against.
Most shockingly perhaps, 26% of people said they had been attacked or threatened with violence in the past five years. In the UK, the figure rose to 31%. I experienced such an incident myself first hand a few years ago when walking home with my partner. I was lucky enough to come out of it with just a few cuts and bruises, but the psychological impact – the fear factor – lasted much longer.
Perhaps as a result of this, just 3% of respondents to the survey across the EU reported often seeing same-sex couples holding hands in public. In the UK, the figure was 5%, but in another 10 countries it was just 1% or fewer.
A separate report by ILGA-Europe – the rainbow index – ranks the UK as the best place to be LGBT in 2013, ahead of countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. But Britain’s score was helped by Scotland, which has specific protection against LGBT hate crimes. Nul points go to Russia, with widespread human rights violations and discrimination, just ahead of neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan. Within the EU, Bulgaria and Italy are ranked lowest.
These figures may paint a glum picture, but there are reasons to be optimistic too. The EU’s acceptance of new members from central and eastern Europe has helped to transform LGBT rights for millions of people. In many cases, this was the first time that anti-discrimination rights for LGBT people have ever been laid down in law. Proper protection against discrimination is a pre-condition for any new member to join the EU, as countries such as Serbia and Montenegro are well aware.
EU rules are also having positive effects in other areas of life, from the rights of same-sex couples from different EU countries to live together in Malta, to the reversal of homophobic broadcasting restrictions in Lithuania. New legislation to protect the rights of crime victims wherever they are in the EU, includes specific protection for people who were a victim because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
As a candidate in next year’s European Parliament elections, I intend to make equality issues a priority. Europe has been a strong force for LGBT rights and I want this to continue in the future. That’s why I will be campaigning for governments in the EU to agree to a new law extending protection against LGBT discrimination beyond the workplace to cover access to goods and services, healthcare and education. The EU proposed just such a law five years ago, but it has been blocked since EU countries failed to agree on it. The UK and Europe’s liberal family can both play a big role in making sure this now becomes a reality.
Life for LGBT people in Europe may not yet be ‘la vie en rose’, but the EU certainly means we have a rosier future to look forward to.
Giles Goodall is a prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament and a campaigner on equality issues.