Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex people: Equality from the Balkans

(Initially written for the newpaper Neues Deutschland and published here in German after slight modifications)

From 24 to 26 October, ILGA-Europe (the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) held its annual conference in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. The choice of Zagreb, which was the result of a vote by the member organisations, is the result of different factors.

First, there was an obvious momentum related to the accession of Croatia to the European Union. For a pan-European movement present in nearly all the countries of the continent, EU accession is always an opportunity to push for the adoption by a candidate country of higher legislative standards, in order to meet EU requirements in terms of human rights and anti-discrimination. At the same time, it is also a test of the EU’s political will to really enforce such principles.

Secondly, Croatia is a very good symbol of a situation that became common to many countries, particularly in the European Union and in the Balkans: laws are improving at a relatively fast pace, while the social situation of LGBTI people often remains worrying. According to ILGA-Europe’s legal and policy LGBTI human rights index, Croatia scores 13th out of 49 countries, slightly higher than Finland, thanks mainly to good and comprehensive anti-discrimination and hate crime/hate speech laws. It was also one of the first central European countries to introduce same-sex legal cohabitation a few years ago, and it is now debating the introduction of a partnership bill going further in the direction of equality. However, at the same time, ILGA-Europe’s members, such as Lesbian Group Kontra and Iskorak, are recording a constantly high level of hate-motivated attacks. They also note that the reaction of police and other public authorities is often far from satisfactory – in other terms, applying the existing law is not a given.

Beyond the situation of Croatia and of the Balkans, ILGA-Europe’s Annual Conference is also exploring other European priorities. The theme of the conference, ‘Family Matters’, is explicit enough. One the movement’s priorities remains to ensure that our families, couples and children cease to be discriminated.

The conference’s subtitle, ‘Reaching out to hearts and minds’, is also important. As important as the progresses are on that front (more than 27% of the European population now lives in countries where marriage became an option for same-sex couples, as opposed to 3% ten years ago), the level of intolerance and hatred remains extremely worrying. Over the last year, massive crowds marched in France to refuse marriage equality – a change that had absolutely no adverse consequences on the lives of those who fought it! In May, as many as 700,000 Croatians signed a petition proposing a constitutional change to ban marriage equality – out of a population of only 4.5 million inhabitants! Worse even, there are now discussions in Russia about a law that would allow the public authorities to take children away from their same-sex parents.

To face the consequences of stigmatisation, there is a huge need for determined political will to be a driving force in Europe. Although ILGA-Europe works on all European countries, including outside the European Union, one turning point of the coming year will be the EU Parliamentary election organised in May 2014. Our organisation sees this as the crucial opportunity to re-launch a strong equality and human rights agenda with a direct impact in more than 35 European countries, if one also includes the candidate countries. Our key demands to candidates, to the next European parliamentary groups and to the European Commission they will elect at the end of 2014 are clear. We expect the EU to adopt a clear and comprehensive roadmap on LGBTI equality, defining concrete and practical measures in all its relevant areas of competence: anti-discrimination legislation, policies combating homophobic and transphobic violence and incitement, full application of the recent EU asylum law, leadership in the identification and dissemination of best practices in health and education, full enforcement of the principle of freedom of movements of all EU citizens with their families (including LGBTI families), full use of the EU’s human rights and LGBT Guidelines in foreign policy.