Europe, G20, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ

RIGHTS: Europe Goes Slow on Gay Laws

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Dec 11 2008 (IPS) - European Union governments are in no hurry to widen the scope of the bloc’s anti-discrimination rules so that gays and lesbians can enjoy greater rights.

Under a law dating from 2000, discrimination in the workplace on grounds of sexual orientation is prohibited. Yet because the measure is restricted to employment and training, homosexuals are denied its protection once their working day is over. As a result, a doctor could refuse to treat a gay patient, or a landlord could refuse to let his apartment to a same-sex couple.

To plug this legislative gap, the European Commission came forward with a new proposal in July this year that would make it an offence to discriminate against gay people in access to healthcare, education, social protection, housing and the provision of goods and services. Discrimination on the grounds of age, disability, religion and belief are also covered by the proposal, which is modelled on EU-wide laws that have already been introduced against racial prejudice.

The blueprint has had a problematic birth. Senior figures from the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, are known to have been reluctant to introduce the proposal, with some arguing that only discrimination against people with disabilities should be covered by it. Their rationale was that a more comprehensive measure would be unlikely to win approval from the EU’s governments.

This prediction appears to have at least partly materialised. Greece and Malta are seeking to have the measure watered down, according to EU officials, by seeking that the clauses on discrimination in education are removed.

An official tracking the law’s progress said that there is little chance that the Czech Republic will be able to secure a deal allowing the legislation to come into effect when it holds the EU’s rotating presidency in the first half of 2009.

While homophobia has been encountered throughout the EU, it has been especially pronounced in the ten mostly ex-communist countries that joined the Union in 2004. During 2006, Poland, the largest of the ten, considered introducing a law that would ban the “promotion of homosexuality” by teachers. The law has never been adopted, however, and Poland has subsequently had a change of government.

Nonetheless, similar measures are now being discussed by the national parliament in Lithuania. A suggested amendment to the country’s law on the protection of minors recommends that images which convey a positive impression of homosexuality should be banned in the classroom, equating them with displays of death or mutilation. Petras Vaitekaunas, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told his country’s parliament in October that “Lithuania is one of the most homophobic countries in the EU” and that it could take a “change of generations” before it becomes more tolerant.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s constitutional court is scheduled to issue a ruling next week in a legal challenge against a plan to allow same-sex couples to be granted formal recognition. If the challenge proves unsuccessful, people in gay and lesbian relationships will be able to register a civil partnership from the beginning of 2009. Marriage will, however, remain only open to heterosexuals.

Homophobia appeared in a particularly nasty form in Budapest when gay pride parades were held over the past two years.

Before these events took place, extreme-right websites offered tips on how participants could be attacked, giving details of bars they were likely to frequent and hotels where gay visitors to the city would be staying. One of these bars ended up being petrol-bombed earlier this year, while the parade itself was attacked by a mob throwing eggs and tins of cat food. These attacks came even though police had sought to keep extreme-right sympathisers away from the parade by cordoning off an area especially for it.

Sandor Steigler, chairman of the Rainbow Mission Foundation, a Hungarian gay rights group, complained that right-leaning politicians did not condemn such attacks in unambiguous terms. He argued that the question of incitement to hatred needs to be tackled.

“You can’t resolve everything by legislation,” he added. “But we do expect politicians to be attuned to our problems. At the moment, I think this is missing among politicians.”

Jan Snijder, a superintendent in the Dutch police force and president of the Euro Gay Police Association, says that there is “massive underreporting” of crimes against homosexuals in his country.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, the Dutch police introduced an online service for victims of homophobic hate attacks in the Amsterdam and Gelderland regions. Only five such crimes were reported.

Snijder argued that police officers who are homosexual should actively take part in gay festivals and that the composition of forces needs to better reflect the diversity of wider society. “When marching in gay pride, we can show that there are gay people inside the police,” he said. “It can’t go on that the police forces in Europe are only white and male. Everyone who lives in Europe must also serve the police.”

Michael Cashman, a British gay rights campaigner and member of the European Parliament, said that politicians “resort to the politics of hatred and intolerance” whenever they think it will help them to be elected.

“The spotlight of hatred never diminishes,” he added. “It merely shifts to another group. Our obligation is to lead, not to follow public opinion. We have to lead public opinion to where it needs to be in 20 or 30 years time.”

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