The European Parliament passed a resolution on Thursday declaring the European Union (EU) an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone. This is in response to the proliferation of municipalities across Poland, more than 100 to date, which declared themselves so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’, as anti-LGBT+ rhetoric and promises were used by political leaders in election campaigns.
In the same week that many members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and leaders in Europe, including the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, joined the campaign for the EU to be declared an LGBTIQ+ Freedom Zone, a 42-year-old gay man was lured to a park in the East Flanders town of Beveren, via a dating app, and beaten to death by a gang of youths.
The intentions involved in declaring the EU an LGBTIQ+ Freedom Zone are good. It’s a message of support that reaffirms what the EU is supposed to stand for. And we have to admit that it does help direct the media gaze, a snappy soundbite, bringing further attention to the rise of state-driven anti-LGBT+ hatred in Poland, and in other EU member states that have been making similar headlines over the past year, most prominently, Hungary.
But good intentions are one thing. Acting on them is quite another.
In this year’s ILGA-Europe annual review of the human rights situation in Europe and Central Asia, we uncovered a glaring rise in hate-speech, both in the private and public spheres, most of it coming from official sources. There were, additionally, at least 400 attacks, across 22 member states, against people who are trans or non-binary, who are lesbian or gay, or who are perceived as not conforming to what we call ‘gender norms’.
Voting to declare Europe an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone is a way of [attracting] attention to what’s been happening in Poland, but now that it’s gained that attention, our leaders, both in Brussels and nationally, need to look at the bigger picture.
The fact is that more and more politicians and governments, and people in authority, are spreading anti-LGBT+ hatred, and are adopting laws to restrict the rights of EU citizens, based on their sexual orientation [or] gender identity. The fact is that under the pandemic conditions of 2020, the vulnerability of LGBT+ people was significantly heightened, while many governments turned a blind eye.
If the EU is serious about being an LGBTIQ+ Freedom Zone, it needs to prove it. Why, for instance, has there been no infringement procedure against Poland, even though it is blatantly disregarding EU treaties and standards? There was some denial of funding to initiatives in Polish municipalities that have declared themselves LGBT-free zones, but is the Commission going to be consistent with funding conditionalities across the EU? How is it going to address the unrelenting rise of anti-LGBT+ hate speech across the union?
The fact is that the European Commission has all the tools it needs to turn Europe into a real LGBTIQ Freedom Zone, starting with an ambitious strategy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and it should make full use of them.
It should ensure full implementation of all relevant EU directives, and European Court of Justice of the European Union judgements, in every member state. It should ensure that all member states spend considerable EU funding in full respect of the principle of non-discrimination, and respect for fundamental rights. It must hold EU governments accountable to the principles set out in the EU treaties, and the Charter for Fundamental Rights.
A man in Belgium had his life brutally cut short this week, simply because he was perceived as gay. His murder is a stark reminder that, despite today’s resolution, the EU is not actually an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone. The EU is not a space where LGBT+ persons can be who they are and love whom they love, free and safe.
It is great to see yesterday’s commitment to LGBT+ equality from the European Parliament. But now that the EU is officially an LGBTIQ Freedom Zone, we need to see all actors using the full range of tools at their disposal, to ensure that respect of LGBT+ rights is guaranteed.
Words are important, but actions are more important.
-By Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe