Gay rights organisation: The EU no longer leading on LGBT rights

Many Western European countries have rested on their laurels in recent years when it comes to gay rights – and are now overlooking issues around trans and intersex rights, says Evelyne Paradis.

Evelyne Paradis is executive director of ILGA-Europe, the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

Paradis spoke to Henriette Jacobsen.

When it comes to gay rights, how are EU member states faring compared to other places in the world?

In many ways, EU member states are still leading and at the forefront when it comes to legal protection of LGBT people. The ones who set the benchmarks 15 years ago were EU member states. Although there was a slight going backwards, we still have a few EU member states that continue to set benchmarks. For example, on trans rights and now intersex rights, which is a newer category of issues. But overall, I don’t think that Europe can claim to have the leadership on LGBT rights the way it did 10-15 years ago, when it was clearly the region where clear advances were made.

I say that because I think many Western European countries have rested on their laurels a little bit, having achieved quite extraordinary advances when it came to recognition of couples to marriage equality. I think it took some time for many western European governments to realise that marriage was not the end of the fighting, that achieving equality requires many more measures and that many western countries had overlooked the importance of proactive public policies and pro-active work to bring public opinion along. Many European countries have overlooked issues around trans rights and are not looking into intersex rights.

On the whole, most parts of the EU are, of course, relatively speaking, a better place to be an LGBT person than in other parts of the world. But it’s no longer the only place where it’s going forward and there are areas where things are going backwards.

You mentioned that some countries have stopped being proactive. Can we only blame their governments, or is it also their gay rights organisations who have stopped being ambitious?

It’s a good point. I think it has been a combination of factors. In many parts of Europe, the LGBT activists have tended to place a huge focus on changing laws, so on legislative change, and by doing so, have actually overlooked the fact that changing laws is only part of bringing about change for people. You change the law, but you also need to make sure that you implement the laws. Then you also need to make sure that people also agree with the laws you change. That has been the realisation for many activists in the last five years, broadly speaking, in Europe.

Then it’s true that the LGBT movement has gone through phases. Years ago, it was more an LGB movement, but now it’s LGBT, and includes trans people and now it’s inclusive of intersex people as things have progressed, and the agenda of LGBTI groups has also broadened.

Now it’s also not just about LGBTI, but people are realising that people have multiple elements of their identities, that there is a diversity within the LGBTI community. So it’s one thing to be a white gay man in London, to use a cliché, but it’s quite another one to be a gay man of ethnic minority origin in some rural area in France, for instance. So the experience varies. This piece of work is increasingly becoming a priority within the LGBT movement.

Why does ILGA focus so much on legislation?

We consider change to be three main things: it is legal change, it is political change and it is social change. In order to get full equality, you need to have change happening at all the different levels. It’s true that, for example, our Rainbow Index is measuring legal change. All three levels of change are really crucial. If you only have social change, but not legal change, the danger is that people don’t have their rights enshrined in law, and it becomes sometimes much harder to claim those rights if your rights are being violated.

But then we of course know by now very well that it’s possible to have the most beautiful laws in the books, but they don’t mean anything in practice because there is no political will to make sure that those laws get implemented properly. There are sometimes no resources for the person who is in charge of implementing those laws. Sometimes, there is not even knowledge that these laws exist, and people don’t know that they have certain rights.

We all need to be looking at it in a comprehensive way. That’s the biggest change in the way most of us have done our work over the past five years, because now there is greater understanding among LGBT groups across Europe that we do need to work on all fronts at the same time.

What is your ‘Rainbow Index’ about and why is it necessary to have it?

The Rainbow Index focuses only on legal change, and there are several reasons for that. We do consider that in our societies, you do need to have legal protection. That’s a minimum to make sure that the rights are actually going to be protected. So we want to have benchmarks for all governments and public authorities to say that those are the minimum conditions, you all need to meet.

It’s also very practical, because laws are elements of change that we can actually measure, as one indicator of change.

Do you send the Rainbow Index to governments, and do you feel they take it into account when they make new laws?

We have huge interaction with policymakers regarding the Index, including ministers. The main use of the Rainbow Index by policymakers is as a roadmap every year about what they need to do.

We present it every year at this forum, where government officials and NGOs meet. We present it in front of ministers, and the reaction that we have had in the last few years is that you immediately see the ministers going to their score and then the question they ask is ‘What do I need to do to be gaining points next year?’. They do take it seriously and they do look at where in Europe there are good practices and laws that they can use as models. The Rainbow map is a conversation starter with many policymakers, high-level officials and governments.

Few countries are adopting laws on trans rights, and the minister in Denmark was surprised Denmark wasn’t ranking higher on the Index. My response was one that I have given to many governments: ‘Yes, you’re doing good on the LGB and sexual orientation front, but you are not doing well on the gender identity front.’ Then the question was, what are the good models in Europe? At the time there was frankly no model. The best model in the world was Argentina’s. The following day, I met with the Maltese minister who asked the same question. They therefore entered a positive competition on who would be adopting the first law that would set the benchmark for Europe.

In a year, Denmark adopted what was then the best law, and Malta followed suit by adopting an even better law. I’m not saying that the Index is the reason for it, but it is a really affective conversation starter.

What are the some of the rights that you are fighting for right now?

They are essentially around family protection and recognition of couples and parenting rights. We do have lots of kids with parents who have very little protection or no legal protection. A lot of the work still needs to happen in that front. It’s easy to overlook. I think we have all been impressed by the changes in Ireland (the referendum that approved gay marriage) and seeing countries like Ireland moving forward very profoundly. But at least half of the member states still need to be seriously looking at how they protect existing families.

The other huge gap, which applies almost across the EU, is on enabling trans people to get their gender changed in legal documents. There’s little legislation that allows that allows that, and very little legislation protects trans people against discrimination in many different ways.

If we put countries in to three different categories, those that are moving forward, those that are standing still and those that are going backwards, where would you place some of the EU countries?

There are some Western European countries that have a poor record on the basic legal rights. Italy comes to mind. It’s one of the founding members of the EU, but it ranks extremely low on our Index. There’s virtually nothing in terms of recognition of LGBT rights, not only when it comes to family rights, but also basic protection. There’s a whole legal framework to develop in Italy.

There are many countries that have progressed well in terms of adopting laws, but have a lot of work to do in terms of actually giving meat to those laws and translating the legislative change into meaningful change for the daily life of people. Here, I would mention a country like France where the reality in Paris is one thing, but the reality in most of rural France and smaller cities in France is rather different. In education at the moment, there is a huge fight in France about whether you can even talk about sexual orientation and gender identity.

Then there are the countries that are going backwards. Hungary is not an LGBT-specific issue. I think there’s an overall political context which is extremely undermining of general human rights policies. We are still monitoring very closely the developments in Lithuania, where less than two weeks ago,  we managed to put a hold on a recurring bill that get presented to their parliament which is similar to the law that got adopted a few years ago in Russia, on propaganda against homosexuality. So that’s the other extreme of what is happening within the EU.

What is normally keeping politicians back from moving forward on LGBT rights?

It’s hard to give a uniform answer for the whole of the EU. Some common denominators are always prejudice and fear which get translated and expressed differently depending on the context.

If you are a politician, you will access what the impact will be if you are supportive or not supportive. From time to time, we’re lucky enough to find politicians and public officials, who will do what we consider to be the right thing, because they think that no matter the political cost, but unfortunately those tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Too often politicians are just calculating the risk of taking a step in one way or another.

In countries where there is a very prominent either religious or conservative discourse, where it seems to be that is what will sway public opinion and what will matter with voters at the time of elections, (it) is the force that we will have to work with.

How would you rate the Commission, and the Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, on rights, after their first year in office?

We have had some very strong public statements. One might say even stronger than what we have had in a long time. It was surprising to hear Vice-President Timmermans at the gala we organised in June speak in favour of marriage equality, for instance, because that’s clearly not an issue that ILGA raises in an EU context. We know it falls out of the EU’s competences. It has never been an issue which we have advocated for within the EU institutions. It is good to see the personal commitment to the issue, but we are critical, like many other social justice organisations, of the actual record of the Commission at the moment.

There are indications that the Commission might take some steps and I think there will be some very specific actions taken next year, which is positive. But it’s really not to the level of ambition that we could have expected and wanted and feel is needed.

So what he’s talking about is actually not what you need right now?

It’s not. It’s nice from a public policy view to hear someone saying that marriage equality is important, but it’s not something he can do anything about though there are lots of areas in which the EU, the Commission especially, can do something about. It can put some topics on the table for discussion, even if they don’t have a clear competence at the moment when we know that the living together part is difficult and is a huge challenge for Europe, whether it falls under gender issues or cultural issues and so on. You do need to look at how we all live together and education seems like a topic you can bring to the table of EU discussions even when it doesn’t fall under clear competences.

There’s so much more the EU could do to combat homophobic and transphobic violence. This continues to be proven by data across Europe as an EU-wide phenomenon. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the UK, which has one of the best legislative frameworks or whether you live in Slovakia where people still experience violence on a daily basis. That is clearly an area where the EU could pull even more of its strength together.

While there will be some actions proposed next year, which is of course better than nothing, there is a lot more that the EU could be doing. Our priorities fall under the Commission’s priorities such as social cohesion and creating a Europe where there is not dozens of layers of citizenship. What we’re suggesting is contributing to that goal. At the moment, like any other social justice advocates, we get squeezed by the multiplicity of other political priorities. We’re at the bottom of the priorities of current affairs, which range from security and the eurozone to whether the UK will stay in the EU. We get completely de-prioritised.

With the way the Commission is now structured, and with Timmermans at the top, cutting what he believes is red tape… are you considering that maybe there are others you should talk to?

One of the concrete things that we have been calling for is a policy framework, call it a strategy, an action plan, a roadmap, but a policy framework that brings coherence. When we look at it from a better regulation perspective, we find that coherence is better regulation. A coherent framework will allow you to be setting clear priorities, objectives and enable everybody to know where we are going, allow people to access progress and give a clear narrative around what the Commission is doing.

We think it ticks all of the boxes of what better regulation is about and we know that there is support from within the other DGs and other commissioners to have this because it would help their work as well. They will be able to see how the work that happens under Enlargement fits with the work under Justice. We have yet to really convince the Commission to take that step at that level.