It is hard these days to talk about anything else but the crisis in Ukraine, about Russia and the ongoing tensions in Crimea. I here lay my regrets for the victims from Euromaidan, support for Ukrainians in their struggles for a better life and hope that violences won’t escalate any further.
Just recently, although differently, Russia was again in the spotlight during the Sochi Winter Olympic Games when news and comments about anti gay actions, killing or saving stray dogs and the poor hotels’ conditions were making headlines. Beyond the tragi-comic, almost surreal information pouring through our newsfeeds, I was happy to see how people reacted to the considerable discriminations, abuses and violence directed towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and activists before and during the games.
Hate speeches and homophobic authorities, politicians and rhetoric, people being beaten up and humiliated, and death threatened (a quick browse on Youtube would suffice to convince yourselves), with police taking no action and a law that forbids "propaganda of nontraditional sexual practices" to children and teenagers triggered huge international outrage. The effects of last year’s events and criticism were powerful and diverse and, as Sergey Khazov noticed, it had a good impact too as politicians, including Vladimir Putin, lessened their opposition to this community (at least in their public speeches) and it turned out that "common" Russians were more tolerant than formerly believed and had now become more aware of the LGBTI people.
Of course, one would react to such violent scenes anyway, no matter what the cause, as they are bluntly inhuman, but this time the reasons why these people are treated so badly matters a lot. People belonging to the LGBTI community worldwide face low acceptance in the societies they live although the levels of discrimination differ from one country to another. Those pursued in Russia are extremely severe but in other places more subtle forms of discrimination also prevail.
On February 4, the European Parliament adopted the report on the EU Roadmap against homophobia and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, or the so called 'controversial' Lunacek Report, advanced by the EP’s Intergroup on LGBT rights (an informal forum for Members of the EP who wish to advance and protect the fundamental rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) with 394 votes for, 176 against and 72 absentations.
The report stresses that the ‘European Union currently lacks a comprehensive policy for protecting the fundamental rights of LGBTI people and contains recommendations for the European Comission, member states and those relevant agencies that highlight the areas where discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity occur. The areas outlined by the report where non-discriminating measures are needed include employment, education, health, goods and services, citizenship, families and freedom of movement or of assembly and expression, asylum or hate speech and hate crime. Beyond the general rights that lesbians, gays and bisexuals need to enjoy, the report outlines the specific needs that transgender and intersex people have and that need to be addressed.
The same day Amnesty International released a publication, The state decides who I am: lack of legal recognition for transgender people in Europe that showed how legislation and procedures in several European countries relating to this community violate fundamental human rights, estimating that there could be around 1.5 milion transgender people in the European Union. Later last month, on February 27, European Parliament adopted its annual report on fundamental rights in the European Union where LGBT needs and situations were considered as well and where member states were this time urged to adopt a long postponed EU anti-discrimination law that would outlaw discrimination in other areas (such as education, healthcare, social protection or access to goods and services) in addition to the ones it already covers.
While this is good news for the LGBT people and activists and their supporters, it merely caught the attention of the media and highly dissatisfied groups across Europe that oppose such legislation. In a joint effort, mostly religious associations and their leaders called upon their European representatives not to vote in the Lunacek report and give "special rights" to this community, by sending more than 40,000 emails saying 'No to Lunacek report’, delivering an approx. 200,000 signature petition to MEPs and holding protest movements across Europe or writing articles where the voting day was declared a "day of shame" as universal human rights have been forsaken.
In Romania, a Greek Orthodox Bishop wrote a letter on behalf of his community to the MEPs asking them not to vote for the Lunacek report advanced by the "lesbian Austrian MEP who’s there to promote true privileges for homosexual people" and just yesterday the Romanian Parliament unanimously voted against a legislative project concerning civil partnerships (including for LGBT people).
The clash of views and the tensions that such initiatives as the Lunacek report provoke are no news to those concerned with this set of issues. Protests against allowing legal marriages between persons of same sex, to give only one example, were held just recently last year in France.
Although people’s opposing opinions are to be considered as well in this matter, I am wondering how much do they really understand that it is not by choice that some people are lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender or intersex. That it is no pleasure having to fight pretty much against everybody for your basic rights - rights that straight people enjoy already and that are not, by any stretch of the imagination, "special rights".
Or how much of the struggles, bullying, shame and lack of access to proper health services according to their needs, just to name a few battles, do we really understand and see, beyond their rainbow coloured parades? It is not easy to accept that things can be different than we were taught they are, but we can’t simply ignore their existence or try to shove them under the carpet.
And if Russia seems very far away and we have the feeling that the discrimination claims are just a whim, take a look in the Balkans or in any European country where violence still occurs and where people are still afraid to come out as who they really are in their families, schools, among friends etc. These kinds of arguments and reactions show a lack of empathy and call for an active listening dialogue on both sides. But first, we must start by accepting the reality that LGBT people are for real, they didn’t show up out of nowhere and will be with us a long time from now on.
Mutual understanding has to be a first, basic step into taking down the iron curtain Wiktor Dynarski was talking about and that exists not only in Poland but elsewehre accross the EU. And if such a great level of reaction was possible when seeing the struggles LGBT people face in Russia, please keep up that energy to fight against softer ways of discrimination in the EU as it can always come back to a more violent level if tensions grow bigger at home.