Arguably 2015 has been a positive step forward for LGBTI rights, with the plight for equality clearly visible in the current media landscape, however how optimistic can we really be for 2016?
Both the public and politicians across Europe have demanded to be seen and heard in relation to LGBTI rights.
Although the year contributed many highlights (see Ireland, Greece and Malta) 2015 also saw many countries stagnate and even move backwards in relation to equality (see Poland and Hungary).
Looking back on 2015 many changes have occurred in the plight for LGBTI rights and equality across Europe. How do these changes affect other legislation and looking forward what can we expect from 2016?
Speaking to Evert Jacobson, from The European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights over the phone he confirmed the ways in which 2015 could be seen as problematic for LGBTI progress across Europe.
Agreeing that media visibility and public awareness was a big part of the movement in 2015 Jacobson said the positives really did out way the negatives,
‘Still we are in a way better position than we were 10 years ago’ Jacobson said.
2015’s Biggest Events:
Arguably the biggest event within LGBTI rights in the past year was the legalization of same-sex marriage by popular vote in Ireland. 62% of Irish citizens said yes at the referendum held on the 22nd of May.
Many media outlets called the victory a ‘social transformation’, only in 1993 was homosexuality decriminalized in Ireland. The impact of this event was truly felt all across Europe and the world, with media outlets everywhere covering the win.
Speaking to Executive Director of ILGA-Europe (European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), Evelyne Paradis, called the Irish referendum a profound legal and social change,
“There was a feeling of overwhelming social acceptance”, Paradis said over the phone.
However positive the referendum in Ireland Paradis expressed her hesitance to endorse countries using referendums, stating it was a ‘worrying trend’.
Paradis notes that in 2015 there was a growing trend for governments to use referendums but that they need to be careful, not all outcomes are as positive as the Irish,
“It can be dangerous to put the rights of minority groups to a public vote”, Paradis said.
Even after the victory for Ireland, factions in Northern Ireland government however continue to refuse to support the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Currently Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is illegal. On the 2nd of November the Northern Ireland Assembly held a vote which ultimately did not pass.
The vote in November ended with 53 for and 52 against however the Democratic Unionist Party lodged a petition on concern, blocking the successful vote. The fact that there was even a vote means that there is still hope for same-sex marriage to pass in Northern Ireland.
This issue will most likely continue through 2016, with organizations such as Amnesty International UK fully behind the campaign.
Just scrapping into to make news in 2015 was the legalization of civil partnerships in Greece. An overwhelming 194 parliamentarians voted yes with only 55 voting against on the 22nd of December.
Although this is a positive step forward it is necessary to discuss Greece’s difficult path to get to this point and difficult road ahead.
Greece is one of the last European Union counties to allow same-sex civil partnerships due to significant backlash from right-wing groups and the Orthodox Church.
At ILGA-Europe’s 2015 Annual Conference in Athens both a commitment to civil partnerships and laws surrounding gender recognition were agreed to by Greek government. With civil partnerships in affect for same-sex couples the next step for Greece is stronger gender recognition.
This however, Paradis says will take some months before action will be seen regarding this issue, however she is optimistic that improvements to gender recognition will be seen sometime in 2016.
A story that went largely under the radar in 2015 was the major changes to the laws surrounding transgender and intersex people in Malta. In April the country introduced the Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act (GIGESC) making it the most comprehensive legislation protecting transgender and intersex people not just in Europe but around the world.
Paradis said that the legislative changes that Malta have now put into effect are seen as the model for both Europe and the world on how to achieve real progress and change within the law for Trans and intersex people,
“It was a real turning point in many ways”, Paradis said.
However Paradis still asserts that there is a way to go for public acceptance. While positive changes are being made on a policy level Maltese citizens need to catch up.
Poland and Hungary
Both Poland and Hungary have been adamant on blocking the passing of any legislation regarding same-sex marriage or rights in their countries.
An EU proposal would have seen equal property rights across all EU countries, that meaning in the event of death or divorce same-sex couples either married or unmarried would have equal rights when dividing property.
This right would extend even to EU countries where they do not currently recognize either same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. Both countries successfully blocked the EU proposal in December 2015.
Paradis suggested it was unlikely that either Poland or Hungary would change their stance on the proposal but was optimistic that the proposal would move forward regardless.
Poland and Hungary along with Bulgaria have in their constitution that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman, making the possible reform process very challenging.
Speaking about Poland, Jacobson said with the conservative government currently in power, left wing and lobby groups need to stay positive,
‘It is possible to turn frustration into energy’, Jacobson said.
2016 and beyond:
The European Commission published a list of actions to advance LGBTI equality for 2016 and beyond. Ten recommendations were made; some include closing the gap in protection against discrimination, proper enforcement of EU laws, more campaigning to improve social attitudes and more financial support for LGBTI projects.
The hope for the report is to make EU countries more accountable for the protection of LGBTI people in their countries. The time frame for all policy actions is set to be completed by 2019.
While this is a positive step forward, many countries that are blocking the legalization of LGBTI and same-sex marriage rights are deeply ingrained with conservative governments and with orthodox religions.
These deeply ingrained values and beliefs will pose significant obstacles to the potential to change the current legislation in particular countries.
Jacobson expressed concern when it came to particular countries and their conservative, often catholic governments, calling them ‘worrying’,
“[religious groups] are given so much space in the media that it can be dangerous”, Jacobson said.
However positive some countries progress was in 2015, it seems as if 2016 may prove to a challenge in many ways for LGBTI rights across Europe.
Paradis stated that there is a troubling trend that has appeared throughout parts of Europe in late 2015 and will carry into 2016 where by conservative parties are increasingly vocal in their opposition to LGBTI rights,
“There are conservative waves through Europe that are not conducive for acceptance”, said Paradis.
When asked why so much disparity across EU countries in regards to LGBTI rights Paradis said that in many countries where changes have been made they have well equipped civil societies with strong political leadership to stand up and assert change. The simple fact is many other countries do not, particularly in Eastern Europe.
She said of countries that need help the most to bring about change are not given all the support that they need. The roles of NGO’s and other groups are present but that the spaces in which to campaign are limited,
“Even with great advocates barriers are put in front of them”, Paradis said.
Paradis predicts a bigger trend in 2016 for the advocacy of trans and intersex rights after the changes in Malta but that unfortunately there are fewer countries left that want the support of ILGA-Europe or are willing to push for legislative changes in their countries,
“We are reaching the limit for counties who are looking to move forward”, Paradis said.