Combating sexual orientation discrimination
December 23, 2004
European Group of Experts reviews legislative measures taken by the Member States
of the European Union to combat sexual orientation discrimination
Book URL for Lesbians in Christian church in Europe
EGAT – European Aids Treatment Group
July 13, 2000
Europe Today: Partnership bill a haven for gays’ human rights
by Yojana Sharma in Berlin
The "Love Parade" techno-music festival in Berlin at the weekend was enjoyed by thousands, as was a huge gay pride parade in Rome. Just weeks ago, the Christopher Street Day gay rights march in Cologne was joined by prominent members of the Green party — part of Germany’s ruling coalition.
Gay rights are on the march across Europe. In Rome, the parade was one of the biggest for World Pride Week, drawing more than 70,000 on to the streets. In many North European countries, registered homosexual partnerships are becoming more common — seen as a way to take on discrimination. Gay rights groups claim this also reflects the declining influence of the church in the debate, particularly in the more secular countries of Scandinavia.
But the church is not yielding without a fight. Pope John Paul, addressing pilgrims in St Peter’s Square, Rome, at the weekend declared that the church regarded homosexual acts to be against "natural law". The church had attempted to get the gay march in Rome banned as an "affront" to the Christian values of the Italian capital and criticised the Rome city authorities for allowing the parade to go ahead. At the same time, the Pope acknowledged that a considerable number of people had deep-rooted homosexual tendencies and said they should be treated with respect, compassion and delicacy. All types of unjust discrimination towards such people should be avoided, he added.
Pressure from the Church has also thrown the German Government into discord over a draft bill to allow homosexuals to register long-term relationships. The bill’s first reading in the Bundestag, the German parliament, last week revealed a major rift between parties. The so-called "partnership" law intends to provide homosexual partnerships with the same tax, health insurance, social security and civil service advantages as heterosexual couples.
But the church is powerful in Germany, in part due to the eight per cent church tax on individuals collected on its behalf by the state. The Archbishop of Fulda, Johannes Dyba, vehemently opposes the bill, insisting it will be a "fatal step into degeneration". The opposition Christian Democrat party said the proposed legislation would undermine the special status of marriage and the family in German society and the constitution, and has threatened to take the matter to the constitutional court. "This is about reducing discrimination, not attacking marriage," said Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin.
Denmark became the first country to adopt what amounted to gay marriage in 1989. It permits registered partnerships, tax and social security rights — but crucially, not the right to adopt children or the right to marry in church. More than two-thirds of registered partnerships are males, who say their main reason for entering the contract is to protect their assets from high Danish inheritance taxes.
Over the past decade, Canada, Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have created different forms of partnership arrangement for the benefit of homosexuals. But France was the first Catholic country to do so in October last year with its "civil solidarity pact". Couples linked in such pacts could file joint tax returns and enjoy the same inheritance rights as husbands and wives. If a French citizen entered a pact with a non-citizen, the non-citizen would become eligible for citizenship. Such pacts can be dissolved by either partner providing three months’ notice. The French Government side-stepped church opposition by making such pacts available to almost anyone.
Recent reports indicate, however, heterosexual couples who would normally be content with cohabitation have been the main group to enter such pacts. Others taking advantage of the pacts have been widowed sisters living together and even priests and their housekeepers. According to church officials, throwing the pacts open to all has done more to undermine marriage than partnership regulations for homosexual couples. "The pacts have merely replaced marriage for many of the heterosexual couples, undermining the marriage bond."
However, gay rights groups say the main attraction of the pacts for all groups are financial. "It is no coincidence that the popularity of such arrangements is highest in high-tax countries," said Johann Arweiler of Germany’s gay rights organisation. Few lesbians tend to take advantage of such pacts, in part because they have fewer assets, he said.
February 26, 2002
Court: France Didn’t Discriminate
Strasbourg, France – French authorities did not discriminate by refusing to allow a gay man to adopt a child, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday. In a 4-3 decision, the judges cited divisions within the scientific community about "the possible consequences of children being brought up by one or more homosexual parents.” It also noted "wide differences of opinion both within and between individual countries” and the evolving nature of laws on the subject. Therefore, it said, "a broad margin of appreciation had to be left to the authorities of each state, who were … better placed than an international court to evaluate local needs and conditions.”
The human rights court did unanimously find that the plaintiff, Philippe Frette of Paris, was denied his right to a fair hearing when a French appellate body set aside a previous ruling in his favor and dismissed his request to be allowed to adopt. The court said Frette had not been properly informed about when the appeal was to be heard, nor was he given the opportunity to examine or respond to the government’s arguments ahead of the hearing.
It awarded Frette $3,000 for expenses but did not order a new hearing. Frette’s lawyers have three months to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the court’s highest chamber. In the United States, as many as 9 million children have at least one gay parent, the American Academy of Pediatrics noted earlier this month in endorsing gay adoption. .
On the Net: Court judgment: http://www.echr.coe.int
4 April 2002
EU Policy: Gay workers facing sack if lifestyle undermines ‘ethos’ of employers
by Marie Woolf, Chief Political Correspondent
A "loophole" in new employment legislation could mean gay and lesbian workers or even single parents are sacked if their lifestyles are deemed at odds with the "ethos" of their employers. Campaigners are angry that the Government is poised to allow organisations, such as churches, religious schools and charities, the power to discipline staff whose "conduct" conflicts with their views.
They say a provision in the new EU employment and race directive, which will become law in the UK next year, would allow gay and lesbian people who visit gay clubs, or who are openly homosexual, to be discriminated against. The directive, which will be incorporated into UK law, will bring in new rules to stop discrimination against workers on the grounds of age, sexual orientation, race or religious belief. But religious organisations, including schools, will be able to discipline staff whose conduct "undermines the ethos" of the organisation.
The Government believes the directive will provide sufficient protection but lawyers say it is sure to be tested in the courts, possibly under human rights law. The clause could also be used against single mothers, unmarried couples or others whose lifestyles conflict with religious values, they warn. Last night Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat equality spokesman, said the Government had chosen to interpret the employment directive, which is designed to protect workers against discrimination in the most illiberal way.
He said the exemption offered to religious organisations "opened the door" for gay people to be targeted if they brought their partner to school or were open about their lifestyle. "The danger is that teachers could be sacked, demoted or not appointed simply on the basis of private, legal conduct." A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "This will allow action to deal with employees’ conduct and behaviour. People won’t be able to be sacked because they are gay."
February 26, 2002
Euro court says not illegal to refuse gay adoption
Paris – Authorities in Europe can turn down applications by homosexual men and women to adopt children on the basis of the adult’s sexuality, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday. The Strasbourg-based court upheld a decision by French authorities to refuse to let a single gay man adopt a child despite a social services report that a youngster would probably be happy with him.
Philippe Frette, a 47-year-old teacher, lodged a discrimination complaint with the European Court after France’s highest court overturned a lower court’s ruling that his homosexuality posed no obstacle to adopting a child. He argued that his right to a private life had been violated and his request had been rejected because of his sexual orientation. In a close ruling, four of the seven judges hearing the case in Strasbourg voted to uphold the Conseil d’Etat’s veto on Frette’s adoption application.
"The national authorities could legitimately and reasonably have considered that the right to be able to adopt … was circumscribed by the interests of adoptable children," they said in their written judgment. The British, Austrian and Belgian judges who voted in Frette’s favour said the French ruling had been discriminatory and added a separate statement annexed to the ruling.
"The homosexuality of Mr. Frette cannot justify the refusal of consent unless it is accompanied by behaviour detrimental to a child’s upbringing," they wrote. The majority opinion said states had a "certain flexibility in judgment" when balancing the competing interests of a claimant and a child up for adoption. The European Convention on Human Rights "did not guarantee, as such, the right to adopt," it wrote.
The majority decision said the judges could not find uniform principles in judicial or social law on this issue among all 43 nations that belong to the Council of Europe and have signed the European Convention of Human Rights. "The scientific community – and more particularly the child specialists, psychiatrists and psychologists – are divided on the eventual consequences of a child being cared for by one homosexual parent or a homosexual couple," they wrote. National law seems to be going through a transition phase at present and authorities have to be left a "margin of appreciation" in such issues, they added. Frette now has one course of appeal left.
He has three months during which he can demand that the European Court’s full chamber, comprising 17 judges, hear his appeal. The social services report written when Frette first sought permission to adopt a child said he had the personal qualities and aptitude for raising a child but noted there would be the constant absence of a maternal figure.
2 May 2003
Eastern European gays seek Berlin refuge
by Ray Furlong, BBC, Berlin
The rainbow flag of gay pride flutters gently in a spring breeze outside the HT café in Friedrichshain, a hip district of eastern Berlin. Inside, the techno mingles with snatches of German and Russian conversation. It’s Tuesday night, and the Russian "stammtisch" is getting under way – a regular social event for Russian-speaking gay men. "If there was different public opinion in Latvia then I would go back for sure," says Vadim, an ethnic Russian from Latvia. "But at this point I can’t imagine my life there." Vadim says that at home only his mother knows about his sexuality. "Everybody in Berlin knows that I’m gay, but I would never tell anyone in Riga that I live with a man," he says.
The "stammtisch" is a German concept, a place for the pub regulars to sit. This event was also organised by a local – Kai Stromberg. Kai, a database expert, often travels to Russia on business and started the meetings to keep up his language skills. But he also points to a paradox – while gay men from Russia come here for the liberal atmosphere, they are often still afraid to "come out" – wary of reactions from the wider Russian community in Berlin, which numbers about 100,000 people.
"They are often afraid to visit gay bars because they might be spotted by another Russian,’ he says. "But even if, due to their Russian roots, they are inhibited in comparison with Germans they are still definitely much freer. This is certainly not economic migration, as many politicians like to claim. There are historical precedents for the large gay Russian community in Berlin.
Model for emancipation
In the 1920s, when they were part of the wider post-revolution diaspora, it became fashionable for drag stars to adopt Russian pseudonyms. "The situation was very liberal at that time, so many gays and lesbians among the exiles found a new way of living here," says Karl Heinz Steinle from the Berlin Gay Museum – believed to be the only one of its kind in the world.
He says Berlin now also serves as a model for gay and lesbian communities in former communist countries seeking to build up structures of their own, and that Germans are trying to help them achieve emancipation at home. "The first Christopher Street parade in Russia, in 1992, was financed by Berlin gay organisations," he says. "Another example is the Campaign Against Homophobia, in Poland, which is being built up with the help of the German Green Party."
This Polish campaign points to the ongoing battle for public attitudes towards homosexuality in East European countries about to join the European Union. Jozef, a dance teacher from Slovakia, discovered he was gay shortly after coming here 13 years ago – and decided to stay. Although Jozef says he does not consider himself an "exile" he stresses the importance of the small, everyday things that make life different here. "It’s no big problem to hold hands with someone on the street here in Berlin. But I certainly, certainly could not do that in Slovakia. I would be a bit afraid about how people react." Like Vadim, at home he has only told his immediate family he is gay – they would not like other people to know, he says.
29 June 2003
Europeans celebrate Gay Pride
From Paris to Zagreb, one and a half million people paraded through the streets of European cities to celebrate tolerance and equal rights for the gay community, organisers said.
More than 600,000 massed in the streets of Berlin for the 25th edition of the Gay Pride parade, this year headed up by the city’s mayor Klaus Wowereit, who revealed his own homosexuality to the public in 2001. Clutching a pink teddy bear and a bunch of red roses, Wowereit said the march was both a celebration and a political event, aimed at furthering the rights of the gay community. "There is no reason to hide," said Wowereit, who publicly came out with the snappy catchphrase, "I’m gay and it’s just as good that way", which has since become a rallying cry for the gay community. Festooned in bright colours, 60 floats and a crowd of scantily-clad paraders headed towards the city centre to listen to speeches later in the evening.
In Paris, between 500,000 and 700,000 people joined the annual march, organised by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual communities, as it wound up through the city centre to the Place de la Republique, organisers said. In a carnival atmosphere, wearing everything from a green butterfly suit to a sailor’s outfit or Venetian mask, the paraders marched under a canopy of balloons, brandishing banners demanding equal rights for their community. The march had high-profile backing from a number of personalities, including Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe – himself gay – former culture minister Jack Lang, and the first right-wing lawmaker to officially join the parade, Jean-Luc Romero. Delanoe called for the adoption of a law criminalising homophobic acts and remarks, saying it was time for parliament to act against homophobia. Former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius stressed the importance of furthering gay parenting rights, and suggested taking constitutional measures to guarantee those rights. "It would be good to show that the French people are against all forms of discrimination and homophobia in particular," he said at the march.
In Vienna, some 200,000 people, many festooned in the rainbow colours of the gay community, marched to celebrate homosexual rights and urge the government to act against discrimination.
In the Croatian capital Zagreb, some 200 people gathered for the country’s second ever Gay Pride march, parading through the city centre under a rainbow banner, and with a tight police escort. The march, organised by two Croatian gay organisations, was more a political rally than a celebration, with many bystanders in this fervently Catholic society visibly hostile towards the demonstrators.
Meanwhile in France, a new survey showed that tolerance towards homosexuality is on the increase. Sixty-one per cent of people said they would react well if they discovered their child was homosexual, up from 41 per cent in 1995, the survey carried out by polling institute IFOP and published by Le Monde newspaper revealed. Conversely, 36 per cent of people would react badly to the news, down from 56 per cent eight years ago, the results showed. Fifty-five per cent of respondents were in favour of homosexual marriages, although 59 per cent would deny homosexual couples adoption rights. Responses varied considerably by age group, with 60 per cent of 15-24 year-olds in favour of gay adoption rights, compared to 18 per cent of over 65s, according to the survey of 1,019 people conducted in June. – AAP
25 July 2003
European court rules in favour of gay bereaved partners
The European court yesterday (Thursday) ruled that a gay man who lost his tenancy when his partner died was the victim of unlawful discrimination, in a decision that will have significant consequences for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in 45 countries. All benefits or rights granted by governments to different sex cohabiting partners will in future have to also be granted to same sex cohabiting partners. Seven judges at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg unanimously agreed that Siegmund Karner was the victim of discrimination after he was evicted from his Vienna home after his partner died in 1994. His partner had been the official tenant of the flat where the couple had lived together for five years.
The Austrian Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that tenancy protection for a ‘life companion’ was only intended to apply to different sex cohabitees. Kurt Krickler of ILGA-Europe said: "This is a very significant step, particularly for the 32 countries in Europe which grant no rights to same-sex partners. But the case has even wider implications: The Austrian government argued that this discrimination was necessary to protect "the family". In rejecting this comprehensively, the Court has demolished the main argument used around the world by the religious right for continued discrimination against same-sex partners". Joanne Sawyer of Liberty said: "We are delighted that the Court took this view. It marks a real turning point."
Ben Summerskill of Stonewall said: "This is a major victory which will change the lives of tens of millions of people. We are particularly pleased that it has come in the week of London Pride." In Karner v Austria, the Court ruled that "differences [in treatment] based on sexual orientation require particularly serious reasons by way of justification". The Austrian government justification for Mr Karner’s treatment was "protection of the family in the traditional sense." The Austrian government, according to the judges, had failed to provide "convincing and weighty reasons" showing that the exclusion of homosexuals was necessary. Case law in the UK had already demonstrated that same-sex couples living together could be entitled to remain in shared rental property under the Rent Act 1977 if one partner dies (Ghaidan v Mendoza ), but the ECHR ruling looks to be far more wide-ranging in its scope.
July 30, 2003
Europeans Unimpressed by U.S. School for Gays
by Gideon Long
London – An American decision to publicly fund a high school for homosexual students in New York is a misguided exercise in political correctness which risks isolating the gay community, Europeans said Wednesday. Activists, students and officials across the continent agreed gay schools would never catch on in Europe. Even the British – culturally closer to the Americans than any other Europeans – were skeptical. "Special schools may serve as shelter for vulnerable and bullied students but in the long term they won’t solve the problem of living in a homophobic society," said Carlie Harter-Penman, spokeswoman for the National Union of Students’ lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign. "We want gay students to be able to attend school without thinking of their sexuality as an issue."
Gay British student Richard Hyde, from the London College of Printing, said the U.S. initiative at least promoted awareness of gay rights but could have other negative consequences. "It might create a biased attitude among gay students because the environment in which they would be educated isn’t diverse enough," he said. New York authorities said Monday that the Harvey Milk School in the city’s Greenwich Village would reopen as the first publicly-run high school in the United States for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Named after a gay San Francisco politician assassinated in 1978, it has already been open for 20 years but the city is to spend $3.2 million to expand the school to take 100 students. Few could imagine such a scenario in Europe. "This is inconceivable in France. It runs contrary to the principles of the Republic … There can be no discrimination of any sort," said a French Education Ministry spokeswoman. "I can’t imagine anything like that in Germany," said Detlef Muecke, a spokesman for gay teachers from the country’s GEW teachers union. "Our aim is to work for acceptance and diversity in the school system, so that young people don’t suffer discrimination if they come out as gay or lesbian." In traditionally liberal Amsterdam, sentiment was similar.
"The Harvey Milk school is a solution to a worldwide problem that gay and lesbian kids feel isolated," said Henk Beerten, chairman of the Federation of Dutch Associations for the Integration of Homosexuality. "But a special school won’t appeal in the Netherlands because of the way it singles out people and creates a ghetto-like situation." In Sweden, which according to a study published Tuesday is the second most tolerant nation toward homosexuality after the Netherlands, gay leaders warned that the move might lead to the marginalisation of gay students.
"I don’t think we need a school with special students," said Magnus Ask, organizer of the Stockholm Pride gay festival. "We don’t have separate schools for black people. Why should we have them for gays?" agreed Enrico Oliari, chairman of GayLib, a liberal and center-left Italian group. "This is very much linked to the social context of the United States and I strongly doubt whether we will see similar schools in Europe over the next few years," added Gert Hekma, head of Gay and Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
September 5, 2003
European Parliament backs gay marriage
In issuing its annual report on human rights issues to the European Union on Thursday, the European Parliament recommended that gay men and lesbians be allowed to legally marry and adopt children, Agence France-Presse reports. The report, which was adopted against the wishes of the main parliamentary group, the conservative European People’s Party, also said that overall the human rights situation across the 15-member European Union had deteriorated in 2002. It urged the EU to abolish all forms of discrimination, either legislative or de facto, against gay men and lesbians, notably in preventing them from marrying and adopting children.
September 23, 2003
Traveling made easier for gay couples
Brussels, Belgium – Unmarried or same sex partners of European Union citizens will be able to accompany their partners more easily to travel or live within the 15-nation bloc under new rules endorsed by ministers on Monday. EU countries like Belgium or the Netherlands allow marriages between same sex partners. They and other EU states give registered couples the same status as married ones. But several EU countries do not recognize such unions. Under the new rules, these countries will not be able to reject the unmarried or gay partner of an EU citizen just because they are in a non-traditional union.
"It is certainly progress. It makes it easier for people to move around in the union," Jonathan Faull, a director general with the European Commission, told reporters. "Labor mobility is key for Europe’s competitiveness." The rules are also important where one partner in a couple is non-EU, with less right to travel and live in the bloc. Under the new rules, EU citizens and their families will also be allowed to obtain permanent residence in an EU state if they have been resident there for at least five years. The rules need to be endorsed also by the European Parliament to become binding legislation.
June 30, 2004
10 Homosexual unions slowly gain momentum in Europe
One couple’s quest for acceptance led them away from the U.S. and toward the Netherlands, where they are married and treated as ‘normal people’
by Tom Hundley, Tribune foreign correspondent
De Kwakel, Netherlands – As Earl Carr and Peter Stroex walked down the aisle in their tuxedos, the gospel choir launched into a soulful rendition of "O Happy Day." "It really was a happy day," said Carr, 41. "My mother was crying the whole time. I was crying for the first half of the wedding, but fortunately Peter was cool, calm and collected. Peter is the stabilizer in our relationship."
Carr and Stroex were married last August in a civil ceremony that has become routine in the Netherlands, the first country to fully legalize same-sex marriages. Since April 1, 2001, when the landmark legislation went into effect, more than 6,000 gay couples in the Netherlands have wed. Thus far, the dire consequences predicted by many religious conservatives have not come to pass – "God did not flood the Netherlands," joked Carr – and the idea of same-sex marriages seems to be gaining momentum across Europe.
Belgium is the only other European country that allows same-sex marriages, but all of the Scandinavian countries as well as France, Germany and parts of Spain recognize some form of gay civil unions. In Britain, the government recently unveiled a new "civil partnership" bill that gives gay couples all the same rights as married heterosexual couples, and similar laws are being debated in some of the former East Bloc states that joined the European Union in May.
In the U.S., polls indicate that most Americans oppose gay marriage. President Bush has declared his support for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and debate has turned bitter. For Carr, an American who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Cary, and Stroex, who is Dutch, it is a reminder of why they left a small Midwestern town and moved back to Europe.
"The people in America who won’t allow gays to marry, they’re saying I’m not good enough, I’m not equal," said Carr, a manager for a U.S. technology company in the Netherlands." "I don’t see any difference between [same-sex marriages] and what blacks were asking for during the civil rights movement. To me, it’s a question of discrimination and equal rights," he said.
Carr and Stroex, 52, a sales engineer for a company that manufactures industrial valves, met in 1989 when Carr was studying at Britain’s Manchester University. They have been together for 14 years, most of the time living in the Netherlands. In 2000, they decided to move to the United States. Carr missed the country he still considered home, and Stroex was eager to experience life in America. They emptied their bank accounts and invested everything in a friend’s start-up business in New Vienna, Ohio. It didn’t work out. Next, they moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, the home of Antioch College and a town known for progressive attitudes. "The atmosphere there was so nice. It was more relaxed than Amsterdam," Stroex said.
But the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service was not so relaxed. Stroex could get only a temporary tourist visa and was questioned at length each time he entered the country. "Had we been a heterosexual couple, it would have been no problem," Carr said. "I’m an American, but I’m not allowed to have my partner with me in America."
One solution they briefly considered was a "marriage" to a lesbian couple in the same predicament. "But that’s a crime and it’s a lie, and we’re honest people," Carr said. So they moved back to the Netherlands and got married. They now live in De Kwakel, a suburb of Amsterdam. Their modest apartment is furnished with hand-me-downs. "It’s not like life in the Netherlands is a bed of roses," said Carr, citing the high cost of living in the Amsterdam area and his struggles to master the Dutch language.
"But at least we are treated as normal people," he said.
"You know what happens when you take away all the discrimination? You become part of the community. We are ‘Kwakelaars,’ just like anyone else who lives here. At work, I’m not that gay guy in the corner. I’m Earl Carr," he said. At work, when an administrator in the benefits department asked Carr for the name of his "wife," Carr explained that his partner was a man. "There wasn’t even a pause," Carr said. "It’s such a non-issue here."
He said his anger toward America has subsided, but not his sense of alienation. "America doesn’t recognize my relationship with Peter. It considers us inferior, and that’s unacceptable to me," he said. "I’m lucky I have a Dutch partner and we can live here. Other people aren’t so lucky."
The Netherlands has long prided itself on its tolerant attitudes and openness to controversial ideas. Prostitution, marijuana and euthanasia are legal here. But while the Dutch were the first to legalize same-sex marriages, it did not happen overnight. The first discussions about "cohabitation contracts" that would give gays the same legal rights as heterosexual couples began in the 1980s. The idea of marriage for gays was still a long way off.
"The gay movement thought marriage was an old-fashioned institution that belonged to the heterosexual community. It wasn’t an issue," said Boris Dittrich, a Dutch legislator who heads the liberal D-66 party. But when D-66 was invited to join the ruling coalition after its unexpected success in the 1994 elections, Dittrich, who is openly gay, decided to make it an issue. There were immediate protests from the conservative Christian Democratic party and from the Roman Catholic Church. Their arguments, echoed today in the U.S. debate, were that marriage was a sacred bond exclusively between a man and a woman, and that including gays would endanger the institution of marriage.
As a compromise, the Dutch legislature passed a law in 1997 that established "registered partnerships." Available to gays and heterosexuals as an alternative to marriage, it offered pension, and health and tax benefits to cohabiting couples. After elections in 1998, D-66’s strength had grown, and Dittrich was in a position to withhold his party’s support from the governing coalition until the other parties agreed to back same-sex marriage legislation. The groundbreaking law was passed 109-31 less than two years later. In the three years since the law has been in effect, same-sex marriages have come to represent about 2 percent of all marriages registered in the Netherlands. Statistically, it is too early to tell whether the law has had any impact on how traditional couples view the institution of marriage.
"We don’t talk about gay marriage in the Netherlands. There’s only one kind of marriage and it is open to everyone," said Henk Krol, a gay activist and publisher who is widely credited with framing the debate on gay marriage in the Netherlands. "Marriage is not about white gowns and wedding cakes. It’s a legal contract. If you see gays as equal to straights under the law, then why keep this institution from them?" he asked.
In recent weeks, Krol has been dispensing advice to gay groups in the U.S. He generally counsels patience. "Don’t expect that things will change in a few months in your country," he said. He said the campaign for gay marriage in the Netherlands was helped by a gradual approach – legalizing "registered partnerships," for example – that helped the public get used to the idea. "If you can avoid confrontation, it’s better," he said.
"The strangest thing for me is that a lot of the opposition comes from religious groups. Marriage is about people taking care of each other. It’s something that is so close to Christian values [that] if you are a part of a Christian community you should stand up and say hooray," he said.
Carr and Stroex say making their marriage official has been a source of comfort and pride. "Getting married was a relief. It was a weight off my shoulders. It was like, finally, there is a place in the world where Peter and I can be fully functioning normal people," Carr said. "I think it brought a calmness to our relationship. We argue less. Marriage gives you a strength, that final commitment in the relationship," he said.
Stroex added that their marriage license was "only a piece of paper," but that it influenced profoundly the prism through which the outside world viewed them and through which they now view themselves. "It means you have responsibilities. It’s like you have finally grown up," he said.
June 14, 2004
A Prague Spring for gays?:Same-sex unions debated in Eastern Europe
by Brian Whitmore, The Boston Globe
Prague– Katarina Benova and Irina Vychopenova did not want to wait for politicians to decide whether they could marry. With the Czech Parliament scheduled to debate a bill on same-sex civil unions this month, the lesbian couple donned veils and wedding dresses and held an unofficial wedding ceremony on the historic Old Town Square in Prague.
On a cloudy Saturday morning before dozens of friends and some local media, Benova and Vychopenova, who have lived together for several months, exchanged vows, rings and embraces as curious tourists and other passersby looked on.
"We are here to show that we love each other and care for each other just like a heterosexual couple," Benova, 32, said afterward. "The promise we made here was intimate and important." The two hope they can soon make those same vows again, in a civil ceremony recognized by their government.
Gay marriage is becoming a hot political issue in Eastern Europe. The gay-marriage debate has been winding its way through courts and legislatures in Europe for years, producing a patchwork of laws and an array of legal statuses for same-sex couples across the Continent. In the Netherlands and Belgium, same-sex marriage is legal. In other European countries, including Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as in some provinces of Spain and Switzerland, there are laws that recognize some form of civil unions and partnerships.
Among the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, many of which have recently joined the European Union, the process has been slower. In some of these countries, attitudes from the Communist era – when homosexuality was either illegal or considered a mental illness – linger. Moreover, a high-profile Vatican campaign against gay marriage has resonated in heavily Roman Catholic countries like Poland and Slovakia.
In a recent survey of the 15 West European countries that made up the European Union before it expanded to 25 members in May, 57 percent favored gay marriage. The same survey showed that in 13 mostly East European nations – including the 10 that joined the EU this year – just 23 percent favored same-sex unions.
But the Czech Republic is one of a handful of former Communist countries, including Hungary and Slovenia, where gay and lesbian couples believe there is cause for guarded optimism. Czech lawmakers have already voted down legislation several times on same-sex civil unions, or "registered partnerships" as they are known here. But public opinion has become increasingly favorable toward same-sex unions in recent years, and analysts say the legislation has a reasonable chance of passing when Parliament begins debating the issue this week.
"We’re trying not to raise our hopes too high," said Tereza Kodickova, spokeswoman for the Prague-based gay and lesbian rights group G-Liga. Gay rights activists here say the Czech bill is significantly weaker than they would like. It contains neither tax nor pension benefits, for example, and it does not allow same-sex couples to adopt. "We know that under the current circumstances, an act that would satisfy our needs and wishes will not pass," Kodickova said, adding that she and others hoped the measure would be the first step toward full marriage rights.
The proposed law, a compromise sponsored by lawmakers from four of the five parties represented in Parliament, has met with fierce resistance from the Christian Democratic Party, which said the measure would destroy the institution of marriage. The last time the issue went before Parliament, in 2001, Czech Roman Catholic bishops initiated an opposing petition, signed by 68,000 people, press reports said. It said the legislation "risks confusing a significant number of young people who are having problems seeking their own sexual identity."
Today, 50 percent of Czechs say they favor gay marriage, according to recent polls, the highest among the former Communist nations. And despite what gay rights activists call lingering homophobia in some segments of society, support for same-sex unions has been steadily rising since the 1989 revolution, pollsters and sociologists say. "The attitude toward gay marriage is relatively positive and open," said Jan Hartl, director of STEM, a Prague polling agency.
One reason for this, analysts and gay rights activists say, is the limited influence that religion has on politics in the Czech Republic, one of the most secular and anticlerical nations in Europe. Proponents of civil unions are having a harder time in heavily Roman Catholic Poland, where antigay sentiment runs strong and just 19 percent of the population supports same-sex unions. When 800 gay-rights activists marched through Krakow in May, they were met by about 200 counterdemonstrators who threw stones, eggs and firecrackers, some chanting, "down with gays."
A lawmaker who introduced a bill on same-sex civil unions into the Polish Senate earlier this year was picketed by antigay demonstrators who called her a "witch" and presented her with a broom, according to press reports. Gay-rights activists are also looking hopefully at Hungary and Slovenia.
In 1995, Hungary’s Constitutional Court struck down a law barring homosexual couples from common-law marriage but stopped short of allowing same-sex couples the right to full-fledged civil marriages. In Slovenia, the government submitted civil-unions legislation to Parliament for debate on April 28. The bill gives registered same-sex couples the same rights as married couples, except for adoption rights. Gay-rights activists say they are confident that same-sex unions – and eventually full-fledged marriage – will become the norm across the continent. "We are trying to do this bit by bit," Katarina Benova said, before heading off with her bride to their wedding reception. "This is progress. You have no chance against progress."
July 29, 2004
2004 EuroGames 4-day sporting event begins
by Mike Lavers
The European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF) kicked off the ninth EuroGames on Thursday in Munich, Germany. The four-day event, which runs through Aug. 1, features athletes from 38 countries who compete in various competitions including tennis, swimming and bicycling. Johan van de Ven, the co-president of the EGLSF board of directors who helped organize the games, said he feels they bring the best gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes together from around the world to celebrate the spirit of competition and to recognize the progress the GLBT community has made towards greater acceptance and understanding.
" The LGBT vocation does not prevent them [EuroGames] from being a huge multi-sport event open to everybody that wishes to participate," Van de Ven said during a press conference on Thursday before the opening ceremony. "[The EuroGames] are inspired by an old and true ‘sports for all’ spirit pursuing the largest and most diversified participation and the best personal achievement."
Munich Mayor Christian Ude welcomed the athletes to the city and said he and his city are honored to host them and the games. "In this town you are welcome," Ude said. "You are all the brightest part of Munich."
As athletes continue to compete in Germany, the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) continues its preparations for the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago despite a public falling out last November between it and the Montreal committee, of which Tewksbury is co-chair. Montreal had originally won the right to host the games.
Despite continued financial problems that nearly caused the 1998 and 2002 games in Amsterdam and Sydney to be canceled, Dan Woog, author of a number of books discussing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender athletes, such as "Jocks" and "Jocks 2," said he feels these events are good for all athletes. " Any gathering of gay athletes is important," he told the PlanetOut Network. "It’s important for them and is equally important for straight athletes to realize this stuff is going on." A delegation from the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago is also participating in the EuroGames festivities.
30 July 2004
European gay groups urged to "mobilise against" Jamaican anti-gay reggae stars
by Ben Townley, Gay.com UK
Gay rights groups across Europe are being urged to "monitor and mobilise against" the Jamaican musicians at the centre of a row over homophobic lyrics. The call comes from UK activist group Outrage!, which has been at the centre of the campaign to stop reggae and dancehall artists such as Elephant Man, Beenie Man and Bounty Killer from appearing in Britain. Group leader Peter Tatchell says the musicians should be constantly monitored so as to limit the amount of times they can appear on tour across the continent.
Already the campaign has seen concert delays and cancellations in Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, in the UK last month Beenie Man was stopped at Heathrow airport by Metropolitan Police, after Outrage submitted a dossier compiling his lyrics and accusing him of inciting violence against lesbian and gay people. Although he was not charged, the high profile delay led to the cancellation of his London gig, after organisers at the Hackney Ocean venue cancelled for "fears of public safety".
Tatchell says that such a monitoring campaign could see the end of the artists. “Their concerts should be cancelled on the grounds that they incite the murder of gays and lesbians, and that their performances may lead to public disorder and to homophobic hate crimes,” he said in a statement today. “Securing the cancellation of these hate singer’s concerts is very important," he added.
"By hitting them in the pocket, it will help pressure them to abandon their murderous incitements. Once they start losing money, they will soon drop their violent lyrics. Driving homophobia out of Jamaican music will have a huge positive impact on Jamaican culture and attitudes – to the benefit of all lesbian and gay Jamaicans.” The group adds that the countries most likely to see anti-gay artists tour are France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, as well as the UK.
27 January, 2005
Europe debates Holocaust resolution; gay victims remembered
by Ben Townley
The European Parliament will debate and vote on a resolution of Holocaust remembrance today, as countries across the world mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The resolution will call on all EU member states to recognise the importance of remembering those who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, as well as the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism.
Additionally, the document to be voted on will include references to the gay victims of the Holocaust, who were targeted by the Nazis, along with other minority groups. The draft resolution states that "hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, Poles and other prisoners of various nationalities were murdered’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau and stresses that remembrance events are important not only as occasions to remember and condemn Nazi crimes, but also to learn ‘wider lessons about the dangers of victimising people on the basis of race, ethnic origin, religion, politics or sexual orientation".
Gay rights groups working with the EU said the inclusion of the reference was vital in ensuring member states tackle homophobia more directly in the future, noting that the acknowledgement was somewhat "delayed". ‘It is a very important resolution and we are pleased homosexual victims of Nazi persecutions are being given delayed but deserved recognition and remembrance alongside with the other groups of Holocaust victims," ILGA Executive Director Patricia Prendiville said today.
She added that the resolution comes after a sustained attempt to erase lesbian and gay victims out of the Holocaust.
" Unfortunately the historical fact of systematic persecution of homosexual men and women by the Nazi regime is still being denied by some individuals and organisations and in some countries homosexual victims are being excluded from official remembrance events," Ms Prendiville said. " I hope this resolution will promote just and unprejudiced understanding of the history and will eradicate unfair denial and exclusion of homosexual victims."
Countries across Europe will mark Holocaust Memorial Day today, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In Manchester, the city’s Lesbian and Gay Foundation will open a Book Of Hope, to mark the lesbian and gay victims of the Holocaust, while other cities across the UK will host meetings and services to mark the anniversary. In Germany, a procession through Berlin will take place in memory of the victims. The country’s Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, said earlier this week that Germany should be "vigilant" to the dangers of extremism. " The overwhelming majority of Germans living today do not bear guilt for the Holocaust," he said. " But they do bear a special responsibility."
In Italy, a plaque commemorating the gay victims at the country’s San Sabbas concentration camp will be unveiled; the first time the country has acknowledged the dead lesbian and gay people. Leaders from across the world, including France, Israel and the US, will also attend a special ceremony at the Auschwitz camp, which will be attended by some survivors and representatives of the Soviet army that freed them.
02 February 2005
Sexual Minorities and Social Democracy in Europe
R E P O R T
Date: 3-5 December, 2004
Organiser: European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity
With the co-operation of: Bulgarian Socialist Youth
Fondation Jean-Jaurès (FJJ)
Alfred Mozer Stichting (AMS)
Guest speakers: Michael Cashman (Labour MEP), Axel Queval (French Socialist Party, FJJ), Rowdy Boeyink (ECOSY network, AMS)
The European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity is the network organisation of political foundations and parties, member of the Party of European Socialists, for cooperation with like-minded parties outside the PES and the European Union. The European Forum has a successful record of encouraging political parties and movements in their efforts to deal with issues of discrimination, segregation, oppression of human rights, with special emphasis on minorities. It was, however, for the first time, that a specific seminar on Gay and Lesbian (GL) rights took place. It was prompted by the reality that GL movements, specifically in post-communist societies, are still not seriously accepted in society and their representatives fear discrimination at work, abuse from media or even family and friend circles, segregation and rejection. Report Just as all human rights issues, GL rights are not limited to one specific region. Accordingly, the target group of the seminar was representatives from countries from all over Europe and in different stages of their democratic development. Participants from transition countries (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia), new EU member states and acceding countries (Poland, Bulgaria and Romania), and EU countries (France, the UK, Sweden and the Netherlands) were present. Most of the participants were members of social democratic parties. There were also active members of GL organisations, who were trying to establish links with political parties, or in the past have had contacts with social democratic Parties and were looking to renew them.
The seminar was very open and informal. Among other things, it sought to clarify what the situation in the different parts of Europe is, and what are social democratic parties doing to improve it. Summary of the findings per country follows:
– In the old EU countries , the fight for GL rights has begun earlier and has achieved more results. Discrimination on basis of sexual orientation is forbidden. social democratic parties are actively involved in spreading tolerance and acceptance of gays and lesbians. Still, marriages and adoption of children is only possible in a limited number of countries. Crime incidents based on homophobia occur. Prejudice remains. In a famous case, the European Parliament recently succeeded in ousting a proposed member of the European Commission , Rocco Buttiglione. In his hearing at the Parliament he has said that according to him, homosexuality is a sin and that if policy proposals were against his moral principles, he would oppose them.
– In Poland the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) co-operates with the Gay and Lesbian movement. However, in Polish society catholic religion is being used to demonise homosexuals as sinners or sick people. The EU directive on prohibition of discrimination is enforced. A law, proposed by SLD, allowing same sex couples to register as partners has been adopted in the Upper Chamber in December 2004.
– Romania and Bulgaria both have adopted the anti-discrimination EU directive in employment. However, law enforcement remains under question. For example, serving in the army (conscript-based) is forbidden for gay men in Bulgaria. In Romania, homosexuality was only decriminalised in 2002. Representatives of both countries indicate the most serious problem to be attitudes in society. General prejudice towards homosexuals are that they are lazy, looking for trouble or trying to make themselves interesting; worse, that they are criminals, for example paedophiles, or that they cause AIDS. Noteworthy, one of the big discussion issues during the presidential elections campaign was GL rights, with social democratic PM and presidential candidate Nastase saying there were more important things to do in the country. Its seems like the presidential elections in Bulgaria would also not miss this topic either. The host of the conference was Bulgarian Socialist Youth (BSM) and representatives of this organisation were available. Also at the concluding session of the seminar, the BSM leader came and addressed the participants and presented a very progressive declaration on behalf of his organisation. The participants recommended to adopt the declaration officially and to make it a visible document for the public. The European Forum will follow developments to this end.
– Several days after the seminar, a MP from the BSP, said on prime time national radio programme in Bulgaria that the BSP should defend homosexual rights and freedoms and that this was a perfectly normal thing to do for a left-wing party who is member of SI and associate member of the PES. Noteworthy, it was the same MP who was supposed to come to the seminar but in the last moment could not make it. The two Bulgarian NGO’s present complained of lack of willingness to co-operate from all political parties in Bulgaria. A recent opinion poll was shown, in which 50% of the respondents say they would not vote for a party, which has homosexuals on its list. Elections are expected in June 2005. In both Romania and Bulgaria, the prospective of EU membership plays an important role in advancement of human rights, GL rights including.
– Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro and FYR Macedonia seem to have a poorer human rights record than Bulgaria and Romania. The Croatian would-be participant, a prominent gay activist, could not come to the conference. A few weeks before the seminar he found neonazi-style graffiti on the building of his apartment, wishing him death. Skinheads burgled his apartment and stoned his window. At the same time, the two Serbian participants, gay activists and linked to the social democratic Union, had problems when they took the bus to Sofia. They encountered an aggressive band of football hooligans in, who recognised one of them to be gay from a TV program. Faced with this situation, they had returned home and only arrived on the second day of the conference. A documentary on the Gay parade in Belgrade in 2001 was projected during the seminar, and confronted in a very direct manner all participants with homophobia. Despite ending violently, this gay parade has succeeded in bringing the topic into mainstream public debate. There are numerous gay organisations in Serbia now, but poorly organised; contacts with the political parties are not developed. The two Serbian participants, members of the NGO Gayten and of the social democratic Union, also urge for pressure on Serbian politics. Their Western-minded president Boris Tadic, elected from the Democratic Party, regards promoting homosexual rights as anti-life politics. Macedonia seems to still live under the legacy of late president Trajkovski, a convinced Methodist protestant, who was against a USAID-sponsored campaign for tolerance towards homosexuals because “there are more important things to do with American tax-payers money”. The two participants from the youth organisation of the Social Democratic Union admitted the very topic is a taboo in society and politics. The youth organisation has tried and failed to organise a seminar on the topic last year.
– It could be said that Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine share similar political difficulties, even though the scope of authoritarian rule differs significantly. Belarus is a dictatorial state. There, it is not even possible to register a LGBT (Lesbi, Gay, Bi-sexual, Trans-sexual) organisation as such, even though the Swedish participant said there was some co-operation with Belarussian activists. Earlier, there were some contacts between grass-root organisations and centre-left political parties in the country, but they gradually disappeared after president Lukashenka came to power. In Moldova, research shows that 86% of the population doesn’t agree to have homosexual neighbours. A newspaper, close to the Democratic Party (DPM), writes on LG issues. It seems that DPM is the most friendly to GL issues, and cooperates with one organisation, called Gender Doc. From Ukraine, an activist from the NGO “Nash Mir” was present. His organisation is looking for contacts with political parties, and to a certain level has established them with the former opposition parties who supported the election of President Yushchenko. He hopes that with the new president, democratic reforms will take place, which will make it possible to prosecute acts of crime against gay men and lesbians. Struggles for more rights there have been courageous: hardships to register the organisation (first denied on moral basis); harassment during a parade in Dnipropetrovsk. In Ukraine, only 15% approves the existence of same sex couples and some groups would claim “AIDS is fair for gays”.
The discussions on the LGBT situation in all represented countries was followed by a training on how and why to lobby political parties and how to do successful networking. The two trainers were Michael Cashman (Labour Party MEP) and Rowdy Boeyink (ECOSY). After an introduction on the necessity of continuous lobbying and networking, the participants were divided in four groups, which had to answer specific questions on lobbying and networking and then present the results to the rest of the seminar. The participants were glad that they could think together on techniques of lobby and networking (how, who, what for, etc), especially because ideas and practices from different countries and backgrounds proved to be mutually useful. During the seminar, Axel Queval from the French Socialist Party gave a presentation on the phenomenon homophobia, giving many examples from the GL movement in France. He, just as the other participants from Western European countries – The Netherlands, the UK and Sweden, emphasised on the importance of continuous efforts for tolerance, respect of human rights and civil liberties.
One of the conclusions of the seminar is that while the role of the EU in bringing more tolerance for sexual minorities across the continent must not be over-estimated, such a role clearly exists and positively influences legislation, policy-making and even society attitudes. Not only through adopting the anti-discrimination directive become homosexual rights better protected, but through looking at positive examples in other European countries, ordinary people come to think more and more of gay and lesbian rights as a must. Gay and lesbian movements look for cooperation with political parties. They lobby and stand for their rights. From the contributions of the representatives from 12 countries, including from different NGO’s, it became clear that for them the most logical step was to begin their fight by addressing leftist and social democratic parties. Poland, where a social democratic politician has successfully proposed the new law for same sex couples in Parliament, is an excellent example for good co-operation, which other countries could follow. The Netherlands, the UK, France and Sweden have more long-term successful experience in this direction.
The participants felt the need to create an email-based forum to keep discussing important and relevant issues in their countries. This will be established and hopefully will give a better base to evaluate the results of the event. The very fact that this seminar was organised by the Forum, gave to many of the participants a feeling of support and appreciation. All participants were unanimous that a follow-up seminar should be organised in 2005. They pointed out that not only the discussion over developments in different countries was useful, but also the training on lobbying, the lecture on homophobia and the more informal parts, like watching a movie about children with gay parents in France.
The possibility of a follow-up is to be discussed and concretised, while the Forum remains open to find resource for a second similar event, if needed. Co-operation with the PES, ECOSY, the working group in the European Parliament and other sister organisations remains very important. Even more important is to keep contact with the participants and keep asking them if they have established contacts with their parties/organisations, what solutions they have found, what supports they need from social democratic parties and organisations across Europe.
6 June 2005
French vote no for EU constitution – gay rights to suffer?
by Ben Townley
As the UK government admits it will shelve its European Union constitution referendum plans, a leading LGBT campaigning group has urged member states to stick to the non-discrimination principles of the treaty. Faced with the demise of the constitution, which would have seen discrimination based on sexual orientation banned across the EU for the first time, the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s European branch is now looking for a commitment to gay rights from member states.
The constitution, which must be ratified by all states, has already been rejected in France and the Netherlands. Here in the UK, the government is set to announce it will postpone plans to introduce the referendum bill to parliament in this session today. Although effectively cancelling the planned 2006 referendum, the bill may be resurrected later in the debate, political analysts suggest. Other countries are urging remaining member states to ratify the treaty, despite the rejections. They say each country must be given a voice on the issue.
ILGA-Europe also says it fears a more basic document presented to member states will omit lesbian and gay protection. The group argues that it may be more difficult to reach a unanimous agreement to give fundamental rights for LGBT people a high profile in a smaller document. Executive Director Patricia Prendiville says state leaders must remember the "fundamental principles" of the bloc. “ Whatever the outcome of the current crisis over the European Constitution, we call upon EU institutions and EU member states to remember that equality and non-discrimination are the core fundamental principles of the Union," Prendiville says.
" We hope the Union will continue its work and commitment to fight all forms of discrimination, including against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” There is now pressure on the UK government to handle the constitution crisis when it hosts the EU presidency from July 1st. Leaders are expected to look to Prime Minister Tony Blair at a summit on 16th June, in a bid to find a solution to the widespread rejection of the treaty, as well as growing EU-scepticism across the UK and the other 24 member states.
October 2 2006
Middle East dispatch Coming out in Arabic
Brian Whitaker reports on a lesbian group’s struggle for acceptance in the Middle East
(Article historyAbout this articleClose This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday October 02 2006. It was last updated at 13:46 on October 02 2006.When Rauda Morcos heard there was an emailing list for lesbian Palestinians, she couldn’t believe it at first. "I thought it was a joke," she said. "Until then, I thought I was the only lesbian who speaks Arabic.")
The list was certainly not a joke but, in a society where same-sex relations are still taboo, its members guarded their privacy. The only way a newcomer could join was by personal recommendation. "Eventually I got in," Ms Morcos recalled, "and I found a lot of other [lesbian] women who couldn’t be out." After corresponding by email for a few months, she thought it would be good to talk with some of the invisible women face to face, so, in January 2003, Ms Morcos and her flatmate called a meeting. "We had no expectations," she said, "but eight women turned up. The meeting lasted eight hours and I don’t think anybody wanted to go home."
That, it later turned out, marked the birth of Aswat ("Voices") – the first openly-functioning organisation for Arab lesbians in the Middle East. "We realised we had a great responsibility towards other women in our community," Ms Morcos continued. "We tried to contact many organisations and sent out letters but the only reply came from Kayan ["Being"], a group of feminists in Haifa … Many NGOs don’t count it as a human rights issue or want to be associated."
Three years on, though, Aswat is firmly established with more than 70 members spread across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel (where the organisation is based). Only about 20 attend its meetings; the need to keep their sexuality secret, plus Israeli restrictions on movement, prevent others from attending but they keep in touch through email and an online discussion forum. Beyond the group itself, there are also signs of acceptance in a few places. "We do a lot of work within the community, for example with youth groups, counsellors, and so on," Ms Morcos said. "That proves to me at least that the gay/lesbian movement has started for us as Palestinians."
One of Aswat’s main goals is to provide information about sexuality that is widely available elsewhere but has never been published in Arabic. This is not simply a matter of translation; it’s also about developing "a ‘mother tongue’ with positive, un-derogatory and affirmative expressions of women and lesbian sexuality and gender … We are creating a language that no one spoke before". If women are to find their voice, the language needs to be re-appropriated, Ms Morcos explains in an article on Aswat’s website. "I have forgotten my language. I don’t know how to say ‘to make love’ in Arabic without it sounding chauvinistic, aggressive and alien to the experience." Recognition for Aswat’s work came earlier this year when Ms Morcos won the 2006 Felipa de Souza award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The citation described her as "a true example of courageous and effective human rights leadership", but Ms Morcos is quick to point out that other women are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
Speaking to a standing-room-only meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign during a visit to London last week, she explained that necessity has made her the public face of Aswat. Many of the women involved do not want to be identified – often with good reason. "But if we don’t want to come out as persons, let’s at least come out as a movement," she said. Ms Morcos’s own coming-out was not entirely voluntary and proved particularly unpleasant. In 2003 she gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot about the poetry she writes. In passing, she mentioned her sexuality – only to find that the L-word turned up in the newspaper’s headline. An article on Aswat’s website describes what happened next:
"All of a sudden, the Arab population of her home town [in northern Israel], which she generally assumed to have no interest in the literary supplements of Hebrew newspapers, seemed to have read the article and had something to say about her. Local corner shop owners made photocopies and distributed it, because, after all, everyone knew it was about the daughter of so-and-so from their own town. The consequences of that article were far more serious than Ms Morcos had imagined: her car windows were smashed and tyres were punctured several times, she received innumerable threatening letters and phone calls, and, to top it all, ‘coincidentally’ lost her job as a school teacher, since parents of pupils complained that they did not want her as a teacher."
Arab society today is riddled with the kind of anti-gay prejudices that were found in Britain half a century ago, and persecution is common. Muslim clerics condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms, though similar statements can be heard from Arab Christian leaders too, such as the Coptic Pope in Egypt who once declared that "so-called human rights" for gay people were "unthinkable". With a few exceptions here and there, this is the prevailing attitude in all the Arab countries, but in Palestinian society the issue of gay rights is further complicated – and made much more political – by the conflict with Israel. Israel legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice – for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees.
These are undisputed achievements but they have also become a propaganda tool, reinforcing Israel’s claim to be the only liberal, democratic society in the Middle East. At the same time, highlighting Israel’s association with gay rights has made life more difficult for gay Arabs, adding grist to the popular notion that homosexuality is a "disease" spread by foreigners. Linking the twin enemies of Israel and homosexuality provides a double whammy for Arab propagandists, as can be seen from sections of the Egyptian press. In an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the October war, a headline in the Egyptian paper Sabah al-Kheir announced: "Golda Meir was a lesbian." In 2001, following the mass arrest of more than 50 allegedly gay men, al-Musawwar magazine published a doctored photograph of the supposed ringleader, showing him in an Israeli army helmet and sitting at a desk with an Israeli flag.
Israel, however, is not quite the gay paradise that many imagine. There is still hostility from conservative Jews, and some of their blood-curdling statements are not very different from the more widely publicised remarks of Muslim clerics. In Jerusalem last year, the ultra-Orthodox mayor banned a pride march, though an Israeli court promptly overturned his decision. As the parade took place, a Jewish religious fanatic attacked three marchers with a knife and reportedly told the police he had come "to kill in the name of God". The gay rights movement in Israel also has a questionable history. Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden, explains in an article that the first Israeli activists pursued "a very mainstream strategy" that "reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it. Embracing gay rights," he continues, "enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities."
As part of their strategy, activists sought "to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex". As a general principle this may be valid, but in the context of war and occupation it leads into murky territory. Should it really be a matter of pride that openly gay members of the Israeli armed forces are just as capable of wreaking havoc on neighbouring Lebanon as the next person? The question here is whether gay rights – in Israel or elsewhere – can really be divorced from politics or treated in isolation from other human rights. Helem, the Lebanese gay and lesbian organisation, thinks not, arguing that gay rights are an inseparable part of human rights – as does Ms Morcos.
For Ms Morcos, there’s a connection between nationality, gender and sexuality. She has a triple identity, as a lesbian, a woman and a Palestinian (despite having an Israeli passport) – "a minority within a minority within a minority", as she puts it. Her first concern, though, is to end the Israeli occupation, and she sees no prospect of achieving gay rights for Palestinians while it continues. Nowadays, the more radical Israeli activists also acknowledge a linkage. In 2001, Walzer recalls, "Tel Aviv’s pride parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called ‘Gays in Black’ marched with a banner proclaiming, ‘There’s No Pride In Occupation’." Later, a group called Kvisa Sh’chora ("Dirty Laundry") sprang up and began drawing parallels between the oppression of sexual minorities and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. The issue was further highlighted in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. Activist Hagai El-Ad asked: "Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?"
He continued: "It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what’s been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel. The struggle for our rights is worthless if it’s indifferent to what’s happening to people a kilometre from here. All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister," he concluded, "is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism."
This mantle of enlightenment and pluralism does not, however, extend to Israel’s treatment of gay Palestinians. For those who face persecution in the West Bank and Gaza, the most obvious escape route is to Israel, but this often leaves them trapped in an administrative no-man’s-land with little hope of getting a proper job in Israel and constantly at risk of arrest and deportation. Meanwhile, as far as the average Palestinian is concerned, fleeing into Israel is a betrayal of the cause, and gay men who remain in the Palestinian territories also come under suspicion – not always without good reason. There have been various reports of gay Palestinians being targeted or pressurised by Israeli intelligence to act as informers. Whether or not they actually succumb to the pressure, all inevitably come under suspicion.
"Gays in Palestine are seen as collaborators immediately," said Ms Morcos.
Europe’s Other Side
Two years ago, 15 new countries joined the European Union and agreed to abide by its conventions on discrimination. But it seems many Eastern European countries aren’t only ignoring this when it comes to gay men and lesbians, but the Polish government’s refusal to allow a gay event are also actually flaunting it, as GT found when it talked to gay representatives from all over Eastern Europe. Big Macs might have been on sale in Moscow since 1990, but other imports, like gay rights, are taking longer to permeate the former Soviet nation. Maxim Anmeghichean, programmes director for the European Region of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, says that "throwing stones and even shooting in the direction of parades, police brutality, and blackmail and gay-bashing persist in the former Eastern bloc."
Marchers in Serbia’s first “and only” Gay Pride Parade in 2001 were viciously beaten by thugs and, according to some reports, the police. While some countries, in their eagerness to join the European Union, have become more liberal, ignorance and prejudice remain rife “In the Balkans, violence is all too common, usually people being beaten up coming home from gay nightclubs or other places, and and in Russia and Moldova politicians are even making tenuous noises about recriminalisation. Progress is a double-edged sword. “ As the community becomes more visible, there are increasing attacks in cruising grounds,” says Rob Rhodes, who’s carried out political research in the area. “However, some people are actually beaten by the right-wing and religious members of their own families or friends after coming out. Fundamentalists become more aggressive in fighting back,” he says.
Gauging the full extent of the problem is hard due to a lack of reliable statistics, partly because victims are deterred from reporting homophobic “Visibility causes incidents, fearing police apathy or even further abuse. “The Russian authorities, especially the police, seem to ignore the widespread violence even more homophobia and direct attacks on you.” The intensity and frequency of these attacks vary. While homophobic against gays,” says Nikolai Bayev. “There are no official statistics about violence is becoming rarer in most Eastern European countries, gays murdered in our country. And I know of lots of cases like this.”
Minsk police have failed to arrest the perpetrators of much homophobic violence, including the serial killings of homosexuals in 2001, according to Belarus activist Svyatoslav Sementsov. Instead of record-ing and investigating hate crime, officers ask the victims personal and irrelevant questions, and groundlessly raid gay clubs. “The passive behaviour of the police is an expression of the state’s desire to ignore and to not protect the violated rights of homosexuals,” says Sementsov.
While such violence may be rare, Eastern European gay people still face a raft of prejudice at home, work and school. “My research high-lighted homophobia in schools from both teachers and students, directed at both teachers and students who were thought to be LGBT,” says Rhodes. “Discrimination persists even in university, with reports of more than one lecturer failing a student in an exam because the stu-dent was openly gay and comments by psychology lecturers that homosexuality is ‘sick’? or a perversion that can be treated.”
Gay people are commonly fired or hounded out of their jobs. A 2001 survey conducted by Slovenian association SKUC LL found that 2.9%of respondents said they’d been sacked over their sexuality and 66.9% had experienced harassment at work. Few gay public figures are out and some have even married – the admission of homosexuality can end a career.
But parental reaction can be even worse. Low wages and strong fam-ily ties keep many Eastern Europeans living at home well into their 30s, so any disapproval has a greater impact. The child who comes out can be thrown out of the house or packed off to a psychiatrist – even in ostensibly more tolerant countries. “Let me give you an example of how hypocritical some Slovene people can be,” says Nina Granda, of the lesbian eL Magazine. “If you told me your son was gay, I would tell you: ‘Don’t judge him, be open, try to understand, or watch Oprah’. However, if in a couple of weeks my own daughter told me she was a lesbian, the Slovene hypocrite that I am, I’d send her to a psychiatrist, lock her up, try hard to find some nice-looking boys from the neigh-bourhood to take her on dates, and tell all of my co-workers that my daughter was getting married.”
Such attitudes have been established and reinforced over time. LGBT people were demonised by Communism, which put great empha-sis on conformity. Any individuality or rejection of the norm – not just in matters of sexuality – was dangerous. State propaganda and the pro-hibition of the foreign media gave people little chance to question what they’d been told and even today, many retain an innate suspicion of outsiders – foreigners, gypsies or LGBTs.
On top of that, in the southern countries, particularly the Balkans, a macho, sexist culture has also reinforced gender roles. “Patriarchal atti-tudes prevail in the region, especially in conflict areas where attitudes are quite militarised, with ‘traditional’ notions of how ‘men’? and ‘women’? should look and act,” says Rob Rhodes. “Men are expected to join the Army and support a wife and children, women to get married and make babies.”
Serbian activist Vlatko Salaj adds that gay men are regarded as “pussies, weak and feminine” while Predrag Azdejkovic of Queeria Belgrade notes that they’re seen as “traitors of the Holy National goals”. Declining birth rates in some countries provide family values proponents with more ammunition. But possibly the main force gay people have to contend with is the Church. Sidelined by Communism, it’s now trying aggressively to resume its role in society. Catholicism and Orthodoxy are strong throughout the region: 90% of Poles are Catholic. Moldovan associa-tion GenderDoc-M reported last year that a high-ranking police officer told a public meeting: “For me, the main law is the law of God, accord-ing to which homosexuality is a sin and those who commit it shall die”.
Homosexuals have become a useful and vulnerable target, not just for priests, but also for politicians. “Leaders that want to come across as strong or nationalist define themselves by excluding gay people,” says Sarah Green of Amnesty. “If crime is high, and the social and eco-nomic situation desperate, the police need to be seen to be doing something. LGBTs are easy to find and target, when really they need to target fraud or bootlegging.” In the Southern Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), politicians routinely insult their opponents by calling them ‘homosexual’, adds Maxim Anmeghichean.
While whipping up and exploiting homophobia can be expedient for a politician, standing up for gay rights is a riskier strategy. “No Russian political party dares to support the LGBT community,” says Bayev. “No democratic or liberal politician is openly gay-friendly. They are afraid they’ll be regarded as ‘faggots’ themselves and lose votes.”
With many Eastern Europeans concerned about increasing Western influence, conservative politicians cast homosexuality, along with drugs and crime, as dangerous Western imports. “Homosexuality in most cases is depicted as a trend from the West, sent to Serbia to destroy it,” says Azdejkovic. Paedophilia, pathology and deviancy are other associa-tions, drawn sometimes even in school and colleges. This paranoia and ignorance, along with the increasing assertion of gay rights, have result-ed in a backlash against homosexuality across the region.
“ In many countries where homosexuality is criminalised, it’s from an old law, or the original constitution – it may date back centuries. It just sits there until it’s appealed,” says Green. “What’s worrying is that in Eastern Europe, rather than old laws, we’re seeing new attempts to tar-get the gay community.”
Alex Peènik, editor of the Slovenian Queer Resources Directory, has noticed a difference since a 2004 government change. “Hate speech in parliament now occurs on a regular basis, and it seems ‘the street’ fol-lows the lead very quickly. In Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital, it used to be extremely rare for gay men to become victims of violence on the street. Last year, we had three attacks in two weeks.”
Tomas Szypula of the Campaign Against Homophobia has observed a similar trend in Poland. “Radical right parties are getting more popu-lar, especially the Law and Justice and Polish Families’ League, which is now in coalition in the Polish Parliament.” And with civic spirit largely crushed by Communism, LGBT groups struggle to defend themselves robustly. “We’re still not emancipated enough,” says Bayev. “We still prefer to go into clubs and cruising areas than to fight for our rights. We’re still too scared.” Nicolas Alexeyev, head of GayRussia.ru, agrees. “We can’t limit our rights to meeting and having fun underground’.”
But Alexeyev puts a lot of the hostility down to poverty, which is rife in the former Eastern bloc. “The more wealthy people are, the less they care about such things.” Another divide is rural–urban. In the larger cities, where people are more educated and forward thinking, there’s tolerance and sometimes a smattering of gay clubs. In the country, where religion and tradition are staunch, living an openly-gay life can be impossible.
This is mainly due to a lack of information, which is why activists see the media as so important. Since the debate in Moscow over Gay Pride, which the city’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, is trying to ban, Alexeyev perceives a signif-icant shift in tone. “In the past, homosexuality was usually discussed only by tabloids when they needed to laugh at us. This has changed within weeks. We’ve now got support from journalists.” Parades are vital because they show the public that gay people are normal citizens, while strength-ening gay identity. The internet, too, is a key weapon in informing people and allowing easier communication between LGBT communities. Positive publicity and increased dialogue have had some results. In March, the Czech Republic became the first former-Communist country in Europe to grant legal recognition to same-sex partnerships. “Fingers crossed; I’d say we’re moving forward,” says Nina Granda. “Because we’re getting organised, doing something, books are being published,
“ There are no official statistics about gays murdered in our coun-try. And I know of lots of cases like this” Nikolai Bayev events are being organised, people are getting together, laws are being passed (lousy ones, but still…). A couple of years back, things like this seemed miles away.”
Hungary is another bright spot – notably in terms of legislation. In 2004, it adopted an equal opportunities law that sociologist Judit Takacs of the gay rights group Háttér calls “the first such law in Europe with specific ref-erence to gender identity as a protected category, which is potentially use-ful for transgender people”. The problem is that LGBT people don’t yet take advantage of the legal opportunities afforded them. Still, Háttér continues to raise awareness of the “not-at-all sensational everyday realities of LGB people’s lives” and the country is unusually fortunate in having some vocal NGOs and even a minister fighting the gay rights corner.
Obliged by their EU membership ambitions to commit to legislation such as the European Convention on Human Rights, Eastern European countries at least now have something to which gay people can appeal, even if society’s hostility lingers. Rhodes reports that the Macedonian Army has recently started allowing openly-gay personnel to serve, and cites the case of two gay men in Kosovo who, after being beaten and then enduring further abuse when they reported the incident to the police, “received a nice shock when the chief of police issued a public apology and suspended the officers concerned”.
Given that the last country to decriminalise male homosexual con-senting acts, Armenia, did so only in 2003, and that LGBTs were being imprisoned until 2001, the progress is undeniable. Like most activists, Maxim Anmeghichean believes the only way is forward. “Our human rights arguments are much stronger than the right-wing ones and the truth is with us. The rest is a matter of time.”