By Leigh Phillips
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Despite considerable advances in recent years, the social situation for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people throughout the European Union remains a problem, particularly in the east, according to a major new survey.
Discrimination, bullying, harassment and attacks occur across the EU. Politicians in a number of eastern member states seem to side with or turn a blind eye to perpetrators, while the ability of victims to report crimes is undermined by lack of police training, leading to significant underreporting, according to a 160-page report on the social aspects of homophobia from the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency.
Even in those member states where attitudes are more tolerant and anti-discrimination laws stricter, there are areas where homophobia is more prevalent, such as in secondary schools and within sports culture, the study says.
Moreover, while most attackers are young men, often in groups, there is a worrying incidence of attacks from the far-right and ethnic minorities.
In June 2007 the European Parliament asked the Fundamental Rights Agency to develop a comprehensive, comparative report on the situation regarding homophobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation. In June last year, the first part of the report, on the legal situation for LGBT people in the EU was published, and on Tuesday (31 March), the second part, on the social situation is to be released.
The paper finds that major differences between member states exist regarding public opinion towards gays and lesbians. Citing a range of data and surveys, the report notes that while the overwhelming majority of Dutch people - 82 percent - as well as strong majorities in Sweden (71%) and Denmark (69%) are in favour of same-sex marriage, this drops to 14 percent in Cyprus, 12 percent in Latvia and 11 percent in Romania at the other end of the scale.
Additionally, while in the Netherlands 91 percent of the population feels comfortable with having a homosexual as a neighbour, in Romania only 36 percent of people are of the same opinion.
The attitudes of politicians vary widely as well, in particular in the case of the right to freedom of assembly. Pride parades and human rights demonstrations have been obstructed in a number of member states either by public authorities or by "counter-demonstrator" attacks. Such incidents were reported in five member states (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Romania).
In these, and in six additional Member States (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Italy and Malta), calls for improving the rights of LGBT people "have invariably been met with negative responses from some politicians and representatives of religious institutions or groups."
Such marches have been met with bans or administrative impediments notably in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, while in some member states, public authorities have not been able, or willing, to ensure the safety of participants in LGBT demonstrations from attacks by counter-demonstrators. Within the last five years attacks of this kind have occurred in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria. Such incidents were often accompanied by homophobic public statements or hate speech from political leaders.
The report contrasts this situation with that in other, mainly western member states, recording that LGBT organisations celebrate pride events often with the participation of government ministers, political parties, and, in some cases, religious organisations, notably in the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Spain, and France.
Meanwhile, across Europe, refugees seeking asylum from persecution in countries beyond the EU because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are often not believed or simply rejected, even if in the country from which they fled homosexuality is a crime.
There are significant differences in the social situation of LGBT people within member states as well, not just amongst them. Older people, men and the less educated tend to have more negative attitudes, and people across the board tend to react more negatively toward the idea of gays and lesbians caring for or teaching children or as close relatives than they do to the idea of them as friends or doctors. Young people meanwhile are the most affected by hate crimes and bullying, and lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to experience sexual assaults or assaults in private settings than gay or bisexual men.
One Polish woman quoted anonymously by the report said: "A group of young people from my town have harassed me many times to 'persuade' me that there is no place for lesbians here. They've assaulted me verbally and physically. Once, I was beaten, too. They threatened that they would rape me to show how good it is to be with a man, because I need a man."
Attitudes towards transgendered people are significantly more negative compared to attitudes towards lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.
The perpetrators are usually young men in groups. In recent years there have been several accounts of deadly assaults on transgender persons, and there are several examples of extreme right-wing groups harassing or attacking people, including incidents in Sweden, Poland, Estonia and Italy.
More sensitively, victim accounts sometimes identify ethnic minorities as perpetrators of anti-LGBT violence, the report says. Quoting a Dutch survey on Amsterdam, young men of Moroccan origin were over-represented as suspects of anti-gay violence.
Islam not to blame
However, these perpetrators of anti-gay violence are not inspired by religious beliefs, says the report, citing the Dutch survey. "Those ... who are Muslim have only a superficial knowledge of the Koran and rarely go to mosque. The motives of the Moroccan perpetrators are almost the same as those of the indigenous Dutch perpetrators: views and emotions regarding sex and gender ...Their over-representation is due to the street culture of the areas where many Moroccan boys live."
The report also warns that most member states lack the necessary tools for reporting attacks to the police, such as self-reporting forms or third party and assisted reporting. Police officers are not adequately trained to identify and deal with hate crime.
Finally, the report finds there to be "significant challenges" in the realm of sport, with homophobia expressed in different ways, both in fan culture and among athletes, and homophobic language is used to ridicule opponents or referees. Sporting associations, it laments, have only a limited focus on placing homophobia on the anti-discrimination agenda especially compared to otherwise quite robust efforts to tackle racism in sport.