Europe Targets Homophobia

Key issue is code’s enforcement in east by Euro Commmission in Brussels

The European Parliament at the French city of Strasbourg—following an extraordinary and extensive debate devoted entirely to the topic of prejudice against gays—has voted by an overwhelming majority to “strongly condemn” homophobia as “as an irrational fear and aversion of homosexuality and of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people based on prejudice, similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism.”

The resolution also called on the European Union’s member states to provide gay people “the same respect, dignity, and protection as the rest of society.”

The resolution, which passed 469-129 on January 18, was introduced by the five largest political groups in the Parliament, including both left and conservative parties, and steered by the Europarliament’s Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights. It took note of “a series of worrying events [that] has recently taken place in a number of EU Member States as widely reported by the press and by NGOs, that have ranged from banning gay prides or equality marches to leading political and religious leaders’ inflammatory/hate/ threatening language, police failing to provide adequate protection or even breaking up peaceful demonstrations, violent demonstrations by homophobic groups, introduction of changes in constitutions to explicitly prohibit same-sex unions.”

No countries were named, but Intergroup members made it clear the resolution was inspired by a wave of recent official homophobia in Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in particular.

The resolution called on member states of the European Union to implement—through laws and directives—a ban on discrimination in employment, housing, and a wide variety of sectors, and to implement education against homophobia in “schools and universities.” It also called “on Member States concerned to finally fully recognize homosexuals as targets and victims of the Nazi regime,” a response to the denial by many countries, including Germany, of compensation to gay victims of the Nazi concentration camps. And the Europarliament committed itself to “organizing a seminar for the exchange of good practices [against homophobia] on the 17th of May (the International Day against Homophobia.)”

While passage of the resolution was an extremely im-portant symbolic victory for gays and lesbians, the Euro-parliament actually has limited powers—the real power in the European Union re-sides in the European Commission, headquartered in Brussels. Whether and how the Commission will implement the resolution is an open question—and the Parliament’s Intergroup on Gay and Lesbian Rights has scheduled a meeting in early February with the European commissioner for justice, Franco Frattini of Italy, an appointee of ultra-right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, to discuss concrete steps.

Intergroup vice president Sophie in ‘t Veld, an MEP from the Netherlands, told Radio Netherlands, “All the member states have signed up to the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, all the member states have signed the EU treaty which explicitly prohibits discrimination, but some of them don’t seem to realize that that means they will actually have to implement it.”

Another Dutch MEP, Joke Swiebel, was blunt in an interview with U.K. Gay News after the vote. “The [justice] commissioner, Mr. Frattini, was a big disappointment,” she said. “His opening remarks were very formal, low key, and uninspired. He just gave a summing-up of the ongoing policies of the European Commission and used community competences to hide his unwillingness to take a firm stand against homophobic acts in the Member States. He underlined he could only act if there was an infringement of EU legislation. MEPs were very critical of him, and rightly so. Apparently, he was very annoyed by the MEPs critical questions.”

Swiebel added, “He said the MEPs had not done their homework: what they asked for—a uniform, horizontal anti-discrimination law – was already in place. In fact, I can tell you this is not true. He also tried to tell the Parliament that homophobia was already been monitored—another blunder… All subterfuges from a commissioner who should know better. It is this beating about the bush that makes people sick of politicians.”

One of the more dramatic and emotional moments in the Europarliament’s debate came when British Labour Party MEP Michael Cashman, after expressing to Commissioner Frattini his “disappointment” at his remarks, used the occasion to declare his homosexuality.

“I am gay. I am a homosexual,“ Cashman said, “born to an ordinary man and woman. Because of that, some people will wish to take away my right to talk about my sexuality, to celebrate my 22-year relationship, and to be part of a wider community. Some would vilify me, take away my democratic rights, and use hate-speak against me. I could decide to go on a gay pride march, but that gay pride march could be banned. Why? Because society is preoccupied with what it perceives as my sex life. A judgment has been made on it. Where is the morality in that? Where is the morality in preaching and promoting discrimination and hatred, sometimes behind the shield and the excuse of religion or belief?”

Cashman continued, “I say to Commissioner Frattini and the entire Commission, as well as to this House, that if we do nothing when we see people beaten to death, vilified, and discriminated against, then we are condoning and becoming complicit in those beatings, in the hate-speak, the defamation, and the ill-treatment.

“Even in the United Kingdom, where enormous advances have been made, a young man was kicked to death just before Christmas for no other reason than he was homosexual. If this House does nothing, then it is party to every single blow that was rained upon that individual and other men like him and on gay women across the European Union.”

In the period following the Europarliament’s passage of the anti-homophobia resolution, the Catholic Church led the charge against it. On January 24, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope’s vicar for Rome, who is also the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, branded the resolution ‘’part of moral pressure aimed at weakening the very cornerstones of our civilization’’.

And Aldo Giordano, the secretary-general of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, told Vatican Radio, “The declaration shows an aversion for certain values of our tradition, notably religious values. Such resolutions risk delegitimizing the European Parliament.”

But the resolution was hailed by gay and human rights advocates in the targeted countries. In Latvia, “The situation is a bleak one,” Ilze Brands Kehris, director of the Latvian Center for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies, told Deutsche Welle radio. “It’s absolutely essential that we have these kinds of reactions internationally… The Soviet period blocked any kind of development on tolerance issues. You have to activate civil society in coalition with the international signals to bring change over time in Latvia.”

And Robert Biedron of the Warsaw-based Polish Campaign Against Homophobia, agreed, saying, “When you hear from the prime minister that homosexuality is abnormal, that we should be cured, that they will try to cure us by force, this is quite frightening.”

But while welcoming the resolution, German gay rights acti-vist Jörg Litwinschuh said that it is only worth something if actions follow. “If nothing changes, sanctions have to happen,” he told Deutsche Welle.

Litwinschuh is the executive director of a consortium of German scientists and celebrities that plans to reopen the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute, the world’s first center to study homosexuality, which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. He said that he was particularly pleased that the resolution also called for “full recognition of homosexuals as targets and victims of the Nazi regime.” A big step in that direction was already taken last week, when Berlin—under its openly gay Mayor Klaus Wowereit—announced plans to build a national memorial for homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad .com/ direland/.