We may not remain silent
President Barack Obama called veteran NBA star Jason Collins to express his support and appreciation, a few hours after the latter disclosed publicly that he is gay.
In his inauguration speech last January, President Obama felt it necessary to highlight the need for equal rights for homosexual people:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still… Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law… for, if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
With these words, Obama was writing history as no other President had hitherto declared support for the struggle of equal rights for homosexual citizens in the Presidential inauguration speech.
These public declarations are important to eliminate stereotypes and prejudices that hinder us in our development as strong and resilient societies that embrace diversity, making it possible for all people to give their best in their own way, for the benefit of all.
It seems that we are far away from this eventuality though. A survey, conducted by the EU-Fundamental Rights Agency, shows us this. This was the largest and most comprehensive survey of its kind which included about 93,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, aged 18 and over, from across the EU and Croatia.
The respondents were asked about their experiences of discrimination, violence, verbal abuse or hate speech on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Participants also answered questions on where such incidents took place, such as at school, work, when seeking healthcare or in public places.
Half of all respondents said that they felt they were discriminated against or harassed on grounds of sexual orientation in the year before the survey.
In every country surveyed, two-thirds of respondents had witnessed negative comments or conduct towards LGBT colleagues while at work.
A third declared that they felt they were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation in at least one of these sectors: housing, healthcare, education, social services and access to goods and services.
Sixty per cent of respondents said that they had experienced negative comments or conduct at school because they were LGBT.
Over 80 per cent of all respondents had witnessed negative comments or conduct because a schoolmate was perceived to be LGBT.
Two-thirds said they often or always hid the fact that they were LGBT when at school.
In the last five years, 26 per cent of all respondents had been attacked or threatened violently. In the case of transgender respondents, the figure rises to 35 per cent. With regard to the past year, 59 per cent said that the last attack or threat of violence occurred because they were perceived to be LGBT.
These results continue to prove that equality before the law – as some of the participant member states have advanced legislation in place – does not lead to social acceptance, to changes in attitude, but shows us that a lot needs to be done on education for a change in culture. This is the most difficult part.
The survey results show that we must ensure that LGBT students are safe at school as this is where exclusion, negative experiences and prejudices often begin. Although, in many cases, there are similar attitudes at home.
Thus, awareness campaigns and policies against homophobic bullying are of the essence. Action is necessary to address the difficulties LGBT people face in their everyday life so that they can enjoy their basic rights.
We must counter harassment and hate crimes, which result in LGBT people living in fear as an everyday reality.
In order to highlight the situation, European ministers met in The Hague on the occasion of the international day against homophobia to highlight the need for a comprehensive policy approach at European Union level on LGBT issues, aiming at “improving human rights and mainstreaming equality for LGBT people”.
We signed a call whereby we pointed out that “EU action is necessary to coordinate and promote efforts at the EU level and share good practice, to support efforts at the national level in order to make progress towards a Europe free from homo- and transphobia.
Taking action to prevent discrimination and providing remedies can make a difference not only for the millions of LGBT citizens in Europe, but for all”.
Action must be taken seriously for, as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pointed out in a message read out on the day by Navanethem Pillay (the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), “for generations, LGBT people in all regions have been subjected to terrible violence on account of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They have been treated with contempt, derision and discrimination. They have been made to feel anything but free and equal. For far too long, their suffering was met with silence in the halls of power”.
Helena Dalli is Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties.