Increasing LGBT rights means decreasing intolerance, xenophobia and other discriminating behavior. The struggle for equality must therefore matter to us all. By Robert Biedroń
Europe is learning to become more tolerant of LGBT people. More and more countries debate LGBT rights and equality, embracing legal recognition of LGBT families. A huge re-thinking and reevaluation of traditional values is taking place, and the concept of the family is changing rapidly. Differences are perceived not as a threat but rather as an enrichment of European societies. However, this progress has been hampered by various manifestations of opposition.
When I was appointed General Rapporteur for the Rights of LGBT People of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I had no hesitation in choosing the protection of freedom of expression as the top priority of my mandate.
Homophobia is still a reality
There are several reasons for this choice, the most pressing being that freedom of expression is currently directly and grossly threatened by the bans on so-called homosexual propaganda enacted or proposed by several Council of Europe member states. This is clearly a reaction against increasing social and legal recognition of LGBT people and is based on homophobic and transphobic attitudes still at work in many countries.
But there are also other obvious, basic and long-term reasons. The right to freely express one's thoughts and opinions is a precondition for living in dignity. It is also a precondition for awareness and helps to create a more open and tolerant society. Being afraid of what we don't know may be part of human nature, but this fear leads in turn to prejudice and hostility, which is unacceptable. Therefore, it is crucial that everybody be able to express themselves freely and to say and show who they are and how they live.
Freedom of expression is also crucial to the development of young people, including in matters of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is important for them to know that there are different orientations and lifestyles, and that they should be free to live and express their identity without being stigmatized or facing discrimination. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people are no threat to our society: they are part of it. And they have always been.
Recognizing that LGBT individuals have the same rights as anyone else has a positive impact on society overall. This also applies to family rights: it is no coincidence that countries where same-sex marriage and adoption are allowed generally have fewer problems with intolerance, racism and xenophobia. Thanks to progressive laws, people's mindsets evolve.
Ironically, the limitations to freedom of expression set out in the laws against so-called homosexual propaganda are not only unlawful but end up harming the very people they claim they intend to protect, namely young people. Such limitations are actually a danger to society because they amplify prejudice and foster a climate of hostility and hatred against LGBTs, which could lead to an increase in violence against them, let alone to their isolation.
Nevertheless, flourishing LGBT movements in central and eastern Europe and the adoption of registered partnerships in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia have provided hope for further change. Today, nearly half of the Council of Europe member states officially recognize same-sex families, and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights reflects these current developments in the region.
I am happy to say that Poland can be considered a positive example of how rapidly change can happen in society. People's views have evolved significantly over the last 10-15 years. Although there is still no political will to introduce civil partnerships for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, the acceptance for same-sex civil partnerships is 10 percent higher than it was three years ago. This means that Polish society is gradually becoming more open and tolerant. The results of the 2011 parliamentary elections in Poland were a testimony to this trend, when Anna Grodzka and I became parliamentarians -- she as the first transgender person and I as the first openly gay man. This trend is not limited to Poland -- it is felt throughout central and eastern Europe.
On the right path
This may have been difficult in a country like Poland where the Catholic Church is still very influential both with voters and politicians. Nevertheless, step by step, we are changing this situation. In March 2013, the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe organized a conference in Warsaw, in cooperation with the Polish authorities, on freedom of expression for LGBT people. The very fact that this conference could take place in Warsaw was a symbol of the changes in central Europe. Only a few years ago, this would not have been possible.
In carrying out my European mandate, I can notice with great satisfaction that the situation is changing not only in Poland but in other countries of the region too. In November 2013, the first Pride march was held in the capital of Montenegro, with the support of the country's minister for human and minority rights. In January 2014, same-sex consensual relations were also decriminalized in the northern part of Cyprus. These examples prove that even though there is still a lot to do, Europe is becoming more tolerant, open and equal.
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