By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Azerbaijan, Russia and Armenia are the worst countries in Europe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights, but violence against LGBTI people remains rife across the continent, a rights group said late on Sunday.
Some countries have made historic strides towards giving LGBTI people legal equality, but progress has been marred by rollbacks in eastern Europe, where LGBTI rights are increasingly condemned as contrary to traditional family values, ILGA-Europe said.
The group's annual Rainbow Map was launched on Sunday to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17, as an index that ranks European countries based on legal benchmarks for LGBTI equality.
Britain topped the index for the fourth consecutive year, followed by Belgium and Malta, one of the most improved countries in the past year, alongside Finland and Croatia.
"Homophobic and transphobic violence, hate speech and discrimination continue to be an everyday occurrence," said Joyce Hamilton, ILGA-Europe co-chair, part of The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Transgender people in Europe are discriminated against in aspects of life such as employment, education and healthcare, and still face widespread violence, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual and intersex people, the rights group said.
Attacks on LGBTI people have been reported in Britain, The Netherlands, Spain, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey, with transgender women and sex workers the most vulnerable, it found.
European governments are starting to adopt gender recognition laws, allowing transgender people to change gender legally without undergoing surgery and sterilization, procedures which are required in most nations in Europe, ILGA-Europe said.
Malta last month became only the second European nation, after Denmark, to allow transgender people to change their legal gender without medical or state intervention, and Poland, Norway and Ireland are reviewing the relevant legislation, it said.
Family and marriage equality rights also gained momentum as same-sex marriage was approved in Finland and enacted in Britain, while same-sex civil unions became legal last year in Andorra, Croatia and Estonia, the rights group said.
However other countries have adopted restrictive definitions of marriage, ILGA-Europe said, including Macedonia, whose constitution now defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, and Slovakia, which imposed a ban on same-sex marriage.
Opposition to LGBTI equality escalated in eastern Europe last year as politicians in several countries spoke out against LGBTI rights, according to the rights group.
Policies on equality were criticized as a "Western cradle of decay" by a politician in Lithuania and as "discrediting the institution of the family" in Belarus, it said.
Yet the growing visibility of LGBTI advocates in public, including the election of openly gay mayors in Poland and Turkey and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkvis coming out as gay on Twitter, was very encouraging, ILGA-Europe said.
"Now more than ever, Europe needs political leaders to work with and for LGBTI people," Hamilton said in a statement. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Tim Pearce)