Europe is often considered to be today’s most LGBTI1-friendly continent. The European Union (EU) attaches great importance to human rights and supports equality for everyone, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people. However, recognition of LGBTI minorities varies greatly across European states.2 In many EU member states, LGBTI people still run the risk of discrimination and harassment in their everyday life.3 This article provides an overview of the acceptance and diffusion of LGBTI rights in the European Union, focusing on same-sex civil union, parenthood and public opinion. (Featured Image © Gilbert Baker)
Same-Sex Civil Union
Today, twenty-three European countries offer same-sex couples some kind of legal recognition, from providing limited rights to unregistered domestic partnerships to opening up registered partnerships and civil marriage.4 The development of legal rights for same-sex couples started in Denmark in 1989, when it introduced registered partnerships for gay couples, which soon spread to other Nordic countries.5 In the year 2000, the Netherlands became the first country to allow civil marriage for same-sex partners.6 In the following years, eleven other European countries also opened up civil marriage to gay couples: France, Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland). Finland will join this list in 2017.7 Although the Slovenian parliament approved same-sex marriage in March 2015, the bill was later rejected in a referendum in December 2015.8
The development of legal rights for same-sex couples started in Denmark in 1989.
Scholars identified several domestic factors that explained last decades’ rapid and widespread diffusion of same-sex union policies, such as socio-cultural change, the HIV-AIDS crisis, LGBTI movements and the nature of party politics.9 Next to domestic factors, it is also in part the result of international influences, for example transnational learning, elite lesson-drawing and policy harmonization within the EU.10 This refers to processes in which national policymakers draw on foreign experience to propose programs that can deal with domestic problems.11 An important actor stimulating the acceptance of LGBTI legislation is the European Court of Human Rights, producing case law which enlarges rights for LGBTI’s.12 Nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether the European trend of expanding rights for LGBTI people will trickle down to new member states, where opposition is strong.13
The topic of parenthood remains controversial in a large part of the European Union. In states as Italy, Greece and Ireland, cultural en religious resistance is very big.14 Furthermore, in those states that are favorable to same-sex civil unions, opening up civil marriage does not automatically mean that LGBTI partners can also be parents, whether by way of adoption or through other means. Only a few countries in the European Union acknowledge parenthood of partners of same-sex couples: Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands.15
Only a few countries in the European Union acknowledge parenthood of partners of same-sex couples.
The fact that other European Union member states have different levels of legal protection for ‘rainbow families’ (family groups composed of LGBTI parents and their children), can cause serious problems.16 A striking illustration is the way in which rainbow families can be denied the freedom of movement of persons and their families within the European Union, one of the fundamental principles of the EU. In her article on this subject, Elena Faletti (2014) cites the example of a couple of lesbian mothers, one Italian and one Spanish, who legally married in Spain and gave birth to a son through a process of in vitro fertilization, with the Italian women donating the egg and the Spanish women giving birth to the child. When they moved to Turin in Italy and wanted to register their son at the local registry office, the municipality of Turin refused the inscription of the child. They did so because Italian law does not allow such kind of fertilization, nor does it recognize same-sex marriage celebrated abroad or any kind of parent-child relationship founded on same-sex parenthood. Therefore, ignoring the European Union’s human rights guidelines, this child simply does not exist for the municipality of Turin and the Italian legal system.17 Similar situations could arise in many other parts of the European Union.18
Ignoring the European Union’s human rights decisions, this child simply does not exist for the municipality of Turin and the Italian legal system.
Concerning the acceptance of LGBTI rights, experts discern an East-West divide in the European Union, with Eastern countries being overwhelmingly opposed to Western LGBTI laws.19 The ILGA-Europe20 rating of European countries shows the bigger picture of LGBTI acceptance in 49 European countries.21 Especially in the Baltics, discrimination against LGBTI people remains an everyday reality – even though Estonia approved legislation legalizing civil unions for gay couples in September 2014.2223 In March 2014, the Lithuanian Parliament deliberated upon a law that would levy harsh fines against persons who publicly violate the traditional view on family values. The proposal did not receive enough support, but it remains on the political agenda as it has been postponed for reconsideration at a later date.24
The country that currently scores the highest on LGBTI acceptance is Malta, which toppled the UK as Europe’s number one.25 Same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Malta, but it did introduce civil unions equal to marriage in all but the name, opening-up joint adoption for same-sex couples.26 Malta became the first country to outlaw surgery on intersex babies (born with a sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions of female or male27) and to introduce LGBTI-inclusive education.28
Especially in the Baltics, discrimination against LGBTI people remains an everyday reality.
In 2013 the EU published the results of an online survey of LGBTI persons’ experience of discrimination, violence and harassment.29 It provides evidence of how LGBTI people experience bias-motivated discrimination, with many hiding their identity or avoiding specific locations out of fear.30 A fifth of all respondents said they had been victims of harassment which happened partly or completely because they were perceived to be LGBTI in the year before the survey.31 Two thirds of respondents indicated that they avoid holding hands in public with a same-sex partner, out of fear of begin assaulted, threatened or harassed for doing so.32
Two thirds of respondents indicated that they avoid holding hands in public with a same-sex partner, out of fear of begin assaulted, threatened or harassed for doing so.
It is clear that there remains much work to do in the European Union in order to ensure the protection of fundamental rights of LGBTI persons. Forms of legal protection vary greatly from nation to nation, as does public opinion on this subject. ILGA Europe underlines how ending social and legal discrimination which LGBTI people face is a long struggle with many challenges.33 The day when LGBTI persons can live their lives without any fear of being discriminated against, still seems far away.