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Is Europe becoming more homophobic?

Gay Rights
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Gay pride in Toulouse, France – LGBT people in the Europe still face attacks Guillaume Paumie, under a CC License

A quarter of gay people say they have been attacked or threatened with violence during the past five years, according to major new poll of all European Union countries, plus Croatia. The figure for transgender people – 35 per cent – is even higher.

The survey, published to mark the International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May, might come as a bit of a shock to complacent Europeans who believe that homophobia ‘is no longer an issue’ thanks to equality legislation and a mainstreaming of gay culture.

Of the 93,000 people surveyed by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, 49 per cent said they had been discriminated against in the past year. Half of the 26 per cent who had been attacked or threatened with violence, said they did not report the incident because they did not think any action would be taken.

It’s often said that that younger people are more tolerant when it comes to sexual diversity. But experience at school for LBGT people in Europe suggests the opposite. Younger and poorer school students tended to get the worst of it, according to the survey. Two thirds of respondents admitted they tried to hide or disguise their sexuality when they were at school.

As might be expected, there were marked differences between the 37 European countries in the survey. The three with fewest attacks were Finland, Denmark and the Czech Republic. The three with most were Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

But there were some surprises too. British respondents reported more violence than their Spanish or Irish counterparts, in spite of the dominance of Catholicism in those countries. But then Italy had a far higher rate of attack.

Is Europe becoming more homo- and trans-phobic? In the absence of previous surveys of a comparable scale, it’s hard to tell.

But there are some alarming signs. In recent times, resisting the introduction of gay marriage has become a way in which the French nationalist Far Right can whip up populist support in ‘defence of heterosexual marriage’. In Britain, it’s not surprising that the increasingly popular nationalist UK Independence Party has made forays into homophobia, as the Coalition government attempts to change the law to allow for equal marriage.

Meanwhile, in Latin America, such European battles must appear regressive and distinctly Old World. In Argentina – the topic of a special report in next month’s New Internationalist – an equal marriage bill was passed with little fuss in 2010. Neighbouring Uruguay has just followed suit and Brazil appears to be next in line.

Homophobia can be a puzzling and unpredictable business. Frequently it is used to push other, unrelated-seeming, agenda. But I would suggest that the rise of the far right in Europe is looking increasingly ominous for sexual as well as ethnic minorities.

Vanessa Baird is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity (New Internationalist) and Sex, Love and Homophobia (Amnesty International).

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