Marking 15 years of Vienna’s LGBT anti-discrimination office

FRA Director Morten Kjaerum is giving a keynote speech at a conference celebrating 15 years of Vienna’s LGBT anti-discrimination office
FRA Director Morten Kjaerum is giving a keynote speech at a conference celebrating 15 years of Vienna’s LGBT anti-discrimination office
Vienna’s LGBT anti-discrimination office ‘is an excellent example of what cities and local authorities more generally can effectively and concretely do to promote and protect fundamental rights, including the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,’ said FRA Director Morten Kjaerum on 3 October. He was giving the keynote speech at a conference celebrating 15 years of Vienna’s LGBT anti-discrimination office (‘Antidiskriminierungsstelle für gleichgeschlechtliche und transgender Lebensweisen - WASt’), the first such office of its kind in Austria.

His opening remarks recognised how WASt symbolises Vienna’s fight against discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. He praised the city’s commitment, drive and openness to ‘make a difference’ to the lives of LGBT people, young and old.

He began by setting the scene, drawing on results from the Eurobarometer antidiscrimination survey of 2012. The survey measured attitudes and perceptions of Europeans towards discrimination across the EU amongst the general population. It found that for example around 40% of European and only a quarter of Austrian respondents have a gay, lesbian or bisexual friend. But as many LGBT people are not open about being LGBT to their friends many people may be simply unaware of the sexual orientation of their friends. Another finding pointed to how LGBT people are accepted by society. Six out of 10 Austrians would be comfortable with having a gay, lesbian or bisexual person appointed to the highest elected political position. They were less comfortable than having a woman or a person with a disability elected (8 out of 10). Transgender or transsexual people were among the least accepted groups in the survey (by only half of the respondents).

He then presented a quick overview of landmark developments in the last decade regarding the respect for fundamental rights of LGBT people in the EU. He spoke of the gradual move towards defining and further clarifying the fundamental rights of LGBT people giving the example of how the position of transgender people has evolved over time. He gave an example from 1986 of how a female to male transsexual complained that UK law did not recognise his new gender. The European Court of Human Rights dismissed his complaint. It took until 1992 in the case of B v France that the Court concluded for the first time that there had been a violation. However, as he later pointed out, areas such as opening civil marriage to same-sex couples and allowing adoption for unmarried same-sex couples provoke heated debate in some EU countries.

The FRA Director then followed with an outline of the work that FRA has carried out on the rights of LGBT people since 2007 with a particular focus on the results of the FRA EU LGBT survey (from May 2013) and what these results mean for the rights of LGBT people in Austria and the EU. In his speech, Mr Kjaerum focused on three areas: discrimination at work and in education; violence and harassment; and simply ‘being yourself’ in public.

The results showed that about a half of all respondents said that they had personally felt discriminated against or harassed on the grounds of sexual orientation in the year before the survey. The figure was about the same for Austria. One in five of those respondents in the EU and in Austria who were employed and/or looked for work in the year before the survey felt discriminated against. For transgender respondents it was one in three. In every country surveyed, two-thirds of respondents had witnessed negative comments or conduct towards a LGBT colleague while at work.

However, of relevance to Vienna’s anti-discrimination office, 90% of Austrian respondents did not report discrimination. This is a finding which FRA has also found in its research among other groups such as ethnic minorities, migrants and Jewish people.

Mr Kjaerum then spoke of what could be done to address such findings. He underlined the need for Member States to develop action plans promoting respect for LGBT people and for protecting their rights. Equality bodies and other complaint bodies should be given more support so they can raise rights awareness among LGBT people and what they can do when violations occur. And diversity and non-discrimination policies should also be encouraged and promoted at work through discussions with trade unions and employer organisations.

The FRA Director then spoke about the findings related to LGBT people at school. In Austria during schooling before the age of 18, 2 out of 3 LGBT respondents hid or disguised being LGBT at school. Nearly 60% personally experienced negative comments or conduct at school because they were LGBT while over 80% of all respondents in each LGBT group, and in every country, had witnessed negative comments or conduct because a schoolmate was perceived to be LGBT. He quoted one survey respondent who said: ‘Ten years later, I still consider being bullied at school the worst form of homophobic abuse I’ve ever been subjected to. … Bullying forced me to remain in the closet until I reached the age of 18.’ FRA believes this is why Member States need to ensure LGBT students feel safe at school. This could include LGBT awareness campaigns for teachers and pupils and policies against homophobic bullying.

The survey also revealed that LGBT violence and harassment is common across the EU. In the last five years, 26% of all respondents had been attacked or threatened with violence. This figure rises to 35% among transgender respondents. Of those who had experienced violence in the past year, 59% said that the last attack or threat of violence happened because they were perceived to be LGBT. In the year before the survey, 19% were victims of harassment which they thought was because they were perceived to be LGBT. Incidents most often took place outdoors in public places and were perpetrated by more than one person, usually male, whom the victim did not know.

He again referred to low levels of reporting: Only around one fifth of Austrian brought the most serious incidents of LGBT-motivated violence which had happened to them in the last five years to the police’s attention. He quoted one 42-year old French gay man who told us: “[I am] reluctant to report anything that might indicate that I am gay, as I know [the police] just dismiss everything.” As Mr Kjaerum put it: “All this shows that LGBT victims need recognition and protection EU-wide and nationally to counter harassment and hate crime that results in LGBT people living in fear. This could include police training and victim support services as well as laws against hate speech and hate crime.

The survey also looked at how LGBT people felt treated by society. The FRA Director began with a quote from the author Ernest Gaines: “Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” Such sentiments underlined some of FRA’s findings: Two-thirds avoid holding hands in public with a same-sex partner for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed for holding hands. This figure is three-quarters among gay and bisexual men respondents. And a half of all respondents avoid certain places for fear of being assaulted, threatened or harassed because of being LGBT. This particularly applies to public transport, on the street or in other public places, and in public buildings.

These results and FRA’s legal work underline the need for more work to be done at EU, national and local level to promote and protect the rights of LGBT people. Frontline staff are specially important as Mr Kjaerum said: “Public authorities and frontline professionals like teachers, the police, health workers and public officials all have a vital role to play here.” That’s why, he continued, FRA is currently interviewing public authorities and teachers, law enforcement staff and health workers, about the fundamental rights of LGBT people, focusing on employment, education, health, law enforcement and public policies.

The called on participants to continue to work together over the next 15 years to put an end to the feelings of fear, isolation and discrimination felt by many LGBT people. He concluded by acknowledging how much has been achieved but quoted a young transsexual male to underline that profound societal change is still needed: “The lack of help and understanding is too much to bear. Often I wish I was simply dead.