LGBTIQ Equality in Europe

Michael O’Flaherty, Director, EU Agency for Fundamental Rights
Rainbow flag being carried down a street
tj samuelsEyeEm © adobestock.com, 2021
FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty set the scene at the high-level conference on LGBTIQ Equality in the EU on 12 April 2023 in Stockholm, Sweden. His speech focuses on the experiences of LGBTIQ people and highlights what needs to be done to achieve LGBTIQ equality across Europe.

Minister, State Secretary, Commissioner, dear friends, I am very grateful for the invitation to join you, and I want to thank the Swedish Presidency for the leadership it has shown in hosting us for this event.

Last week in New York, the UN convened a meeting to discuss the recently passed bill of the Ugandan Parliament that it described as “the world's most extreme anti-LGBTIQ law”. That is a law which imposes the death penalty for certain sexual acts, that prohibits the so-called ‘normalisation’ of homosexuality, and that imposes a duty to report suspected homosexuals to the police. The law’s provisions have enormous consequences, not only for the LGBTIQ communities of that country, but for all those human rights defenders and others who stand up for them.

The Ugandan development is shocking in its own right, but it is also a chilling reminder of how bad things can get. Indeed, about how years of discrimination and exclusion create the conditions to normalise the gravest of human rights abuse. In other words, it is a reminder to all of us, including in the EU, of how bad things can get if we are not vigilant.

Here in the EU, we have much to be concerned about. Take just one reliable source; the latest report of the United Nations’ independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, issued last November. The expert focused on violations of just one human right, the right to health. The review was global, but there are references to some EU Member States. He described how pathologisation, stigmatisation and negation of LGBTIQ identities are drivers of cruelty, exclusion, violence, and invisibility. Rightly, he condemned the so-called ‘conversion therapies’, and he called out the so-called ‘clinics’ that purportedly offer services for people to regain their ‘normal sexuality’.

He described how discriminatory provisions of healthcare delivered deeply detrimental impacts for the physical and mental health, including increased exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, stress-related depression, increased risk of suicide, drug and substance abuse, as well as eating disorders.

Now, turning more specifically to the European Union. The latest rainbow map of ILGA-Europe clearly demonstrates and unpacks the extent of the challenges we face. On that map, a score of 100% represents what ILGA-Europe considers full compliance with the human rights of LGBTIQ persons. They report an EU average of just 48%, with thirteen EU Member States scoring less than 50%- including one EU Member State scoring 13%.

Sadly, data such as this echoes the repeated findings of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in the surveys that have already been referred to extensively. Most recently, the one we published in 2020 demonstrated in detail the patterns of discrimination and harassment, as well as the very low rates of reporting of such incidents to the authorities. That particular survey data demonstrates that abuse and discrimination are not the same for everybody. The experience is worse if you are trans, and still worse again if you are intersex. And the younger you are, the worse it gets.

And still, one of the most disturbing and surprising and shocking statistics repeated in our surveys is that it is still the case that there is no European street where more than half of LGBTIQ couples are willing to walk holding hands.

The evidence available to us, particularly in recent years, also shows how members of the LGBTIQ communities are hit particularly hard by crises in our society. My Agency has been looking closely at three such crises. The first is the current deep economic inequality, the second is COVID-19, and the third is the displacement of millions of people from Ukraine.

One further concern that I must mention is the persistent pressure imposed on human rights defenders and other groups working on LGBTIQ issues. We, at my Agency observe a high level of intensity across several EU Member States in terms of the pressure imposed on civil society. And, mark my words, this issue is existential, since we have no hope at all of building better, fairer countries without the partnership of and the cooperation with a thriving civil society.

What can we do? It is clear that we need a road map. And we are very fortunate in the EU that we have one. The LGBTIQ Equality Strategy is a most important and consequential initiative, and Commissioner Dalli deserves great credit for her leadership in putting the Strategy in place. It is a global good practice.

No less important is the set of guidelines for strategies and action plans to enhance LGBTIQ equality. This is what I would call the localisation instrument, the pathway to the development of national plans, without which the EU Strategy would be without arms and legs. I am very pleased that the Fundamental Rights Agency played a central role in the development of the guidelines and that its data underlies the Strategy itself.

Speaking of data, both the Strategy and the guidelines emphasise the need for evidence-based law and policy. Without the data, we are operating with blindfolds on. I take this opportunity to assure you that FRA will continue to undertake its surveys of the fundamental rights experience of members of our LGBTIQ communities, with the next edition due in 2024. We will go deeper in a number of areas, such as in the context of healthcare.

But my friends, it is not enough that the Fundamental Rights Agency does this work. We also need government-supported surveys and data-gathering at the national level. I applaud those States that are already committed to this essential work.

Friends and colleagues, as I conclude and as we begin the work of this conference and despite the challenges, I invite us to be hopeful. Things change, they get better. Here in Europe, for instance, we have achieved decriminalisation. We have achieved universal ages of consent. We have forms of, at least, civil union in most countries. And Fundamental Rights Agency surveys also show hopeful change. To take just one, the percentage of LGBTQI people who are open about themselves has shifted from 30% in 2012 to 50% in 2019. This is encouraging.

But of course, real hope is not about statistics. It is personal. It is something we draw from our own experience. For me, that hope is drawn from my experience of the transformation of my own country, Ireland. That is a country that moved in just a few short years from criminalisation to marriage equality. It is that experience that allows me to believe that we can overcome, we can realise a world with full respect for the human rights of everyone, in all of our marvellous diversity. I wish us all a very fruitful day of deliberation.

Thank you.