Ireland, where it's okay to be gay but tough to be trans
When Richard Kohler was nine he witnessed the transformation of a country. He was born in 1980 in the German Democratic Republic and his parents were active in the movement that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Accompanying his parents to demonstrations instilled in him what he calls a heritage. “It showed me how a very strong but determined crowd could change the world,” he says.
Kohler is the policy and capacity officer for Transgender Europe, an NGO working towards equality and inclusion of transgender people (the term for a person who feels they have been born to the wrong gender). He cites Slovenia and Ireland as the only two countries in Europe that fail to provide mechanisms to allow transgender people to change their gender legally.
The recently published Europe Rainbow Map details the human rights afforded to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, country by country. Ireland ranks 14th out of 48 European countries. While this makes us one of the safest places to live if you are lesbian, gay or bisexual, our record falls short on transgender rights.
A 2007 High Court ruling in the Dr Lydia Foy case found the State breached the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to provide gender-recognition laws.
The Gender Recognition Advisory Group reported to the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton in 2011. Although there is no legislation yet, the current proposals require people who want to attain recognition either to divorce their current spouse, accept a diagnosis of gender-identity disorder, or prove they have had gender-reassignment surgery. “Germany is much farther ahead than Ireland,” says Kohler. “Changing documents is possible and the requirements of sterilisation or forced divorce in order to have gender recognised are no longer there.”
Some of the most pressing difficulties for trans people in Europe are in the workplace. Kohler mentions a woman he knows who has not yet got gender recognition. “Her marker is still male and her employer won’t let her use the female bathroom – she has to go to a cafe next door. It’s one of the practical issues people deal with.”
With civil partnership and full civil marriage under debate, Ireland is an inspiration for Hungarian activist Tamas Dombos. “It’s incredible. We decriminalised homosexuality 50 years ago and here it’s been less than 20, but now Ireland has surpassed Hungary because of developments in community organisations and politicians taking up LGBT issues,” he says.
In Hungary, there have been more recent problems. In 2007, despite 12 years of peaceful Pride parades, right-wing protesters attacked marchers with vegetables, rocks and bottles. “We had quite violent counter demonstrations,” says Tamas, a member of the Háttér Society for LGBT people in Hungary.
Tamas says the rise of conservative political parties in his country has hindered LGBT rights. In recent years, police in riot gear have monitored the parade, often banning it and forcing the issue to court. “They ban it and then the courts overturn the decision. The argument is that the parade disrupts traffic,” he says.
Perhaps the most aggressive restriction of LGBT rights is in Russia, where recent anti-propaganda laws fine anyone engaged in “public activities to promote sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexualism”.
Russia is in the red zone on the Rainbow map, indicating “gross violations of human rights and discrimination”.
“It’s a problem, because what is propaganda or homosexualism?” says Kseniya Kirichenko, a lawyer from St Petersburg who runs legal assistance for Russia’s LGBT network. “Our traditional court defined propaganda as public dissemination of information that could be harmful for children, or information that could lead to deformed ideas about social equality of traditional and nontraditional marital relationships.”
In Russia, Pride parades fall into the propaganda category and have been banned since 2004. This year a Moscow court upheld a ban for the next 100 years. “It’s not actually possible to have a ban for 100 years. On formal grounds you cannot apply for a 100-year event, you can apply only one month before an event for permission,” says Kirichenko. Hate crimes and homophobic attacks have also increased in Russia.
In Lithuania, LGBT rights are also being pushed backwards. The country has antidiscrimination legislation, and permission was granted for its first Pride parade in 2010, but there are pending bills in parliament to outlaw “homosexual propaganda”.
“We don’t have civil partnership or public representatives who speak openly on LGBT issues,” says Vilma Gabreliute from the Lithuanian LGBT group House of Diversity and Education. With no sex education or support for LGBT youth in schools, coming out publicly at a young age is impossible.
Gabreliute says homophobia and sexism are rampant: “If a young person wants to come out they have nowhere to go.”
The Irish organisation BelonGTo has spearheaded youth support internationally and was praised by the UN as a global model for best practice. It provides education in schools and a safe space for young LGBT people.
Paulo Corte-Real, a professor of economics at Universidade Nova de Lisbona, says a similar programme is needed in Portugal. “There is nowhere for young people. If they come out or suffer violence at home they face admission to housing by the state. That is run mainly by religious groups.”
In 2010, Portugal became the sixth country in Europe to allow civil marriage for same-sex couples, an ironic consequence of the economic crisis. “The president announced he would allow it because it would take attention off economic issues,” says Corte-Real.
The interviews in this article took place at the recent conference hosted by the ILGA (Equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people in Europe)