LGBT Rights: Changing Hearts and Minds

How long will it take for legal equality to result in more actual tolerance?

Opinion | Philippe Schennach | June 2013

In the grand scheme of things, whom you love is your own business, a private matter. The things of politics lie elsewhere: armed conflicts, the spread of infectious diseases, poverty, hunger, and lack of accessible drinking water, all these are the pressing issues that plague the world’s populations and that societies must decide together.

Unless you are a homosexual. No matter that there are people like you in every society the world over. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) routinely face imprisonment, assault, intimidation and even death due to their sexual orientation.

And while there has been meaningful progress towards legal equality in recent decades that has improved conditions for LGBTs, to many, homosexuality remains immoral.

To alleviate discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, it is important to understand that these practices can be divided into de jure and de facto discrimination. In the U.S., the de jure (legal) discrimination of black people stem from the Jim Crow laws enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated racial segregation that enforced the subjugation of "negros" in America, under conditions that were massively inferior to those of whites. De facto (in reality) discrimination describes a situation in which unequal treatment is practiced in schools or at work or in the marketplace, regardless of laws to the contrary.

Thus, human rights movements generally proceed on two fronts. First, most will tell you, is to alter the legal framework. But even when barriers have been taken down, de facto discrimination often remains. Violence errupted on the streets of Paris  on 26 May as the police estimated some 150,000 people marched to protest the same-sex marriage bill, signed into law the previous week by President François Hollande.

As of May 2013, 13 countries (Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden) have legally affirmed the equality of same-sex couples, according to the British daily The Independent. By August 2013, Uruguay and New Zealand will follow.

As more countries agree on protecting the equal treatment of the LGBT community, will we practice what we preach?

Pursuing Happiness

Marriage is a common aspiration. The desire to form a bond with another person – one that is accepted by society – is deeply rooted. It is one of the defining rituals of the human life, and the foundation of family and community. To tell a group of people that the consensual love they share with their partner is illegitimate, ostracises them from the rest of society and can even alienate them from each other. Although such developments are encouraging, momentum is key in changing social norms.

A survey launched in 2012 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) provides valuable evidence of how LGBT people experience discrimination within the EU. With more than 93,000 responders from the EU and Croatia – the largest survey of its kind – more than a quarter (26%) reported being attacked or threatened with violence in the past five years.

In Austria, there are positive signs. While legal challenges remain, a surprising 49% of Austrians were in favour of same-sex marriage, according to a 2006 Eurobarometer survey, and a full 44% supported adoption by same-sex couples, placing Austria in 4th place Europe-wide.

Vienna’s Life Ball, held for the 21st time on 25 May, started as a small event by the local gay community and has since become Europe’s largest charity event supporting people with HIV and AIDS. Vienna’s Regenbogenparade (Gay Pride Parade) is also definitive as one of the largest yearly demonstrations in Austria, attracting over 100,000 people.

Nevertheless, LGBTs in Austria still face homophobia, particularly at school, as a startling 89% of responders in Austria claimed that they had heard negative comments or seen negative conduct toward a schoolmate perceived to be gay.

Educated support for gay marriage

Still, many see progress, what Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, head of FRA’s Division for Equality and Citizens’ Rights described as a "pattern across Europe, whereby things seem to be improving for the younger generation," who are often the strongest proponents of change.

According to a 2011 Gallup poll, a staggering 70% of 18 to 35 year-olds in the U.S. support the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Studies conducted in several countries have also indicated that people with higher levels of education are more likely to have a positive attitude towards gay marriage. Although these findings are promising, changing the hearts and minds of people will take time.

In hindsight, we may see the last decade as an era of sexual liberation, passing milestones to overcome the unfair treatment of a group of people that have become marginalised by their society and their government, for loving the wrong person.

Philippe Schennach is TVR Online Editor and is a regular contributor to The Vienna Review. He holds a BA in Politics and International Studies from Warwick University, and is completing an MA in East Asian Society and Economy. 

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