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European Ministers Agree on Gay Rights Policies

By L.K. Regan

A number of European nations have some form of legal protections for gays and lesbians, including, in some cases, marriage. But there has been no general policy on gay rights among the European Union member-states—until now. For the first time, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe—a body formed of Europe's foreign ministers that formulates policy responses to the challenges facing the European nations—has adopted a set of recommendations on battling anti-gay discrimination. And while the policy is not legally binding on the European states, it establishes a landmark set of goals and principles regarding LGBT rights.

The Council's recommendations begin with a recognition that, "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons have been for centuries and are still subjected to homophobia, transphobia and other forms of intolerance and discrimination even within their family—including criminalisation, marginalisation, social exclusion and violence—on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, and that specific action is required in order to ensure the full enjoyment of the human rights of these persons." In light of this, and the fact that, as the Committee writes, "human rights are universal and shall apply to all individuals," the Ministers offer a series of concrete recommendations for member-states.

The recommendations cover 46 concrete policies or actions governments should consider adopting, divided into 12 sections. Topics covered involve not only education and employment, but the "right to respect for private and family life," fairness in sports and housing, and equality in the right to seek asylum. Specific recommendations include the following:

  1. Equal protection: "Member states are encouraged to take measures to ensure that legal provisions in national law prohibiting or preventing discrimination also protect against discrimination on multiple grounds, including on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity; national human rights structures should have a broad mandate to enable them to tackle such issues."
  2. Hate crime laws: "Member states should ensure that when determining sanctions, a bias motive related to sexual orientation or gender identity may be taken into account as an aggravating circumstance."
  3. Health: "Member states should take appropriate legislative and other measures to ensure that the highest attainable standard of health can be effectively enjoyed without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity; in particular, they should take into account the specific needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the development of national health plans including suicide prevention measures, health surveys, medical curricula, training courses and materials, and when monitoring and evaluating the quality of health-care services."
  4. Private and family life: Though it does not recommend legalizing gay marriage per se, the Council does, in three separate passages, ask that member states equalize the rights and responsibilities of same-sex and opposite-sex couples, whether married or not. For instance, "Where national legislation does not recognise nor confer rights or obligations on registered same-sex partnerships and unmarried couples, member states are invited to consider the possibility of providing, without discrimination of any kind, including against different sex couples, same-sex couples with legal or other means to address the practical problems related to the social reality in which they live."
  5. Sports: "Homophobia, transphobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity in sports are, like racism and other forms of discrimination, unacceptable and should be combated."
Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, said in a statement, "This is an important step. This recommendation is in fact the first legal text in the world to specifically address one of the most durable forms of discrimination and one of the most difficult to combat." Here's hoping that the European member-states sit up and take notice.