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LGBT Europeans must be ‘tough and tougher’ for equal rights

Michael Cashman, Co-President of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights, speaks to GSN about the next European country to legalize gay marriage, gay rights in the European Union versus the United States and the economic benefits of LGBT rights
Michael Cashman, West Midlands MEP and co-president of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights, speaks to GSN about marriage equality and freedom of movement for all LGBT people.

In theory, all European citizens and residents should be able to safely travel and live throughout the EU.

Several economic and political policies of the European Union, such as the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, safeguard the free movement of people between the 27 member states.

In practice, however, regional laws and agreements sometimes fall short of ensuring for LGBT people the same rights enjoyed by all other European citizens and residents in the EU.

The refusal of some EU member states to recognize same-sex marriages and partnerships illuminates just one of several legal and social obstacles faced by the LGBT community in the region.

Two women legally married in the Netherlands could potentially lose child custody or partner pension rights if they moved to Ireland or Romania.

Anti-discrimination laws also fall under the necessary protections for the free movement of individuals. Many member states’ homo- and transphobic position stand in the way of the most basic freedoms for many LGBT people.

Transgender individuals, arguably the most discriminated against group within the LGBT moniker, register some of the highest unemployment and underemployment rates throughout the region. In a June 2012 report where the European Commission published a report on the discrimination of trans and intersex people, only 31% of trans respondents claimed full-time employment.

The European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT Rights, a group comprised of regional Members of European Parliament (MEPs), monitors and works with leaders throughout the EU on issues connected to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Gay Star News spoke to Intergroup co-president and Britain's West Midlands MEP Michael Cashman about how the Intergroup works with groups and governments alike for the rights of LGBT people in Europe and beyond.

GSN: It seems Western Europe has had an easier time in terms of integrating pro-gay legislation compared to Eastern Europe. What do you make of this imbalance?

MC: I’ve always found it surprising that countries that lived under Soviet governation and oppression couldn’t be lectured on how to defend and fight for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

I have detected since, in countries from central and Eastern Europe that enter the EU, that there has been a considerable shift in their rhetoric, specifically in their anti-LGBT and anti-women rhetoric. It’s been replaced by a greater awareness of the defence of human rights of groups and individuals and we see more and more in those countries alongside us in support of LGBT rights.

Is there any legislation that can be proposed to smooth the transition to a greater awareness of human rights?

In terms of what we can do as the EU, we have the legal base that we operate on: no discriminative elements within member states’ criminal law. Most of them have dealt with that. We’re having problems at the moment with countries like Lithuania and Latvia, where they’re trying to bring in a law that originated with Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988 banning the so-called promotion of homosexuality, or as they call it homosexual propaganda for the protection of minors.

I’m afraid that this is absolute proof of what Shakespeare said: ‘The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones’. There is a kind of a trend that is being agitated for using children as the emotional excuse or emotional shield for the homophobic legislation.

The other issue we’re dealing with is increasing religious extremism, from primarily the Orthodox or Catholic Church standing in the way of legal equality and social justice.

As I said, we have the legal base, we have certain laws where discrimination is forbidden. For instance, in the workplace and vocational training, we’ve got the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is a declaration of what member states should aspire to.

But then we’ve got the political tool which is bringing pressure to bear on those countries where we see them either going way from basic European values or we feel we need them to go further. That’s where we get into the whole freedom of movement discussion. Arguably, what we’re talking about is respect for same-sex couples, the mutual respect of the rights that they’ve inherited from one country, which if they go to another, will be diminished.

We do not have at the EU level the legal competence to deal with that that is the sole power of the member state. This is where we’re trying to get traction, we’re trying to move member states to positions that they should be at and it’s why were trying to get more and more increasing mutual recognition between different EU states so that de facto you end up with hopefully a majority of states that recognize same-sex partnerships, same-sex marriage, and the rights that go with it, and therefore people can fully enjoy their freedom of movement.

Some European and Latin American countries that haven’t legalized gay marriage are now starting to recognize ‘foreign’ same-sex unions. In the EU, where the Intergroup is striving for cross-border recognition of same-sex marriages, how do you ensure the protection couples’ rights where gay marriage is not yet legal?

Well, we can’t. All we have are the political tools: calling for more and more action, comments, controlling by the European commission because marriage and laws around marriage are the sole province of member states. The potential of going to the Courts of Justice or European Court of Human Rights, separate from our institutions, is encouraging them to get to a position.

Increasingly, what you’ve just referred to where in some places though it’s not legal, some member states not currently in the EU will begin to see the wisdom of recognizing rights accrued in another country.

When I think back to the UK, one must remember that when the Greater London Authority under London's former Mayor Ken Livingston introduced the concept of legal partnerships, they had nothing other than signing up for a same-sex partnership. It had no real rights in law, but it began as a blue print that the country then turned into legal civil partnerships.

Our arguments have to be that we believe to have freedom of movement, and if your rights are not respected because of your marital status, then you no longer have freedom of movement and arguably that is something one could take to the European Court of Justice.

In the mean time, we’ve got to encourage member states to go down that route themselves: adopting laws affording civil partnerships and same sex marriages. I think Malta is one of the next countries to begin considering that.

There are now eight European countries where gay marriage is legal. France is expected to join in 2013. Do you foresee any other countries implementing pro-gay legislation, be it gay marriage or transgender rights?

At the moment I don’t see much of a trend. That just means there’s all the more reason for us to call for it: to highlight what’s necessary, to work with those NGOs to increase the call for addressing people’s equality. We don’t believe in equality for some. We believe in the context of equality.

In the middle of the economic downturns, that is when people’s rights tend to get pushed to the margins. That’s why I was extremely pleased that we took a very strong step about a month ago in Strasbourg when we passed the resolution on LGBT rights, as well as condemning the rise of Soviet policies associated with it.

The intergroup is a dedicated liaison between governments and civil society. What role do you feel the Intergroup plays to encourage or hold non-member states accountable to LGBT rights?

I think we can best do that by references to our free trade agreements with the African, Caribbean and Pacific group of States (‘ACP countries’). We have the Cotoneau Agreement that includes human rights clauses. When we see there are abuses or potential abuses we work through our EU embassies, the external action service, to make representations at the highest level.

We can then also through the joint delegations that we have here. So in like Russia-EU delegations, we can make representations direct to the PM and president when we need them. Using Russia as an example, we can also reach out to Russian parliamentarians, equally calling on through debates and urgencies for actions to be taken.

Often what we also do is work behind the scenes diplomatically. What is crucial for a good outcome is to work always on the advice of those NGOs in the country, because otherwise issues can be exacerbated and apart from helping, you can sometimes give the opposition to LGBT issues their legitimacy for the state-doting and cracking down on LGBTI communities.

I’m working closely with ex-leaders of government, like with Tony Blair to ensure where he has contacts that they’re all used and working with other leaders. Using all of the tools, including quiet diplomacy and when advised using megaphone diplomacy.

I’m interested in how LGBT rights in the EU compare with those in the US. How do you feel that comparison could develop in the future?

Should I say it all depends on the next election? Romney had said something positive, which is unusual, about LGBT rights, but my hope has to be that the Obama administration will completely win.

The comments from both vice-president Biden and the president fully endorsing gay marriage are to be whole-heartedly welcomed.

I remember in the 60s when I looked to America as the beacon for hope and advance, and we each of us play catch up, but none of us can rest until globally we have achieved equality because one has to always fight on the basis of what is right. And only once we remove the difference and discrimination can we each of us pack up, go home, and get on with our private lives, which is what we’d love to do.

You mentioned previously using quiet versus megaphone diplomacy. We see now that multi-national corporations can promote LGBT legislation within certain countries using financial encouragement or regional cooperation policies like the Cotonou agreement. Which of these do you feel is most effective?

I think we have to use our full arsenal. In parts of Africa where quiet diplomacy and public denouncements haven’t worked, we need to resort to commercial harm, and the harm to hinder commercial investment development in those countries that such attitudes actually create.

The regional approach, as with any agreement like Cotonou, are only effective if they’re enforced. That’s why I’ve been making a lot of noise about the fact that I’m deeply worried about certain countries and the commitment that comes within the Cotonou agreement. I see it as my job to make their lives difficult, privately and quietly, and then as soon as I see them stepping over the line, I will call on the Commission to invoke the necessary procedures and, if necessary, to suspend trade that goes on between us.

Otherwise we develop a new type of Marxism, Groucho-Marxism: these are my principles and if you don’t agree with them, I’ll change them. Absolutely that is no way to conduct business. If human rights are undermined in any way, we need to invoke them with all the force and vigour that is necessary.

Would you say that trade restrictions would be the final line to ensure accountability?

I think there are other measures because, as we saw when in the UK it was suggested that we would suspend aid to certain countries to respect LGBT human rights, the danger is you make it worse for the LGBT community there. They are given a legitimate reason to scapegoat them.

I think there are other measures we can take. Diplomatic as well as bringing in restrictive measures on needing to resolve issues before projects are completely finalized. I think it’s not outside the wit and wisdom of diplomats and politicians to put the pressure on to resolve these issues and I think that in a way we’ve created the problem ourselves. We believed that we needed to be careful with them, they’ll catch up, the cultures will change and that’s absolutely wrong.

We should’ve been harder a few years ago and that’s why we’ve got to be tough and tougher.

Arguably one of the toughest topics is transgender rights. Some countries are allowing gender identity laws, but not marriage laws. How do you feel these states account for the difference?

I think they’ve gone around the context that they feel somehow trans issues are just about a whim or a choice. There’s little recognition that it’s intrinsic to the human individual.

We need to do more and more work for the integrity and dignity of the individual. Where there is discrimination, it needs to be removed.

There’s absolutely no reason for discrimination. It just diminishes the society in which it is practised and achieves absolutely nothing. As we’ve made progress in the LGB areas, the ‘T’ and the ‘I’ now need to become part of the equation.

We can’t walk away just because rights have been achieved for some. It’s got to be achieved collectively. It has to be achieved for the other, even if the other is biometrically opposed to you. The defence of the other has to be absolutely respected.

What areas of opportunity do you see in the relationship between civil society and government? 

I think at the European level, in the short-term, we need to ensure that the directive preventing discrimination on the grounds of access to goods and services, that that becomes a reality.

Then I would like to see a neutral recognition achieved for same-sex partnerships, and I think that will go towards addressing the current inequalities we deal at the EU level.

Working with what I call third countries, countries outside the EU, we must work on removing the criminalization of LGBT people. It is vital if we’re to help move them toward the whole concept of non-discrimination. I think that has to be the way.

Especially in tough economic times, money talks. Can you discuss the economic implications of LGBT rights?

First of all, I’ll touch on it in a different way: equality costs nothing. Allowing people to achieve their amazing, unique, extraordinary or mundane potential means that individuals will operate more effectively within our communities, societies, at home or at work.

On the commercial side, giving people rights, treating people equally, allowing them to feel freed, means we will always get the best from people.

What does it mean in the commercial sense? If companies or countries have a discriminatory approach to people on the basis of difference, eventually those people will choose to remove themselves from that country or company, if they’re lucky.

To attract the best, and to keep the best, we need to celebrate difference, and support it. Especially, whether it’s about a local team, or national community. That celebration of difference means diversification gives you strength, not weakness.
 

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