In the European Parliament, the Intergroup on LGBT Rights speaks out for a Europe that is united in sexual diversity, supporting equality for every man, woman, or those who identify otherwise. Internal Voices talked to the Vice-president of the Intergroup, Dutch MEP Sophie in 't Veld (ALDE) about the situation of LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) rights in Europe, the work of the Intergroup, problems surrounding the 2014 Olympics in Russia and her personal participation in Gay Pride marches.
"There is still a lot to be done, but the situation has improved a lot lately", In 't Veld says. "In most European countries, the attitude of people towards LGBTI groups and individuals has become more and more positive. Take Spain for instance, which used to be a conservative, catholic culture. Under Zapatero, Spain transformed itself, legalising same-sex marriage and legally recognizing transsexual identity. Some countries, such as Lithuania and Hungary, have seen no improvement or even a worsening of the situation. You can't literally battle these national laws, but as a united Europe, you can enhance pressure on national leaders for change."
As the largest group in the parliament, the Intergroup on LGBT rights seems well established. "Our power is mostly informal: we provide a platform for sharing opinions and we focus on getting a strong message across. As a parliamentary group we are very visible, well-functioning and with a focus on a very important subject".
The LGBT Intergroup has put LGBTI rights issues on the European agenda. With the support of fourteen member states and the European Parliament, the Intergroup has made a plan for a 'LGBTI rights roadmap', a strategy to combat homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Group also pushes for the inclusion of LGBTI rights in Commission reports, and enhances the visibility of LGBTI issues through events such as IDAHO (the International Day Against Homophobia). In 2012, it released the "It Gets Better" video, featuring numerous MEP's alongside Commissioners Cecilia Malmström , Andris Piebalgs, Neelie Kroes, László Andor, and Viviane Reding, and the Presidents of the European Parliament and the European Council, Martin Schulz and Herman van Rompuy. The video is designed to provide reassurance that the situation will get better for European Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex citizens.
The overall aim of these initiatives is to enhance the visibility of LGBTI rights.
In 't Veld speaks passionately about her work in the Intergroup. "One of the things that I find most exhilarating in our approach is marching in Gay Prides. Sometimes this can get quite intense. It's strange and frightening to walk in a Pride March and to be confronted by a mass of people who make it clear that they hate you. Don't these people have anything better to do on their Saturday afternoon? Despite the hateful crowds, it's wonderful to be there, as the local LGBTI groups and people tell you that they are truly happy that you are there to support them. There, you can see progress happening directly."
The ideals of the Intergroup are nice, but not everyone is willing to listen. Take Russia's laws on 'gay propaganda', for instance. In Russia, any sign of homosexuality, be it a poster, a rainbow flag or two people of the same sex holding hands, is seen as propaganda directed against traditional family values. Those breaking the law can be charged fines. Moreover, as the human rights situation in Russia worsens, violence against LGBTI individuals increases. "The problem is that the European Parliament has little power to do anything against the situation. The individual member states have more power, but are not speaking out", In 't Veld says. "What shocks me most is the attitude of the International Olympic Committee. They deny that there is a problem with Russia's role as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. I think we should be a lot more careful about safeguarding human rights during sports events, and not just in the case of LGBTI rights."
When asked if it frustrates her how little power the Parliament seems to have in dealing with major issues such as these, In 't Veld answers that it's all part of the game. "If you can't handle frustration, then you shouldn't be a politician."
Albert Meijer is a trainee at the European Commission in the Education, Culture & Audiovisual Executive Agency (EACEA)