October 26, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
European LGBT rights advocates gather in Croatia

Gay News, Washington Blade, State Department, Uzra Zeya

Uzra Zeya (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

Nearly 300 LGBT rights advocates from across Europe gathered in Croatia from Oct. 24-26 for ILGA-Europe’s annual conference.

Croatian President Ivo Jospović on Thursday welcomed those who attended the gathering in Zagreb, the country’s capital, in a video message.

“I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your courage and perseverance in the struggle for your right to be different, your right to be public and visible,” Jospović said.

Uzra Zeya, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department joined European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambrinidis, Portuguese LGBT rights advocate Miguel Vale de Almeida and other officials who spoke during the conference. Denis Dison of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, Russian LGBT rights advocates Igor Kochetkov and Polina Andrianova, Neil Grungras of the Organization for Refugee Asylum and Migration and Hilde Vossen of the European Bisexual Network are among the activists who attended the gathering.

“The exchange of experiences and policy development is highly beneficial to us in Europe, as the European societies as well as the national laws differ widely across the continent,” Søren Laursen of LGBT Denmark, a Danish advocacy group, told the Washington Blade. “The activists fighting the course need to understand the differences and learn the different political realities to be able to formulate policies. An ILGA-Europe conference is a big sharing experience.”

The ILGA-Europe conference took place less roughly five months after same-sex couples began to marry in France.

Gays and lesbians can also legally tie the knot in Portugal, Spain, Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

Same-sex couples will be able to legally marry in England and Wales in the spring, while Scottish lawmakers have begun to debate their own gay marriage measure. Irish voters next year will consider a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in the country.

Maltese parliamentarians earlier this month began to debate a measure that would allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions. A Croatian parliamentary commission on Thursday approved a December referendum on whether to amend the country’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

The upper house of the Dutch Parliament later this fall is expected to vote on a measure that would allow trans people to petition a judge to change their gender on their birth certificates, passports and other official documents without undergoing sterilization and sex-reassignment surgery.

Activists continue to combat homophobia, transphobia

Anti-LGBT discrimination and violence in Europe remains a serious concern in spite of these legislative advances.

Nearly half of the respondents who took part in a survey the European Union Agency for Human Rights conducted in E.U. countries in 2012 said they experienced anti-gay discrimination or harassment. A quarter of respondents said they experienced violence or were threatened during the past year — this figure increases to 35 percent among trans people who took part in the survey.

The annual ILGA-Europe conference took place less than a week after police in Montenegro clashed with protesters who sought to disrupt a Pride march in Podgorica, the country’s capital.

Hundreds of Serbian LGBT rights advocates late last month criticized their government’s decision to ban a Pride march in Belgrade because of what officials described as the threat of violence from anti-gay extremists.

The European Union and the governments of the Netherlands and other member countries have also repeatedly criticized Russia over its LGBT rights record that includes a law that bans gay propaganda to minors.

“Laws that validate discrimination, as we have seen in Russia, can lead to an increase in violence and harassment,” Zeya said during her speech at the ILGA-Europe conference. “This is particularly true when authorities don’t act to protect all of their citizens and when they fail to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by or against particular groups.”

Jospović did not specifically reference Russia in his remarks, but he did stress human rights “imply the right of every human being to achieve his or her potential in that which he or she is.”

“This includes the right to freely express one’s sexual orientation and gender identity without the threat of anyone being humiliated, insulted and subjugated to violence as a result or to be excluded from social and public life,” the Croatian president said.

Saša Gavrić, executive director of the Sarajevo Open Centre, an LGBT rights group in the Bosnian capital, co-presented a workshop on responding to hate crimes in the country.

“We believe [in] high level events, like this one,” Gavrić told the Blade. “The grassroots work like our work in Sarajevo will together contribute to achieving full equality of LGBT persons in Europe.”

Members of Famiglie Arcobaleno, an Italian group that advocates on behalf of LGBT parents and those who want to have children, also presented at the ILGA-Europe conference.

Luca Possenti of the Famiglie Arcobaleno Board of Directors noted to the Blade his organization continues to work with schools and other institutions to recognize same-sex couples and their families, even though gays and lesbians remain unable to marry or adopt children in Italy. He stressed working with teachers in particular to become more LGBT-friendly is “fundamental throughout Europe” because prejudice, homophobia and transphobia remain pervasive in many European countries.

Transgender Europe, a continent-wide trans advocacy organization with more than 70 affiliates in 35 countries, also participated in the conference.

The group notes 71 anti-trans murders have been reported in Europe over the last five years. Two dozen European countries still require trans people to become sterilized before they can legally change their gender.

“The ILGA-Europe conference is one of the regular opportunities to meet, work and network in one place with many relevant stakeholders in the field of LGBTI work,” Transgender Europe Secretary Alecs Recher told the Blade. “ILGA-Europe strengthens trans representation in this meeting space and supports greater cohesion of the joint struggle for human rights on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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