The European Union is seen by many as a torchbearer in the global struggle to secure human rights and equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. From Kampala to Kathmandu, EU officials regularly meet with representatives of foreign governments and encourage them to tackle homophobic violence and discrimination. In recent years, the EU has denounced a slew of anti-gay measures introduced in several eastern European and African countries, and supports LGBT rights activists working in these and other regions. European advocacy at the United Nations is helping fuel momentum for LGBT rights abuses to be addressed at an international level.
It is a remarkable change. Fifty years ago, same sex relationships were criminalized across much of Europe and most lesbian and gay people lived closeted lives of fear and shame. Twenty-five years ago, Margaret Thatcher’s Government introduced legislation in Britain prohibiting local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality, which had the side effect of preventing public libraries from stocking books dealing with the subject, and teachers from talking to students about same sex relationships. At the time, there were few popular LGBT celebrities, almost no openly gay politicians, and media portrayals tended to rely on negative, offensive stereotypes.
Since then, the legal and social situation of LGBT people, especially gay men and lesbians, has improved steadily in most of Europe. In 2001, The Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize marriage between same-sex couples; now ten European countries do so and 14 more have established civil unions or other forms of legal partnerships.
The law, once an instrument of discrimination, is now used as a weapon with which to fight it. A European directive prohibits all employment-related discrimination against gay and lesbian people; many EU States have gone further – outlawing discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity beyond the workplace, including in access to goods and services.
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