OPINION: The European Union must act to change hearts and minds about anti-LGBT+ hate crime across Europe

by Piotr Godzisz | Lambda Warsaw
Monday, 18 November 2019 09:18 GMT

Far-right protesters clash with the police as they try to block the city's first "Equality Parade" rally in support of the LGBT community in Bialystok, Poland July 20, 2019. Agencja Gazeta/Agnieszka Sadowska via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A 2017 survey found two-thirds of LGBT+ people in Poland had experienced discrimination in the past two years

Piotr Godzisz sits on the management board of Lambda Warsaw, a Polish LGBT+ support organisation

On July 20 2019, Krzysztof Kliszczyński and three of his friends participated in the Equality March in Białystok, northeast Poland. After the event – the first Pride March in the region – the group were approached by people in a car.

“So what now, handsome?” the driver asked Krzysztof. The next moment, three football hooligans jumped out, one wielding a baseball bat.

“I was only thinking if he’s going to hit me in the face or in the head, if it’s going to hurt,” Krzysztof wrote on his social media page later that day.

Krzysztof and his friends managed to escape and alerted a nearby police patrol, but, in the meantime, the perpetrators had fled.

While the scale and the severity of the attacks on Białystok Pride has been unprecedented in the Polish history, violence is not a new experience for members of the LGBT+ community in Poland.

According to a 2017 survey conducted among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and asexual people, two in three respondents had experienced at least one bias-motivated incident in the previous two years, often around LGBT+ venues or during Pride events.

The general population is aware of the high rates of homophobic and transphobic crimes in the country.

A new report released recently by the Polish LGBT+ organisation Lambda Warsaw on behalf of the Call It Hate project consortium shows that more than half of respondents agreed that anti-LGBT+ hate crime is a serious problem in Poland.

But acknowledging the problem does not equate with caring about the victims.

The Call It Hate survey found that, as a group, victims of anti-LGBT+ violence have actually a lower chance of getting help from bystanders (for example, by calling the police) than other victims. They also receive less empathy, particularly if they are victimised in the context of Pride events or when leaving a bar.

But even in a neutral situation, such as simply walking on the street holding hands, lesbian and gay couples receive significantly less empathy than a heterosexual couple (gay men 45%, lesbians 54% and straight couple 66%).

The results of the survey place Poland somewhere in the middle among the 10 countries included in the Call It Hate survey: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Slovenia and Britain.

The findings of the survey are a call to action for EU governments, including the one in Warsaw. Legislating against all strands of hate crimes – including those based on gender identity and sexual orientation – should be a priority for all countries, which should then focus on the proper implementation of the laws.

To help victims report hate crimes and deal with their consequences, dedicated reporting centres and support services are necessary.

There is an important role for the EU here.

With a mandate to support member states in achieving equality and ensuring victims’ rights, the EU has already been at the forefront of the fight to make hate crime visible.

But current actions, such as supporting civil society initiatives, is not enough.

The EU should hold countries accountable when the values on which the community is built are violated. Such a strong stance was lacking after the mass violence in Białystok.

We should hope that Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, will live up to the promises and expectations upon her, and help make the EU a safer place to live for LGBT+ people.