Promoting Equality: Parliaments, LGBT rights and a Dash of Eurovision

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While the victory of Austria’s Conchita Wurst is a step in the right direction, even Eurovision’s liberal supply of glitter cannot obscure the sheer size of the mountain lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals still have to climb. 

While some countries have made great strides in protecting the rights of the LGBT community, many have poor and even deplorable records: being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual is still illegal in over eighty countries and is punishable by death in five.  Even countries topping the LGBT rights charts are not fully accepting of those of a ‘different’ sexual orientation. 

Parliamentarians have a crucial role to play in putting LGBT rights on the political agenda.  Doing so, at least in some states, has become just that little bit easier in the face of the issue’s growing importance in the public eye.  The past few months have seen several instances of public outcry at the treatment of LGBTs around the world: Russia’s increasingly homophobic legislation is lamented on a weekly basis, and Uganda was repeatedly named and shamed for its criminalization of homosexuality.  Public figures are embracing the LGBT issue with some bravado as well, and LGBTs are slowly but surely building some strength in numbers: Apple has a gay CEO in Tim Cook, Belgium has a gay prime minister, India had a first transgender candidate running for parliament and last week saw the first openly gay NFL player being called up in the US, where LGBT-related legislation has been the subject of much heated debate. 

This is not to say that it’s all smooth sailing from here on.  Parliamentarians looking to promote LGBT rights may have more political capital to work with than they did a decade ago, but they still have so much ground to cover that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start.  Even in Europe, often seen as more liberal-minded, LGBTs face surprisingly stark legal barriers, and opposition to LGBT rights remains considerable in conservative (and even supposedly less conservative) circles.  Perhaps, in the spirit of ‘nothing worth having comes easy’, the best that can be done is to continue the fight – in which case, parliament is a pretty good place to do so.

Parliamentarians can push for LGBT rights in many ways.  They can ask parliamentary questions on the state of existing legislation, submit new proposals, and ensure that new legislation takes account of LGBT-rights where possible.  Bridging political divides is particularly constructive in this regard: LGBT cross-party groups or caucuses have proved quite successful and are more likely to achieve results than individual MPs.  Representing constituents, too, is a powerful way for parliamentarians to address the issue and call for change: an MP who is advocating for LGBT rights on behalf of constituents, civil society organisations or other groups does not stand alone and is not so easily dismissed.  Finally, MPs can play a notable role by reaching out and informing the public of the importance and urgency of the issue.  The road ahead may be long, but there’s a growing group of support along the way – parliamentarians should join the journey. 

In Europe, projections for this month’s European elections suggest that the extreme right’s piece of the pie may be getting a little bigger. Even in the wake of Eurovision's liberal-minded extravaganza, this should not come as a great surprise. Babelonic confusions aside, the Eurovision Song Contest is hardly representative of Europe (as far as I’m aware, the old continent is not yet home to human hamsters, French countrymen deploring their inability to grow a moustache, or oddly entangled twins seemingly condemned to life on a see-saw).  That being said, Conchita’s triumph should be applauded, and parliamentarians should embrace the momentum for all it could be worth.  Hopefully, by the time she takes the stage in Austria to kick off next year’s edition, the world will have come a little closer to equal rights for LGBTs. 

Want to know what you can do?  

Petition your parliamentarian(s) to push for LGBT rights and find out what local organisations you can join to help build political support. For questions, comments or tips, contact the AGORA team at info@agora-parl.org.  

This is blog post by Lotte Geunis, Parliamentary Development Officer at UNDP.