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LGBTQ rights in Europe: Malta leads, Poland lags

May 17, 2023

May 17 is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. A new ranking shows a clear geographical divide in how European countries are progressing when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

A participant at the Malta Pride Parade surrounded by a giant rainbow flag
Malta tops the list of Europe's most progressive countries for LGBTQ rightsImage: Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS

"It is a really friendly place for LGBTQ people," said Catherine Camilleri of her home, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, with just 520,000 residents. "We are very happy that we have a government that supports us. Of course there will be some sort of discrimination everywhere you go when you are an LGBTQ person, but on Malta the pros far outweigh the cons."

Camilleri, who previously lived in the United States, now volunteers on the rural Maltese island of Gozo for a group that works with those who identify as LGBTQ — lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer. She is pleased that Malta has once again been ranked as Europe's most progressive country when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

Since 2009, the European branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) has published the Rainbow Europe Map and Index, which examines 74 criteria to measure the legal and social acceptance of LGBTQ people.

Malta: Conversion therapy banned

Malta has topped ILGA's list for years, meeting 89% of these criteria. "The LGBTQ community has bloomed here in the last five or six years. The legislature on Malta is very active. Malta was the first country to ban conversion therapy," Camilleri told DW.

While there is still the occasional hateful email or other forms of hostility, she is surprised at how openly people can live in the LGBTQ community here, especially given how small and Catholic the islands are.

A look at the rainbow map shows an east-west divide in Europe when it comes to rights such as marriage equality, adoption for gay couples, gender identity, gender recognition and anti-hate crime measures. Poland is in last place within the European Union. Governed by nationalist conservatives, the country meets just 15% of the criteria.

Poland: No legal protections

Julia Kata, a trained psychologist who is vice president of the Trans-Fuzja Foundation, a transgender rights organization in the Polish capital of Warsaw, said this is because there are virtually no legal protections for LGBTQ people in the country.

"We have no laws against hate speech. We have a hate crime penal code, but that does not include sexual orientation, gender and identity. If something happens it is just a regular crime," she said. Unlike Malta, discrimination in Poland comes from the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) and the media, Kata said.

A pride parade in Warsaw, Poland
Despite Pride parades in Warsaw, Poland ranks last in Europe for LGBTQ rightsImage: Grzegorz Banaszak7Zuma/picture alliance

The situation has worsened since 2015, when the PiS took power. "The hate is all over the place. if your hear your gay or transgender children are a threat for other children or society and public media are putting out this hateful content every single day, you just don't feel safe in this country," Kata said, adding that she believes many people have left because they could no longer stand the pressure.

While someone might come out to their family, they never know if they will be accepted, Kata said. There is an urgent need to introduce registered partnerships for same-sex couples in Poland, and it's absurd that children who want to change their gender and their birth name have to sue their own parents in court, she added. According to Polish law, parents are seen to have made a mistake when registering their child on the birth certificate, something that can only be corrected by a court.

More trans rights in Europe

Still, overall the ILGA reports positive trends in Europe. "We do see targeted attacks on the trans community, but we also see countries where governments are starting to reform transgender laws, as in Germany now," ILGA official Katrin Hugendubel told DW. "Politicians have more understanding and are more determined to keep reform processes on track."

Russians flee a hostile homeland

Spain, for example, made a leap forward in the ratings because it now has a comprehensive gender identity law based on self-disclosure by those affected. Medical interventions that mutilate intersex children are now prohibited, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity is also prohibited.

Moldova and Croatia have also improved their ILGA rankings year on year. Moldova's pro-European government passed a liberal gender identity law, while Croatia expanded adoption rights for gay couples.

"That's the glimmer of hope we see. That's the positive news," said Hugendubel, who has directed the organization's LGBTQ advocacy in Brussels for many years.

Germany takes middle ranking

Germany ranks in the middle of the ILGA's Rainbow Europe Map, with a score of 55 out of a possible 100 percentage points. That could change as soon as the government coalition of center-left Social Democrats, environmentalist Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats pushes its gender identity law through parliament, which would greatly simplify the process of changing one's name to reflect an individual's own gender identity.

Coming out in the Catholic Church

Not much can be expected from the European Union as an institution, as it has no jurisdiction over family law, Hugendubel said. The responsibility lies with the member states, many of which are also blocking the possible expansion of the EU's discrimination directive, which so far only applies in the workplace. But if states have the political will, the EU could do more, she added.

Progress and setbacks

Regardless of where each country ranks in such assessments, the fight for equality remains in flux. The outlook is mixed in Poland, where even in the homophobic and transphobic atmosphere, there have been both progress and setbacks, Kata said.

"It is very difficult to say it is very bad or it is OK, because there are so many factors on both sides, which make the situation better or worse. We are in a kind of chaos right now," she said.

Even front-runner Malta still has problems. Camilleri would like to see better cooperation among nongovernmental organizations and more state financial support, in addition to more dialogue with the Catholic Church.

"Hate has not been eradicated, but the reaction is massive. The community is behind us," she said.

This article has been translated from German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union