Continuing violence motivated by hatred and prejudice based on sexual orientation and gender identity, though still largely unseen, is an intimidating day-to-day reality for people across Europe and North America. The limited official statistics available suggest that these crimes represent a significant portion of violent hate crimes overall and are characterized by levels of serious physical violence that in some cases exceed those present in other types of hate crimes. None of the official reports suggest that incidents are decreasing; government data in some countries, as well as credible nongovernmental reports, suggest an increase. The victims include people who describe themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (together, “LGBT”), as well as others who are targeted because they do not conform to stereotypes of gender identity. The victims of violence also include LGBT rights activists and organizations, openly gay commercial establishments, and those attending gay pride parades and other gay related public events. Bias crimes of this kind are often called “homophobic” crimes.
Nongovernmental monitoring, combined with incident reports available from the media, have reinforced official findings that homophobic violence is both frequent and of particular brutality. Annual reports by organizations in France and the United States, as well as new surveys and reports on Germany, Turkey, and the United Kingdom shed light onto the extent of harassment and violence in those countries, as well as the problem of underreporting to the police.
Few of the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) track and provide official statistics on crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias. Canada, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the countries where such monitoring is most developed. Other countries, like the Netherlands and Norway, have also recently undertaken to monitor homophobic hate crimes. Even in those countries where data is collected, however, the number of incidents is generally thought to be highly underreported. The lack of data on sexual orientation bias crimes for the vast majority of OSCE participating states makes it very difficult to assess the law enforcement response to violent incidents.
Only 12 of the 56 OSCE states have legislation that allows for bias based on sexual orientation to be treated as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime. These are: Andorra, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, France, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In the United States, although federal hate crime legislation does not make violence motivated by sexual orientation a crime, state legislation in 30 states and the District of Columbia provides enhanced penalties for offenses motivated by sexual orientation bias.
As in the past, the years 2007 and 2008 saw the greatest public visibility for LGBT persons in the form of gay pride parades, although that visibility triggered violence and other manifestations of intolerance in several countries. In a number of cases documented in this report, gay pride parades and events in Eastern Europe resulted in political diatribes attacking people of minority sexual orientations from political and other leaders, inadequate police protection, and acts of harassment and violence against the participants.
The way in which recent gay pride events transpired in some countries—including Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Romania—suggest that the authorities took additional precautions against violent disruption in comparison to previous years. In other countries—such as Moldova and the Russian Federation—the authorities themselves continued to contribute to the danger faced by the participants in gay pride parades. In another group of countries—notably Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia—incidents of violence occurred despite apparently significant police preparations to protect the marchers. In a number of cases, the police were able to identify the violent protestors as being affiliated with organized extremist groups.
The international response to hate crimes against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is hindered by the fact that these forms of discrimination are not well-integrated into international human rights and anti-discrimination bodies and mechanisms. Indeed, there is no convention or treaty specifically focusing on the human rights of LGBT persons. Within the framework of the United Nations, the problem of bias-motivated violence against LGBT persons is only just beginning to gain recognition and has remained largely outside of the framework of the general human rights treaty bodies, as well as those special mechanisms that deal with related issues of discrimination and intolerance. The nonbinding Yogyakarta Principles, developed by human rights experts, offer a way forward by reflecting state obligations under international law to address human rights violations—including violent hate crimes—based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Within Europe, several institutions of regional intergovernmental organizations and other bodies have incorporated the problem of homophobic hate crimes into their mandates and/or their activities, although challenges remain to a more integrated and comprehensive approach.