February 9th 2020 marks a special day in Switzerland: one to make housing more affordable but also to fight against the discrimination of individuals and couples based on sexual orientation. According to the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, Switzerland’s current ranking in its quality of life for the LGBTIQ+ community is 28th out of 49 European countries, a placement that most people would not expect. In comparison to countries like Malta, Portugal or Denmark, Switzerland has a few more steps in providing equal conditions for its LGBTIQ+ citizens. February 9th could push Switzerland closer to sexual orientation equity.
As it stands currently, the legal system protects all individuals from harassment. Discrimination-specific laws are only applicable towards racial, ethnic or religious discriminations. However, harassment laws are a general way to prevent harassment -- any person that is harassed, regardless of the motive behind it.
The power of discrimination laws is to acknowledge and combat systemic harassment and violence based on motives to hurt a specific target. It symbolically represents a stance against hatred towards a particular minority as a moral code, and concretely offers more options for the justice of victims.
For instance, hateful comments attacking LGB people, couples and families are currently allowed and cannot necessarily be prosecuted, if it isn’t the harassment of a particular individual. But, from what we know about racial, ethnic and religious persecution, blanket statements of hatred towards a specific group creates a culture of acceptance of the othering and violences against that group. As of now, LGB people cannot count on general harassment laws for targeted violence -- to which the law will not recognize its homophobic/biphobic motivations.
Currently, the data on crimes that motivated by discrimination based on sexual orientation are not accurate due to the lack of recognition of hate crimes against that minority. Muriel Waeger, president of the romandy branch of both Pink Cross and LOS (the Swiss Lesbian Organization), says of this, "For hate crimes and assaults, whether physical or verbal, most LGBTIQ+ people will not report to the police. If this revision of the legal code is accepted February 9th, we will finally have statistics to argue and raise awareness to the population of the existences of this violence."
The Proposed Change
The proposal is to include sexual orientation as an at-risk minority (like race, ethnicity and religion is) requiring special attention, especially when it comes to their discrimination, persecution and harassment. By establishing anti-discrimination laws to protect LGB people, their safety will overall increase. This will mean that people spewing hateful comments, humiliating, attacking, assaulting, disadvantaging, insulting, etc. someone based on sexual orientation would be seen as an act of hate towards them as the motive was solely because of their sexual orientation, not by their personhood. It also means that LGB people will live in the comfort of knowing that if they experience discrimination at work, at school, in public, by services and commerces, that they can legally pursue justice for their persecution. Overall, this law will expand the ways in which we can protect LGB individuals from hate and push them closer to being equal in a heteronormative society.
Why are people pushing back?
Well, in an RTS segment, Marc Früh, president of the conservative political party UDF of Bernese Jura, states that it is an attack on freedom of speech, opinion and commerce. He mentions that this law can endanger religious figures for upholding beliefs that may not welcome homosexuality, doctors that may be attacked for describing the positives and negatives (he mentions the difficulty of procreation for instance) of homosexuality to a patient or a hotel owner who may not want such a customer base, “If someone is coming clearing showing, provoking that he is homosexual and that he wants to sleep in this hotel and that the manager feels differently, it is his right as an owner of his business [...] to welcome or not whoever he wants.”
Moreoever, one might assume that given the nature of this referendum, all LGB people would agree to support the safety of themselves or of others in their identity. However, there is a position held by some members of the community that do not share that viewpoint. Beat Feurer, municipal councilor of the conservative political party UDC in Biel, and president of the group GayUDC, is an openly homosexual man who sides with the conservative views on this issue. The way he sees it, the freedom of expression that LGB people have benefited from thus far has allowed for their advancement towards equality in the country. It is thus only right and fair to keep allowing such freedoms to all and to encourage discourse on this topic. He says in an RTS debate, “I am convinced that we have to combat insults with intelligent arguments and not by a criminal law.”
Contre Les Discriminations - OUI, the romandy branch of a national campaign advocating for the law to be accepted in favor of LGB individuals, debunks all the myths described above: first, that freedom of speech will be compromised. As the proposed law is described currently on the confederation’s website, debates on personal belief and tolerance of LGBTIQ+ people will still be allowed, even on television platforms for example.
In fact, rejecting homosexuality/bisexuality will still be legal as a personal conviction, however it will not be allowed to treat sexual minorities differently or to incite violence, hate or persecution.
This also applies in a familial/friend context: discussions around sexual orientation tolerance in private will still be legal. In the same vain, the right to humor remains. Jokes centering sexual minorities will still be legal and cannot be considered persecution, unless they attack the right to a person’s dignity, but that would used in extreme cases that border harassment under the guise of humor.
Second, that it is a violation of religious convictions. Once again, the discussion of the place of LGB in any religion is a decision for the religious community to decide. However, they will not be allowed to contribute to the persecution of this group. The law and religious beliefs are separate, as personal belief is not the same as actively discriminating against someone. In other words, as a supervisor whose belief system may not accept homosexuality/bisexuality due to religious convictions or other, you would still able to hold those beliefs and share them with your friends and family. However, it would be illegal to use said beliefs to hinder your LGB employees, as it would be disadvantaging them solely based on their sexual orientation.
The third big argument is thinking that this gives an advantage to LGB individuals in society over heterosexual individuals.
To be clear: harassment laws are applicable to any person who has been harassed by another. However, when that harassment is based on a part of an identity, it means that the harasser is capable of such actions to anybody identifying that way, which is quite different from harassment due to dislike of an individual.
In this regard, it is the same type of protection given to racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Because these people’s identities are not universally respected, they are automatically in danger for being themselves. These laws are to offer the recognition of this struggle, and the same protection as others against harmful actions.
Out of Marc Früh’s concerns, the doctor and pastor would mostly likely risk nothing -- if they are talking about negative aspects of non-heterosexual practices without inciting violence, hate or differential treatment. However, the hotel manager is displaying discriminatory behavior. Treating everyone equally means treating all clients equally. Refusing service based on (presumed or visible) sexual orientation is not treating all people equally. It is thus categorized as discrimination and could be legally reprimanded, if February 9th’s votations favor LGB individuals.
Despite divergent opinions on the votation, the safety of everyone is crucial. It is how we all can feel fulfilled and satisfied amongst each other. Currently, if someone is attacked based on their sexual orientation, there is no assured legal protection for them and no direct legal repercussions on the aggressor. This system only discourages victims from disclosing and skewers data even more, while letting hateful actions to continue. Given the polarizing stances on the tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, it seems prudent, if not absolutely necessary, to have a legal structure in place for the protection of this minority group.
To make this safety a reality, there is an important component: YOU MUST VOTE. Make sure to vote. Encourage your family to vote. Encourage your friends to vote. And for their friends to vote. Change cannot happen without action. Your vote is your action.
Cover photo credit: Alexia Fernandes, from the Contre Les Discriminations - Oui Facebook page.
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