By Margarita Markoviti
Between 28 and 31 October 2015, the 19th Annual Conference of ILGA-Europe (the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) took place in Athens, Greece, under the theme “Many Voices, One Movement – Together, mobilized for a just society”. Five members of the Grassrootsmobilise team including the principal researcher, had the opportunity to attend the gathering of LGTBI activists from around the world.
Created in 1978, ILGA is an international non-governmental umbrella organization that brings together over 400 organizations from 45 European countries. ILGA-Europe was established as a separate region of ILGA and an independent legal entity in 1996. The two main pillars of ILGA-Europe’s work are: (1) advocating for human rights and equality for LGTBI people at the European level before organizations such as the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and (2) strengthening the European LGBTI movement by providing training and support to its member organizations and other LGTBI groups on advocacy, fundraising and strategic communications.
The objective of the annual conference in Athens (last year’s was held in Riga, Latvia) was to bring together activists, policy makers, representatives of institutions and other allies in order to discuss current developments across the continent, to learn and share experiences and knowledge, to strategize and to plan joint work. The local host of the conference was OLKE (Homosexual and Lesbian Community of Greece) – a non-governmental organization founded in Athens in 2004 with the aims to combat discrimination and protect human rights of LGBTI people in Greece. The conference entailed a series of events: from plenary sessions and panels, which were open to all participants and included thematic discussions about the European LGBTI movement and its political work, to workshops focusing on particular topics, self-organized meetings for any groups of people who wished to meet together to discuss any subject of mutual interests and, finally, consultations – a new addition to the ILGA-Europe conference, where experts on various topics offered one-on-one consultations in their area of expertise.
Of particular interest to Grassrootsmobilise was the recurrent topic throughout the different panels and workshops of religion, religious freedoms and LGBTI rights. Participants in a number of panels referred to the reactions (either positive or negative) of religious actors to the establishment (or to discussions on possible establishment) of same-sex marriage and civil partnership. Indeed, as the organizers emphasized, the choice of location of this year’s conference in Athens was particularly timely. Following criticism from the European Court of Human Rights in 2013 (in the case Vallianatos and Others v Greece), the Greek government had announced its intention earlier this year to amend its civil partnership legislation and to also include same-sex partners. A separate panel was organized specifically around this topic, where politicians representing both the Greek government and other political parties in parliament expressed their views. In his speech Nikos Paraskevopoulos, current Minister of Justice, announced that he was hoping to bring the legislation for public deliberation on the official website of the Ministry of Justice, Transparency and Human Rights. While all political representatives agreed on the need to modify civil partnership legislation accordingly, they also emphasized that reactions against such a development in the country come mainly from religious circles.
Τhis is of course not an issue exclusive to Greece. In fact, the situation varies significantly amongst countries in Europe: while on the 22nd of May 2015 Ireland was the first sovereign state to vote for marriage equality via a referendum, Slovenians are likely to soon vote in a referendum for the exact opposite result, namely for the abolition of same-sex marriage (which had been approved by the country’s parliament earlier in 2015).
But the topic of religion and LGBTI rights extends beyond the question of civil-partnership and marriage equality. For instance, in a workshop that focused on working with different kinds of allies, LGBTI activists talked about the need to take religion seriously, as their main opponents are using “freedoms of religion” to criticize and attack their struggle. The World Council of Churches was referred to as a good example of a “safe space” where a number of religious leaders can be educated on the matter and can interact with LGBTI people. Moreover, in another workshop on “Countering religious attacks on human rights”, it was suggested that the general feeling amongst conference participants was that religious opposition to LGBTI movements has, indeed, increased over the last few years. In order to combat this type of opposition, certain LGBTI activists and associations are launching a two-year campaign, under the general title “High Ground”, whose primary aim is to target European institutions and policy-makers in Brussels. The overall impression of LGBTI activists was that there should be a European solution to the problem.
At the same time, the conference showcased the interconnections between religion and LGBTI rights. One session, for example, entitled ‘Talking about religion and faith’, was designed ‘to offer a safe space for people to share their experiences and viewpoints as persons of faith, and to name issues of concern for LGBTI people of faith, with a view of informing the work of ILGA-Europe and its members’. And in another session, several activists representing religious organisations/NGOs supporting LGBTI rights, shared their positive experiences of taking this stance from within their various religious perspectives.
Finally, in the context of this wide and crucial topic, the members of Grassrootsmobilise organized a meeting under the title “Grassroots Mobilizations at the Intersection of Religion with LGBT Rights”. The meeting included brief presentations of the project from our researchers in Italy, Greece and Romania and it was followed by a very lively discussion, where our guests from different countries and with different capacities shared their views and personal experiences on questions around religion, LGBTI rights and the role of the European Court of Human Rights in the promotion of their interests.