“The moment that really bothered me was when, going home from the Pride festival, kids on the tram put away their rainbow flags in their bags, washed off the colorful paint from their faces and peeled the stickers off their arms to make sure their parents at home wouldn’t see them,” says Christine (name changed). “This is our reality: constantly having to be careful not to give away who we really are, in public or even with family. I cannot recall any situation where I had to feel uneasy while holding a man’s hand.”
In a referendum which made headlines around the world on 9 February, 63.1% of Swiss voters came out in favor of extending the anti-racism laws to cover sexual orientation. The new laws are designed to tackle hate speech and hate crimes relating to SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity). It’s acknowledges the LGBT+ community as a minority in the hope of ending its long history of marginalization and the violence it has suffered.
Christine has never told her family that she is a part of that community. “It’s always a risk to express our principles in front of other people. Before the referendum you couldn’t have asked someone directly about homosexuality or gender identity. without having to worry about giving yourself away to someone you don’t feel comfortable around. The referendum made people actively realise our existence. We can talk about it – the comments are still not always positive, but at least we acknowledge it. And the first step to change is always acknowledging the problem.”
There have already been laws against libel and hate speech in public, but never when they concerned sexual orientation. It was, for example, legal to tell a group of gay men all gays are abnormal.
Anna Rosenwasser, co-manager of the Lesbian Organization of Switzerland, campaigned for the new law arguing: “A public video in which someone says ‘Black people can be healed with a few punches’ would be rightly punishable. But a video in which someone says the same thing about gays is legal. Such statements in public endanger peaceful coexistence in swiss society.”
If a brochure or a public Facebook page suggests that all lesbians are sick and should be raped to help them ‘find the right way’, if a child is denied admission to a playgroup because its parents are gay or if a restauranteur has a sign in front of the restaurant announcing: ‘we don’t serve bisexual sex monsters or homosexual paedophiles’, there was no way to take legal action before the change in the law.
The opposition, however, remains convinced that the ‘censorship-law’ is a step backwards. “The same circles that loudly demand tolerance for themselves at the same time exclude those, who think differently,” claimed the “Nein zum Zensurgesetz” (“No to the censorship law”) website in its referendum campaign.
Gender identity was excluded from the referendum, even though it was part of the proposal in earlier stages. The TGNS (Transgender Network Switzerland) sees this as a shortcoming: “We are very happy about this improvement because a great many trans people are also queer and will profit from this vote. It was, however, quite frustrating to see politicians like Karin Keller-Sutter explain that trans rights were not ‘mainstream’ enough to be included. Human rights should not be a popularity contest and the whole point of hate crime protection is that many people do not believe in the dignity of minorities.”
Homophobic verbal or physical attacks are recorded two or three times a week in Switzerland, but as in other countries a high proportion of hate crimes never get reported. Suicide rates amongst young people in the LGBT+ community are five times higher compared to the rest of the Swiss population due to social isolation, discrimination and hate crimes.
Even with the law, people will only get punished if an insult violates human dignity and is made in public and intentionally. A shop owner who rejects someone because of their sexuality, can avoid any penalty by not stating homosexuality as the reason for rejection. The ruling does not apply to private conversations.
But what will the change in the law mean for large organisations in practice? Perhaps not a lot according to Ursula Alder, the principal of Realgymasium Rämibühl, a top school in Zürich: “The school has always insisted that people must be respected irrespective to their skin color, religion or sexual orientation. There is also a yearly LGBT+ awareness day to offer support and education to pupils on this matter. This legislation has no direct effects on the curriculum but will definitely help improve tolerance and acceptance on the school campus.”
The Pink Cross Organisation has made clear that this is not the end of the road: “After the clear yes, the LGBTI community will use this momentum to achieve the consistent implementation of the penal code and to enforce marriage equality.” A bill to legalize same-sex marriage is currently on its way through parliament.
“When people tell me that their freedom of expression will be reduced, I would really like to ask: ‘Oh. And what would you like to publicly say that would be punishable afterwards?’ ”