Over half of LGBTQ Europeans are not out about their identities, report finds

A survey of 140,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in Europe found "hate and inequality remain a major challenge."
European Commission Lit Up Rainbow Colours
The European Commission headquarters lighted in the colors of the rainbow flag in Brussels on Saturday, May 16, 2020.Jonathan Raa / NurPhoto via Getty Images
By Elizabeth Kuhr

Six in 10 gay and lesbian Europeans avoid holding hands with same-sex partners in public, and over half of LGBTQ people in Europe are almost never open about their sexual orientations or gender identities, according to a new survey.

"The overarching finding was that not much has changed and there's a long way to go," Miltos Pavlou, the survey's project manager, told NBC News. "Hate and inequality remain a major challenge in our society."

"Changing laws are incredibly important first steps, but really building meaningful acceptance takes years."

Evelyne Paradis, ILGA-Europe

The report, "A long way to go for LGBTI equality," published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, found that there has been "little, if any, progress during the past seven years in the way LGBT people in the EU experience their human and fundamental rights in daily life" since the first edition of the report was issued in 2012. The findings are based on a survey of 140,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in the E.U., the U.K., Serbia and North Macedonia.

Based on the survey's criteria — which included questions about discrimination, awareness of rights, life satisfaction and experiences at work and in education — transgender and intersex respondents reported higher rates of discrimination and threat. For example, 1 in 5 trans and intersex people said they were physically or sexually attacked in the five years before the survey, double the proportion of other groups across the LGBTQ spectrum.

While LGBTQ people are legally protected in many nations across Europe, Pavlou said the survey found a hesitation to rely on law enforcement and other government officials. The report found that while one-third of respondents felt their national governments effectively combat prejudice and intolerance, only a fourth of trans respondents said they agreed, and 14 percent of LGBTQ survivors of physical or sexual assault do not report the crimes to the police.

"People are more aware of their rights, but at the same time they don't report discrimination," Pavlou said.

Evelyne Paradis, the executive director of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association of Europe, said the findings were "not entirely surprising."

"It's concerning that our sense of stagnation is confirmed," said Paradis, whose organization was not involved with the report. "We would've hoped there would've been more progress."

Echoing the survey's findings, she said, "It's very clear that in a broad rainbow umbrella, the trans and intersex communities are even more marginalized and vulnerable than lesbian, gay and bisexual people."

When compared to the Agency for Fundamental Rights' 2012 survey, the 2019 report shows little, if any, progress in how LGBTQ people in the E.U. are treated. While all LGBTQ people reported that they felt discriminated against in all aspects of life in the 12 months before the survey, transgender people reported a significant rise in overall discrimination — 60 percent today, up from 43 percent in 2012. Over 20 percent of all LGBTQ people reported feeling discriminated against at work in 2019, relatively unchanged from 19 percent in 2012.

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The comparison between the two surveys did find that LGBTQ people have become increasingly open about their sexual orientations and gender identities: In 2019, 52 percent of respondents over 18 said they were often or always open about their identities, compared with 36 percent in 2012.

"The main reason those who said the situation in their country was better was because of their openness, visibility and participation in society," Pavlou said.

The report found that in some countries, such as Ireland, Malta and Finland, over 70 percent of respondents think society is more tolerant but that in others, such as Poland and France, more than half find it less accepting.

"It's not just about policy and law. It's about implementing them," Pavlou said. "Belgium has been a progressive country, and they have one of the highest results in terms of hate and violence."

Paradis said countries with legislation affirming LGBTQ rights become complacent. As people are more aware of the diversity of LGBTQ identity and experience, she said, governments need to continue to protect the LGBTQ population and endorse educational efforts to ensure that equality remains.

"The mistake that many governments still make is thinking that once you adopt the laws, then everything will work out," Paradis said. "Changing laws are incredibly important first steps, but really building meaningful acceptance takes years."

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