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Pride and prejudice: LGBTI rights in Belgium remain a work in progress
Tom Devroye hesitates. He never knows how to answer these kinds of questions, he says. With laws allowing marriage, adoption and the ability to swiftly change one’s gender on an ID card, Belgium is a paradise for the LGBTI community, isn’t it?
He would love to say yes. But six years ago, in the city where his organisation, Arc-en-ciel, is based, two men were killed because they were gay.
They were Belgium’s first murders officially attributed to homophobia, and both of them were particularly horrific. In one case, a group of four men attacked and tortured a 33-year-old man, dumping his body in the countryside. In the other, a man went “hunting” for gays in a local park, equipped with a hammer. He killed a 60-year-old man with it.
“We have the laws, but we need to change society,” Devroye says. “We can get married and have kids, but if people smirk at my boyfriend and me in the street because we are holding hands, this is what we need to change. And it’s going to take much more than just passing a law.”
Devroye is the co-ordinator at Arc-en-ciel, an umbrella organisation for LGBTI associations in Wallonia. Regardless of the amazing legal strides Belgium’s LGBTI community has made over the past two decades, Devroye is convinced that the biggest struggle is ahead: changing how people think.
Change in law, change in attitude
Laws do, however, seem to have a direct effect on attitudes. In 2003, when Belgium became the second country in the world (after the Netherlands) to legalise same-sex marriage, some 30% of residents supported the idea. Four years later, that figure had jumped to 65%. And now it stands at 82%, one of the highest in the world. Devroye: “If the law forbids you from getting married, then people think, oh, if the law doesn’t allow it, there must be something wrong with it.”
This approval rating, though, hasn’t eradicated homophobia. With more people sharing their experiences of being attacked or harassed on social media, more incidents are being picked up by the traditional media. This makes it appear that there are more incidents than before, but the figures are vague.
Last year, Unia, Belgium’s centre for equal opportunities, handled 84 reports of homophobia or transphobia. Eight of them related to physical attacks. That’s a slightly lower figure than in previous years, “but it’s the tip of the iceberg”, says Jeroen Borghs of Çavaria, the Flemish equivalent of Arc-en-Ciel.
Police and the organisations agree. Most harassment isn’t reported - even if it’s serious. Victims are embarrassed, afraid of repercussions or assume police will take no action.
“There’s no way of knowing if there are more incidents lately because we don’t have a historical reference point,” says Borghs. “That’s why we encourage people to step forward and talk to us about it, to let us know what happened.”
Çavaria co-developed the Uni-Form app, which allows people to swiftly report when they are the victims of harassment. While physical attacks or regular intimidation should be reported to the police, the app provides useful information to the organisations about where and how often verbal harassment is taking place.
Some victims of both assault and harassment have pointed to the ethnic background of the perpetrators. While a majority of physical assaults are carried out by white males, says Borghs, “there is a disproportionate ratio of perpetrators who have a migration background”.
Research shows it has less to do with religious beliefs than with gender norms, he explains. “If you look at similarities of the entire group of gay bashers, it’s people who struggle with a very toxic form of masculinity. And in certain parts of society, this is more pronounced.”
The man who was murdered in Liège in 2012, Ihsane Jarfi, was himself Muslim (three of the four perpetrators were not), and his father later started a foundation to fight homophobia. He now tours schools to talk about his son’s life – and death. “He says something that I really like,” says Devroye. “He says: ‘My son was not killed because he was gay, but because his murderers were homophobic’.”
This kind of outreach is crucial, both Devroye and Borghs say, as is the work of Merhaba, which supports Belgium’s LGBTI community with roots in the Middle East, Turkey and Africa. It also works to build a bridge between the greater community from those backgrounds and the gay and trans community.
It’s about gender
When it comes down to it, says Borghs, homophobia and transphobia are about gender. “Anyone who doesn’t fit the gender stereotypes, who doesn’t comply with them, is a target for ridicule. And femininity is certainly less valued than masculinity. So a man acting in a ‘feminine’ way is reason enough to be discriminated against, because why would he want to do that?”
And if that’s the case for gays, it’s certainly the case for transgender people. In Belgium, says Devroye, trans people are about where the rest of the community was 20 years ago in terms of social acceptance and inclusion.
But this year, they made one big leap in legal rights. Since 1 January, anyone has the right to change their gender on their Belgian ID card. This used to be allowed only following a sex-reassignment surgery (which not all trans people want to do) and an expensive court hearing.
Both Ghent and Liège university hospitals have gender clinics as well as trans information points. And more visibility in the media, in politics and on TV programmes has made the lives of trans people a bit more relatable to the general public.
Which brings us to the ‘I’ in LGBTI: intersex. This is a group that has received little attention, but the organisations are working on getting a law passed to protect them. Intersex can mean a number of things. Babies can be born with genitalia of both sexes or with ambiguous genitals, or with ambiguous internal reproduction organs. What they have in common is that a large majority of them undergo surgeries that force them into one gender or another when they are only days or weeks old.
In some notorious cases, doctors have chosen incorrectly, leaving intersex children to grow up in a body that doesn’t match how they feel. “Our view is that these surgeries are mutilation,” says Devroye, “and the consequences on intersex kids can be terrible. We would like it to be illegal to perform surgery on these children.”
LGBTI who's who
Lobbying, support, education and social umbrella organisation for the LGBTI community in Brussels
Umbrella organisation for the LGBTI community in Wallonia and Brussels
Umbrella organisation for the LGBTI community in Flanders and Brussels
French-/Dutch-language information point and helpline for transgender and gendernonconforming people
Report hate speech or crimes on this easy-to-use app, whether or not you decide to go to the police
This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018