Swiss vote on controversial LGBT protection bill

A campaign poster in Switzerland ahead of a vote on sexual orientation discriminationImage copyright
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The proposal to make discrimination on the grounds of sexual identity or orientation illegal has proved controversial

Voters in Switzerland go to the polls on Sunday to decide on a proposal to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity punishable by law.

Discrimination because of race or religion is already illegal in the country.

Now members of Switzerland’s LGBT community hope they too will get legal protection.

But opponents of the new law argue it could restrict free speech.

“Many Swiss people tend to overrate how modern our country is,” explains Anna Rosenwasser of the Swiss Lesbian Organisation.

She points out that on the Rainbow Map of 49 countries’ respect for LGBT rights, Switzerland ranks just 23rd. “It might be rich, but it’s really not modern yet. We have no laws concerning public discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

To support her argument that the lack of legal protection causes harm to the gay community, Ms Rosenwasser cites suicide rates: “Amongst queer people in Switzerland, it is five times higher compared to heterosexual people. That’s quite something, it shows how we are not feeling safe yet.”

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David Rosenthal

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Anna Rosenwasser (L) says Switzerland needs to modernise

Who is against it?

“We don’t even know if jokes about gays will be allowed,” Benjamin Fischer of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party told Swiss television.

“Some say yes, some say no they will be punishable. We live in a country with freedom of expression, people should be allowed to think and say what they like, even if it’s a bit stupid or tasteless.”

There is opposition too from some religious groups. Although Switzerland’s reformed church has backed the new law, the Swiss Evangelical Alliance, which has significant support in rural areas, is sceptical.

“Our churches see the marriage of a man and a woman as the only couple they want to marry,” explains the general secretary of the alliance, Marc Jost.

“We just want to be free to say: ‘Ok, we want to privilege the marriage of a man and a woman.’ And we don’t want to be at risk if we share this opinion, and treat other couples in a different way.”

Same-sex partnerships are already legal in Switzerland, and a bill to legalise same-sex marriage is on its way through parliament. Marc Jost is not comfortable with these developments, despite family circumstances that might have encouraged him towards a different point of view.

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Karin Hofer/NZZ

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Marc Jost (L) does not agree with same-sex marriage even though his father Samuel (R) is gay

“My father is gay and lives in a civil union, and of course we disagree on very personal questions,” he explains. “But we still have a good relationship. It’s important to show it’s possible to peacefully disagree on important questions in life.”

How bad is the discrimination?

Supporters of the law argue that no-one will be prosecuted for private comments, or for religious beliefs. But, they say, the law should protect the LGBT community from public discrimination, and aggression.

Members of the gay community interviewed by Switzerland’s 20 Minuten paper said they were often physically attacked, some even hospitalised. Other groups of young men told the same paper they felt it was ok to hit openly gay couples, even suggesting they could be “cured with a few punches”.

This is the point, says campaigner Jessica Zuber, where the argument over freedom of expression goes too far.

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“Freedom of expression in a liberal democracy only goes as far as the individual right to human dignity is protected,” she says. “If this law is passed, it is a strong sign towards the acceptance of human dignity of everyone, no matter what their sexual orientation.”

That would be an important sign for Anna Rosenwasser, who knows what it is like to feel uneasy about expressing her identity.

“I actually dated men for 10 years. Now I have a girlfriend, and we are a cuddly couple, we do hold hands. But there are situations where we will not hold hands, in order to feel more safe.

“I cannot remember any situation when I’ve been with a man where I actually let go of his hand to feel more safe.”

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