Feb 9, 2020
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Swiss Vote to Penalize Public Homophobia

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Swiss voters agreed on Sunday to penalize public homophobia, greenlighting an amendment to an antidiscrimination law that had not provided protection for lesbians, gay men and bisexual people.

The amendment, which was years in the making, was challenged by opponents arguing that it would stifle freedom of expression.

Voters were asked in a referendum whether they wanted to extend Switzerland’s racism statutes to sexual orientation, and on Sunday 63.1 percent voted in favor of it. The extension was backed by the government and most of Switzerland’s political parties.

Unlike most countries in Western Europe, Switzerland did not have a law that specifically protects lesbians, gay men and bisexual people from discrimination. Publicly denigrating someone’s sexual orientation, or inciting hatred against someone in public, could not be prosecuted.

In 2018, lawmakers voted to add sexual orientation to an existing law that penalized discrimination based on race, ethnicity and religion. Under the amended law, homophobic comments made in public would be punishable with up to three years in prison.

It includes comments made on television, messages posted on social media, and discrimination against gay or bisexual people in public venues like restaurants or movie theaters.

Lawmakers initially included wording in the bill to protect transgender people, but the Council of States, Switzerland’s higher parliamentary chamber, rejected it on the basis that the criteria were too vague.

Caroline Dayer, an expert and researcher on preventing violence and discrimination based in Geneva, said the law would fill a legal loophole and provide much-needed protection to homosexual and bisexual people.

“In Switzerland, it’s possible to publicly say, for instance, ‘Burn the gay’ or ‘Lesbians must be raped’ without any concern,” Ms. Dayer said in an email before the vote. She added that the law would put an end to that.

Yet, opponents argued that such an extension was counter to freedom of expression, and that they should be able to express their views on homosexuality publicly. They gathered the 50,000 signatures necessary to force a national referendum.

A committee against the referendum, “No to Censorship,” argued on its website that Swiss people had the right “to express opinions that don’t please everybody.”

“This also includes defending points of view that are irritating, or diverging from the mainstream,” the website read.

But politicians and experts challenged the notion that the law would threaten freedom of expression, since it would not penalize arguments hold in private circles. “And insulting and promoting hatred is not discussing,” Ms. Dayer said.

Interior Minister Alain Berset said in a video message to voters that jokes about gay men and lesbians would still be allowed “as long as they respect human dignity.”

Switzerland has long trailed behind most of its neighbors in L.G.B.T.Q. rights, ranking 27th of 49 European countries in the 2019 report of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Switzerland had a score of 29, from a possible 100, for such rights, according to the organization, compared to 47 in Germany, 63 in France and 67 in Britain.

Other European countries such as France, Britain, and Belgium have enacted laws against homophobia since the early 2000s. Though same-sex partnerships are legal in Switzerland, same-sex marriage is not.

There is no official count of the number of violent or discriminatory episodes against L.G.B.T.Q. people in Switzerland, making it hard to measure the extent of the issue. But in 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Council publicly expressed concerns about hate speech against gay people in Switzerland, and urged the country to “adopt comprehensive legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“The situation is mediocre for L.G.B.T.Q. rights in Switzerland,” said Muriel Waeger, the co-director of “Against Discriminations, Yes,” a committee set up before the referendum and that urged the Swiss to support the changes.

Ms. Waeger, who is also a regional director at Pink Cross and LOS, two organizations representing L.G.B.T. people in Switzerland, said the group had set up a hotline to collect testimonies of discrimination in German-speaking areas of Switzerland. She said Pink Cross had received two calls a week.

In November, two 3-year-old boys were rejected by a day care center because their parents are gay. The day care’s director “said that children can be very mean, and that’s why she didn’t want to welcome the kids of a gay couple,” a father of the boys told Swiss news media.

Ms. Dayer said that the law would not make homophobia disappear, but that it was a necessary lever that Switzerland needed to fight it.

“The extension sends a vital message to homosexual and bisexual people, and to the Swiss society over all, that hatred has no place, and that those violence are not legitimate,” she said.

Iliana Magra contributed reporting.

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