“Oh well, why worry about a few silly stickers. The police would be better off dealing with the serious cases. Just look at what just happened to that journalist (who became the victim of a homophobic attack), they should deal with that.” That’s what I was told, in a number of variations, when I pointed out that the ‘just normal’ stickers in Antwerp and Ghent scared me.

It’s true, of course, that they are “just” stickers. The perpetrator – who was coward enough to have them made and distributed anonymously and in secret – also remains just within the limits of the law: he or she seeks out the limits but – perhaps consciously – does not go beyond them. Professor Jogchum Vrielink (Université Saint-Louis) therefore doubted on Twitter that the message or the stickers would be punishable in themselves.

Cherishing freedom of expression 

The Constitutional Court says that “inciting hatred” only exists if there is malicious intent and the perpetrator actively incites others to violence or discrimination. And the latter is not the case here. So the “just normal” stickers, no matter how maliciously or meanly intended, fall under freedom of speech.

We can be angry or disappointed about that but we have to respect it. As an LGBTI+ community, we ourselves often bring messages that are (far) disturbing. We regularly question the consensus and it is only because of the freedom of speech law that we can do so. If we were to seek to erode this law because we feel offended, we might be cutting our own fingers. Because if the outrage of the moment is going to determine what we can say and what we can’t, then I fear we’re going to lose out more than not. The idea that it’s okay to be an LGBTI+ person but it’s best not to show it off is, I think, deeper in the minds than we would like. So with laws that protect us as a minority, we need to be very careful.

Playtime is over

This does not mean that we should simply let this pass. On the contrary. Because the stickers are indeed problematic. They push us back into the closet. They say “playtime is over, you were allowed to be ‘silly’ for a while but that’s done now. Time to conform again to the rules, to the values and norms as set by the heterosexual majority.”

If we let this pass, we are leaving the door ajar for more attacks on our rights and freedoms. It is a first major step on a steep slope toward hate, division and violence. And just as a sticker with a crossed out Star of David would not be acceptable, neither is the version with the crossed out rainbow flag. As such, we must do everything we can to stop the spread of this hateful message.

Decriminalize

One of the most important steps towards a society that includes the rainbow community as an integral part of it is the decriminalization and depathologization of our LGBTI+-ness. As long as you are dismissed as a criminal or a mental patient, it is impossible to be seen as a full member of society or to stand up for your rights. In this area, by the way, there is still a lot of work to be done. 

In 70 of the 193 countries that are members of the United Nations, our relationships are still punishable. In 30 of those countries you can get up to 8 years in prison, in 27 countries the sentence goes from 10 years to life and in 11 countries you even risk the death penalty.

As long as these laws remain in place, it is extremely difficult for LGBTI+ persons to emancipate themselves or improve their situation. If you can end up in prison for the simple fact that you are gay, lesbian, bi, trans or intersex, then it is a utopia to think that governments would tolerate the existence of rainbow associations that want to obtain equal rights. Only after decriminalization can social acceptance and integration follow.

For years, we saw a positive evolution in Belgium and by extension in the EU: in no country was it still punishable to enter into LGBTI+ relationships, marriage was increasingly opened up, adoption became possible, people got the right to determine their own gender, and so on. It happened a bit faster in some countries than in others, but step by step gay, lesbian, bi, trans and intersex people everywhere got equal rights.

LGBT-free zones

However, for some time now, opposition to this evolution seems to be growing. Two years ago, anti-LGBTI+ stickers popped up in Poland as well, there with the message “This is an LGBT-free zone.” Following that, several municipalities and cities actually proclaimed themselves “LGBT-free” zones, violence against rainbow associations and activists increased, and legislative initiatives were taken to limit the rights of LGBTI+ Poles. In Hungary, it started with politicians openly fulminating against the so-called ‘gender ideology’ and thus also targeting LGBTI+ persons.

And in the meantime they are undoing the legal freedoms that were there. Under the guise of child protection, they are once again making it a criminal offense to be openly LGBTI+ persons. “In your bedroom you do what you want,” is their discourse, “but you can’t show it.” And they mean that literally. For example, the new Hungarian law states that it is forbidden to depict or “promote” homosexuality and sex change if minors could see it.

Bookstores will have to discreetly offer LGBTI+-friendly books, TV shows like Modern Family will no longer be shown there, and sex education classes will not include LGBTI+ information. An atmosphere of fear is created because when do you cross the line? The law seems to be deliberately vague on that front. But if it is your opponents who determine how the law should be interpreted, you get arbitrariness. A minority will always lose out. Can you still wear rainbow socks? Can a man-man-couple hold hands in public? Wouldn’t “walking down the street as a trans person” be seen as a provocation?

Growing populism

This is not yet happening in Belgium. Fortunately. But we should not think we are safe: the clock can quickly be turned back if we are not alert. The fact that some groups in our society continue to nurture their machismo, the growing populism, the fact that a number of young, popular Belgian politicians are connecting with the ideas of an Orbán or that they do not feel inhibited to openly call trans people sick and abnormal, shows that we must remain on our guard.

The stickers are a signal, a sign that the social acceptance and integration of the LGBTI+ community is still not complete. So it’s time to step forward. But we can’t do that alone. We can try to make sure that the stickers are taken away, to make sure that nobody wants to make this kind of stickers anymore we need partners.

In that sense it is heartwarming to see that many famous people, footballers, race car drivers, … oppose what is happening in Poland and Hungary. The European leaders and the European Commission have also already spoken out strongly. Our Belgian politicians participated with conviction and a delegation of members of parliament even went to the Budapest Pride. And after the discovery of the ‘just normal’ stickers, there was fierce disapproval from the media and politicians. That the police immediately went after the perpetrator can only be applauded, because it was once different.

Need for a National Action Plan

At the same time, our applause for the justified indignation in the newspapers and on the social media should not make our politicians think that this is enough. Because a statement in the newspaper or a fierce tweet alone will not save us.

For example, we are still waiting for a National Action Plan against Homo- and Transphobia. Both the Flemish, Walloon, Brussels and federal governments have a minister for Equal Opportunities. Almost all democratic parties are in one or more of those governments. All have indicated that they consider the fight against hatred and violence against LGBTI+ persons important. And yet… the wait remains.

Each of those governments does, of course, pursue equal opportunity policies that include their rainbow populations. But an effective policy against discrimination and violence can only be pursued cooperatively in Belgium. The first plan from 2013 had six priorities: more research into homo- and transphobic violence, improved legislation, improved prevention, awareness-raising, expansion of victim support and an efficient follow-up and prosecution policy by the police and the public prosecutor’s office.

Looking at this list, we must unfortunately conclude that these actions should still be a priority. Unia, the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination, received no less than 406 reports of sexual orientation discrimination last year and assumes that these figures show only a fraction of the reality because a lot of homophobia, transphobia and anti-homosexual or anti-trans violence goes unreported.

Tipping Point 

So the need for this National Action Plan is as great as it was in 2013. If our governments do not tackle this together, we will also not be able to take the next step towards integration on the streets and in the workplace. 

Then the ‘just normal’ stickers might become the tipping point, the first overt sign of the decline of LGBTI+ rights in Belgium. We can stop it, it’s not too late. But the time when we could think it would all work itself out is over. Dear politicians, action is needed! Now! Show that you do care about your LGBTI+ compatriots.

This opinion piece appeared on Zizo Magazine on September 24, 2021. You can read it here: https://zizomag.be/opiniestukken/opiniestuk-stickers-om-van-wakker-te-liggen

>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation. A more correct version is coming soon.