Switzerland aims to make discrimination against LGBTI people a crime

A top Swiss parliamentary committee has proposed legal changes that would see discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity punishable by law.

Switzerland aims to make discrimination against LGBTI people a crime
File photo: Depositphotos

Currently, under the Swiss penal code, discrimination against people on the grounds of their race, ethnic origin or religious beliefs is an offence, with the maximum penalty being three years in prison or a fine.

But in a statement released on Wednesday, the legal affairs committee of the Swiss upper house, the Council of States, recommended that article 261bis of the penal code be changed to also make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity illegal.

The committee's recommendation comes a full five years after Socialist MP Mathias Reynard introduced a parliamentary motion on the issue.

With the move, the parliamentary legal committee has gone a step further than the Swiss government which had backed the inclusion of sexual orientation, but not sexual identity, in the legislation.

Read also: 'Man plus man doesn't go' – Swiss politician's gay marriage tweet

Outlining its decision to also include sexual identity in its proposed legal changes, the commission said transsexuals and intersex people were the victims of hate crimes alongside homosexuals or bisexuals.

Roman Heggli of Swiss LGBT rights group Pink Cross welcomed the news.

“It is high time gay, lesbian and intersex people in Switzerland no longer be allowed to be vilified and attacked across the board,” he was quoted as saying in the Blick newspaper.

“This is not just a big legal step forward: it also has enormous repercussions for our society. It underscores the acceptance of gays and lesbians, and of trans and intersex people,” he said.

The legislative changes will now have to be approved by the Swiss parliament.

Switzerland continues to rank relatively poorly on LGBTI issues with the country placing 22nd among 49 countries in the 2018 rankings compiled by LGBTI advocacy group ILGA-Europe.

The group praised Switzerland for the introduction of the option of stepchild adoption for civil partners and cohabitants. It also noted that a number of new studies meant NGOs now had data on the discrimination faced by LGBTI school children, and on older members of the community.

But ILGA-Europe criticised the Swiss federal council for failing to roll out a comprehensive national LGBTI action plan, as per their recommendation.

Gay marriage is not legal in Switzerland, though same-sex couples can enter into a civil partnership after the move was approved in a 2005 referendum. However, these couples do not enjoy full equality with married couples on issues including adoption and fertility treatment.

A Swiss parliamentary legal affairs committee is currently looking at the issue of same-sex marriage with a draft bill set to be drawn up by mid-2019.

For members


EXPLAINED: The Swiss referendum that could criminalise homophobia

Swiss residents eligible to vote are set to head to the polls in February to vote on a law which criminalises homophobia. This is what you need to know about the vote.

EXPLAINED: The Swiss referendum that could criminalise homophobia

Unlike other forms of discrimination related to race and gender, homophobic discrimination is not criminalised at a federal level in Switzerland. 

The Swiss Government updated the law in December of 2019 to include homophobia under current anti-discrimination statutes, thereby allowing for it to be criminally prosecuted. 

Far-right groups have opposed the move, saying it would serve as a barrier on free speech – gathering the 50,000 signatures necessary to launch a referendum. 

Switzerland will now go to the polls on the 9th of February to vote on the matter – along with another vote on affordable housing. 

READ MORE: Affordable housing: Swiss coalition calls for investment and law reform

READ MORE: Why opposition to cheaper housing is mounting in Switzerland 

Supporters of the criminalisation of homophobia 

Although homosexual relationships are tolerated in much of Switzerland, the country lags behind its neighbours when it comes to affording same-sex groups legal protection. 

The Criminal Codes of France, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, among others, include prohibitions on homophobic actions and words. 

Protesters in Zurich. Image: Fabrice Coffrini

In addition to having no criminal restrictions on homophobia, same-sex marriage is still not legal in Switzerland – a fact which stands out when compared to (most of) its neighbours. 

Advocates of the ban argue that even where relationships are accepted, the failure to recognise them legally in an equal fashion leads to feelings of shame and in some cases self harm and suicide – particularly among younger people. 

Young gay and lesbian people are two to five times more likely attempt suicide than heterosexual people in Switzerland. 

And those opposed?

The major opponent of the new law is the Federal Democratic Union, a hard-right, religious party with little popular support. 

Despite the party securing the 50,000 signatures needed to hold a referendum, it only commands around one percent of the national vote and has less than 3,000 members. 

The FDU have argued that the law restricts freedom of speech and puts people at risk for sanction if the debate issues surrounding same sex relations. 

In an interview published with Swiss website Swissinfo, the FDU distinguished between laws which restricted racism and those which restricted homophobia, saying that those in the latter category were not at risk of genocide. 

READ MORE: Switzerland drops down European gay rights ranking

No homo(phobia)? How do the Swiss feel on same-sex relationships 

Despite widespread liberal attitudes to homosexuality in Switzerland, portions of the electorate remain opposed. 

A poll from January 2020 showed one in ten Swiss consider homosexuality to be immoral, while more than 20 percent of the electorate indicated they were against same-sex marriage. 

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While this may represent a small portion of the electorate, the country is strong on issues of free speech – with the 50,000-strong petition to hold the referendum a clear indication that the outcome is anything from decided.