On Sunday 9 February, voters in Switzerland backed a proposal to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity illegal. Unlike many of its western European neighbours, Switzerland has no law in force that specifically protects LGBTQ+ people from discrimination or hate speech.
Mathias Reynard, a Social Democrat who drafted the legislation, told The Times the vote showed there was “no place for hate and discrimination in Switzerland”.
“This is a historic day,” he said. “It gives a signal which is magnificent for everyone and for anyone who has been a victim of discrimination.”
LGBTQ+ rights in Switzerland
The result of the referendum – 63.1% in favour to 36.9% against – is a huge boost for Switzerland’s LGBTQ+ community. Switzerland and Italy are the last two countries in western Europe where gay marriage is not legal. Both countries offer same-sex couples the option of civil unions but not full marriage although a bill to legalise same-sex marriage is currently on its way through the Swiss parliament. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found support for same-sex marriage among Switzerland’s population at 75%, with 24% opposed and 1% undecided.
Anna Rosenwasser, from the Swiss Lesbian Organisation, told BBC that on the Rainbow Map of 49 countries’ respect for LGBTQ+ 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,” she said.
She also pointed out that the lack of legal protection causes harm to the gay community, citing 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.”
The referendum result
In Sunday’s vote, 63.1% of the public voted in favour of expanding the anti-discrimination law, though the results revealed splits across the linguistically and cultural heterogenous state. In the German-speaking cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Appenzell-Innerrhoden, there were majorities in favour of blocking the law. In French-speaking Vaud, by contrast, the law was endorsed by an emphatic 80% of the voting public.
Switzerland has a long tradition of holding referenda on issues that can range from major foreign policy decisions to the building of a new school. Votes are usually held on three to four dates spread across the year.
In the run up to the vote, campaigners had said they thought the result would be tight, and that a yes vote of more than 60% was unlikely. Sunday’s outcome shows public opinion is far more receptive to strengthening anti-discrimination legislation than analysts had predicted.
Pink Cross Switzerland, a non-governmental LGBTQ+ organisation, said in a statement:
“The result proves a strong sign of acceptance for lesbians, gays and bisexuals. After the clear yes, the LGBTI community will use this momentum to achieve the consistent implementation of the penal code and to enforce marriage equality.”
Critics of the new law
While the majority voted to extend anti-racism legislation to cover sexual orientation, critics claimed such a move would be an infringement of free speech. On flyers and on posters, opponents framed the law as a “gagging clause” that would restrict freedom of speech and demote gay and bisexual members of society to a “weak minority in need of protection”.
The new proposal was mainly opposed by the right-wing, nationalist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and Christian conservatives, who claimed the new law would lead to censorship but also to close down debate on issues such as gay marriage. Campaigners quickly collected the 50,000 signatures that are required to put the matter to a referendum.
Hans Moser, the leader of the Federal Democratic Union (EDU), a conservative Christian party, said the vote would not mean a “free pass” for forthcoming legislation allowing gay marriage, which is not yet legal in Switzerland.
“We will continue to defend Christian values,” he said.
The new legislation
In Switzerland, discrimination because of race or religion is already illegal but the new law specifically protects LGBTQ+ people from discrimination or hate speech. Under it, those who “publicly degrade or discriminate” others on the basis of their sexual orientation, for example by denying same-sex couples entry to a nightclub, could face a jail sentence of up to three years. The law does not affect private conversations such as among friends or family. Several European countries such as Belgium, Germany, France, Ireland and the UK already have similar legislation in place.