Unia, the federal anti-discrimination agency, received 125 complaints last year of homophobia, a new record, and 38% more than the average of the previous five years. The total includes a variety of different acts: 17 cases of physical aggression, 42 of verbal aggression and 17 of discrimination in cases of renting a property or providing a commercial service. The 125 complaints in 2018 compare with 84 in 2017 and 104 in 2016.
Belgium, one of the first countries to legalise gay marriage and adoption by gay couples, is sometimes considered a leader in gay rights, but the situation on the ground is more nuanced, explained Patrick Charlier, director of Unia.
“In theory, most people have no problem with same-sex marriage, until they see two men walking hand in hand,” he said. “It’s at moments like those that we see an underlying homophobia among certain groups, ranging from intolerant neighbours to extreme right-wing students.”
And while he declined to state that homophobia was on the increase, he did stress that verbal and physical aggression is a reality in the lives of gay people, and can be seen openly exercised on social and other media.
The number of cases of homophobia online went up from 18 in 2017 to 31 in 2018, ranging from the comments sections under articles – a notorious snake-pit of unvarnished views – to one Catholic forum’s likening of homosexuality to paedophilia.
“The figures show that verbal and physical violence towards homosexuals exists and is not an exception,” Unia states. “Even although many things are well regulated for homosexuals in Belgium. In recent years there has been more attention given to – and condemnation of – homophobic violence on social media, which is a good thing. That could also have the effect of leading to more incidents being reported.”