After a lengthy parliamentary battle, the Swiss government will hold a referendum concerning legislation introduced in December 2020 recognizing same-sex marriage. Under this law, same-sex couples can enter into “registered partnerships” with some legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity. Public support for the law was unanimously in favor of the bill with 63.1% in agreement with the change compared to the 36.9% opposing the change. However, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Switzerland’s largest nationalist political party, achieved its promise of enacting a referendum over the decision by obtaining 61,027 signatures from the populace, meeting the requirement that allows members of the public to vote on a referendum over any parliamentary decisions if over 50,000 signatures from the public are gathered within 100 days from the publication of any legislative act. The fate of the current legislation will be known once the Swiss government determines the date of the referendum in May.
Support for the referendum is born out of an initiative involving members from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the Democratic Christian Party (CVP), and the Federal Democratic Union (EDU) rejecting the legitimacy of same-sex marriage with the slogan “Yes to marriage and family, no to marriage for everyone.” On the opposite side of Switzerland’s political spectrum, Operation Libero, a liberal political movement, has garnered 100,000 signatures in their petition to keep the law in place stating “it is important that people in Switzerland can get married irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Pink Cross, an LGBT umbrella organization, has cited their poll conducted in November 2020 as evidence that Swiss citizens support the 2020 law in which 82% of voters responded with either adequate or strong approval of same-sex marriage.
In spite that the impending referendum would delay any further entrenchment of legislative protection of same-sex marriage, this decision arguably represents a greater opportunity in further cementing current progress in safeguarding LGBT rights. Despite the existing legislation recognizing same-sex unions, it does not guarantee the same rights as marriage, including rights to obtain citizenship and the joint adoption of children. Existing political organizations and movements have the chance to address the lagging reform of LGBT rights evident with Switzerland compared to its European counterparts.
In fact, Switzerland ranked 27th of 49 European countries in the 2019 report of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. This is not surprising given that until recently, no substantive Swiss legislation had enforced legal protection for LGBTQ people from discrimination. Attempts were made to pass a law in December 2018 addressing this issue, but became ineffective by political opposition by the Christian Federal Democratic Union (EDU) and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who successfully sought a referendum to prevent it from coming into effect. Other countries have demonstrated an accelerated approach to securing LGBT rights such as France and Germany where same-sex marriages were legalized in 2013 and 2017 respectively. Elsewhere, the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry. In comparison, Switzerland is falling behind.
What lies beyond this referendum for Switzerland can decide the direction of progress for LGBT rights protection. Perhaps the next issue of contention would revolve around the minimum age allowed to change one’s gender legally without parental consent, which is 16. Maybe it could instead address the number of violent or discriminatory episodes against LGBTQ people in Switzerland raised by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017. Increased legal protection of LGBT people or asylum seekers against violence could become the next step that LGBT advocates address. Whatever the case may be, it cannot be denied that Switzerland has reformed LGBT rights at a moderate pace and could hasten this progress in the future.