European Court forces Austria to up hold legal rights for gay and lesbian couples


Legal rights for gay and lesbian couples has been hotly debated in Austria as well - The European court recently ruled that an Austrian gay man, Siegmund Karner, who was evicted from his flat when his partner died was the victim of unlawful discrimination. His partner had been the official tenant of the flat. The Austrian Supreme Court had ruled that tenancy protection for a so-called 'life companion' only applied to different sex cohabiters. But the European court judges said the Austrian ruling is discriminatory. Kurt Krickler, is General Secretary of HÖSI - an Austrian homosexual rights group, who supported the case. He says the Strasbourg court's decision is significant not just in Austria but in many other countries as well.

"From the ruling it is clear, that in the future if there are similar cases in other areas, where opposite-sex unions and non-married couples have certain rights, that these rights have to be given and guaranteed for same-sex couples too."

Originally in Austria it was the high court judges who ruled against Karner, saying he didn't have the right to stay in the flat. Were they just literally following the rule of law - the law didn't account for this kind of situation, or was it in your opinion, active discrimination against Karner?

"I think it was a kind of active discrimination, because the law is neutral - it says 'lebensgefährter' or 'companion for life', so it's gender neutral. So it's a matter of interpretation of the term. But the high court went back to jurisprudence of previous cases dating from the 1970s and said 'well the legislators didn't have in mind to cover same sex couple when the law was enacted', and that's why the court couldn't change the interpretation - it was up to the legislators to change the law. But that not true, because the high court is supposed to interpret the European human rights convention and the human rights conventions as such. I think it was a homophobic decision by the court. But that's probably because the higher the court, the older the judges and the more old fashioned and conservative they are."

And so what rights do homosexual couples have legally then?

"For us it's embarrassing to have to fight for each individual right extra so to say and not to get a general solution like in Scandinavia, where they have introduced registered partnerships, from which you have all the rights apart from a few limited to married couples. For example - to be able to get social insurance coverage for a partner if that partner doesn't have his or her own."

In Poland at the moment, a group of MPs are trying to legalise gay marriages. How far away is Austria from doing the same kind if thing?

"Well I think the problem in Austria is that we have had a conservative majority in parliament since 1983. The conservative party are very anti-gay I would say and there is no progress to be expected as long as the conservative party in power."

Would you say then that Austria is quite behind in it's thinking on this issue compared with other countries in the region, such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland Slovakia and so on?

"Yes, I think some of these countries are ahead. Maybe not Poland - I'm not sure they'll really get the majority there to pass the gay marriage bill. But in Slovenia it's already been discussed in Parliament, the Czech Republic has always been more progressive and Hungary already recognizes same sex civil unions in the same way as a opposite sex partnership. So yes, we are behind, definitely."