THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Across Europe, gay couples are scared of publicly engaging in even the most basic expression of their affection: Holding hands.
Released Friday, the largest ever EU survey of hate crime and discrimination targeting members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the 27-nation bloc and Croatia showed many of them live in fear and conceal their sexual identity.
Two-thirds of the 93,000 people who filled in the anonymous online questionnaire said they were afraid of holding hands in public with a same sex partner -- the figure rose to 75 percent for gay and bisexual men.
Austrian European lawmaker Ulrike Lunacek, said she has seen improvements in attitudes since she came out as a lesbian 30 years ago, but wasn't surprised at the fear of holding hands.
"I know myself. In some areas of some cities I maybe also wouldn't do it," she said.
The survey, released on the International Day against Homophobia, is important, she said, because "for the first time, we see how much fear there is still around."
The results showed that more than 80 percent of the group are verbally abused or bullied at school, nearly one in five feel discriminated against when seeking work and a quarter of the people have been attacked or threatened in recent years.
"It shows very clearly that things are not going right," said EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. "That there are still very many discriminations, that the (laws) which are in place in member states are de facto not really applied in practical terms and that LGBT people are afraid to go to court or go to police because they are afraid of being victimized a second time."
In the Georgian capital of Tbilisi on Tuesday, thousands of anti-gay protesters including Orthodox priests occupied a central street with some brandishing stinging nettles with which they threatened to lash any participant in a gay pride parade which was scheduled. Sixteen people were reported to be injured in scuffles.
Reding said the results of the EU survey confirm findings in earlier studies but should still alert lawmakers in the EU and its member states that they need to do more to ensure members of the gay community are not targeted.
The survey did not only highlight the fear of violence and abuse on the streets and discrimination in the workplace. Two-thirds of students or former students who took part in the survey reported disguising their sexuality at school.
Bullying at school is even more widespread, according to the survey, and Lunacek said that, in part, is because of the increased number of gays who are open about their sexuality.
"It's become more obvious, more visible and that also means there are more negative reactions to that," she said.
Lunacek urged lawmakers and policy makers to use the report to tackle discrimination at all levels of society across the EU.
"It's simply unacceptable that people, because of who they fall in love with, are afraid and live lives of fear," she said.
The anonymous online survey was conducted between April and July last year. It was carried out for the EU Fundamental Rights Agency by Gallup Europe in partnership with the European region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association -- an umbrella organization representing lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender civil society groups.
The survey collected information from 93,079 persons aged 18 years or over who identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and who lived in the EU or Croatia, about their experiences.
Further details of the methodology were not immediately available, but the FRA says its results are in line with previous smaller surveys.