Sarah Schlitz: Queer politics in action

Sarah Schlitz is the Belgian government’s Secretary of State for Gender Equality, Equal Opportunities and Diversity.

I caught up with her to talk politics.

How would you describe life for LGBTQ people in Belgium?

For me, there are two different aspects to be distinguished when talking about the lives of LGBTQI+ people in our country.

The first one is the legal framework, the civil rights for all. A person in Belgium – contrary to other countries in the world – can marry whoever he or she wants, can adopt, have access to medically assisted reproduction, be protected by special laws, and work in the army. Transgender people can easily change their identity cards. These are considerable advances and, in reality, they are simply fundamental rights that should be granted to every citizen.

On the other hand, life in society still seems complicated if we refer to the latest figures. The statistics are far from satisfying. In Belgium, one in two people do not come out at work, and six out of ten people do not dare to hold hands with their partner in the street. There is still far too much violence against LGBTQI+ citizens in the public space and at school.

From the Federal Government’s perspective, what are some of the main challenges currently facing LGBTQ people in Belgium?

My biggest challenge as Secretary of State is to respond to the needs and realities of the people concerned. In Belgium, much has been done without really consulting civil society. I am developing a SOGIESC – Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression and Sexual Characteristics – action plan, in consultation with associations, which will be implemented in the course of 2022. The main objective is to carry out policy measures that enhance the safety and inclusiveness of LGBTQI+ people.

There are also efforts to be made in the area of health of LGBTQI+ groups and improving access to services. As a very concrete example, transgender men do not have access to reimbursement for the contraceptive pill, which is absurd and unfair. I’ve requested that this issue be taken into consideration by the Minister of Health.

What are some of the projects that you’re currently working on that aim to improve the lives of LGBTQ people in Belgium?

In addition to the SOGIESC Plan which will develop LGBTQI+ policies in all areas of life, I’m working on adapting the Transgender Law to make it even more inclusive. People should be able to adapt their gender several times in their lives and ideally the gender should be hidden from identity cards.

I am also working on banning non-consensual medical interventions on intersex minors. Conversion therapies are not yet banned in Belgium, and this is also one of my key projects. I would also like to make progress on the issue of blood donation in Belgium, so that gay men no longer have to wait 12 months of abstinence to be able to give blood.

I also defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people at a European level, with my federal colleagues and my European counterparts. There is a very worrying rise in conservatism at the moment.

How can Belgium’s LGBTQ community engage with the Federal Government to shape the policies and projects being implemented?

In my opinion, Belgian LGBTQI+ organisations are already very committed and do incredible work at all levels. They are the ones who are behind the progress made in Belgium. It’s great for Belgium to have organisations with such expertise and determination – such as the LGBTQI+ umbrella organisations of RainbowHouse, çavaria and Arc-en-ciel Wallonie – but there are also other very important organisations that do remarkable work in the fight for LGBTQI+ rights.

Moreover, my SOGIESC Action Plan, unlike the previous one, provides for consultation with LGBTQI+ civil society. For me, it’s not possible to implement policies without that consultation.

In your opinion, what makes Belgium an attractive destination for LGBTQ travellers?

The Belgians and, of course, our amazing beers! I’m joking, we obviously have a huge range of things going on.

The LGBTQI+ cultural offering is abundant. I’m also thinking of the LGBTQI+ district in the centre of Brussels. There are several LGBTQI+ cultural festivals and parties. For example, soon there will be the Pink Screens and the L-festival, a festival I won’t miss. We hosted the first Lesbiennale in Brussels in October. The Belgian Pride is a magical moment in the year, with over 100,000 visitors – it’s quite an incredible experience. And for lovers of art nouveau, museums, street art, comics and drag shows, Belgium is the place to be.

If an LGBTQ traveller was visiting Belgium, what would be your top local tip that you’d recommend?

I really recommend to travel everywhere, because every city has its own charm, its own assets and queer places that are worth visiting – from Antwerp to Ghent, Liege or Leuven. Of course, the capital remains the place where LGBT culture is the most important. And I hope that more and more places for LBTI women will open!