Skip to main content

Equality and Heteronormativity: Heterosexual Majority and Homosexual Minority in the European Convention on Human Rights

  • Chapter
  • First Online:
More Equal than Others?


The European Convention on Human Rights protects equality through the principle of non-discrimination. However, this approach currently leads to insufficient results to achieve full equality in matters relating to sexual orientation. This chapter will argue that the heteronormative character of the Convention plays a large role in maintaining disparities, disregarding the application of the non-discrimination test in favour of a more conservative approach based on the relevance of consensus. In this framework, it is maintained that the heterosexual majority has the exclusive power to grant their rights and privileges to the homosexual minority, while the supervisory body of the Convention, namely the European Court of Human Rights, seems to accept such dynamic. The chapter concludes by highlighting the dysfunctionalities of such mechanism and suggesting a more coherent approach towards equality within the system of the Convention.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this chapter

USD 29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
USD 129.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Available as EPUB and PDF
  • Read on any device
  • Instant download
  • Own it forever
Softcover Book
USD 169.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Compact, lightweight edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info
Hardcover Book
USD 169.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • Durable hardcover edition
  • Dispatched in 3 to 5 business days
  • Free shipping worldwide - see info

Tax calculation will be finalised at checkout

Purchases are for personal use only

Institutional subscriptions


  1. 1.

    The introduction of the term dates back to Warner 1991. Numerous other studies have dealt with the theme, including Jagose 1996; Jackson 2006; Oswald et al. 2011; Toomey et al. 2012. A consistent part of the heteronormative critique follows in the footsteps of gender studies; on these themes, see amongst many Butler 1990, 1993; Fuss 1991.

  2. 2.

    Freely translated from Falcetta 2015, p. 22.

  3. 3.

    See Schuster 2011, p. 35.

  4. 4.

    For example, when a legal text embodies the term ‘family’, as per heteronormativity it implies a reference to the ‘heterosexual family’. This was approximately the basis of the decision of the Italian Constitutional Court No. 138/2010 excluding homosexual couples from the protection of Article 29 of the Italian Constitution, which states in neutral terms that: ‘The Republic recognizes the rights of the family as a natural society based on marriage’.

  5. 5.

    On heteronormativity and the ECHR, see Falcetta 2015; Johnson 2012, 2013, 2015; Grigolo 2003.

  6. 6.

    Sexual orientation was included in Article 14 for the first time in Salgueiro da Silva Mouta v. Portugal, App. No. 33290/96, ECHR 1999-IX, p. 32.

  7. 7.

    See Recommendation 924 and Resolution 756 of 1 October 1981, Doc. 4755.

  8. 8.

    See e.g. Rees v. United Kingdom [GC], App. No. 9532/81, Judgment of 10 October 1986.

  9. 9.

    A set of initial claims pertained to the criminalization of homosexual acts, see for example, European Commission of Human Rights, Decision of 17 December 1955, No. 104/55, W.B. v. Germany. The orientation of the Court changed in this regard only with the Dudgeon judgment in 1981. See Dudgeon v. United Kingdom [GC], App. No. 7525/76, Judgment of 22 October 1981.

  10. 10.

    The Protocol has been ratified by less than half of the States parties: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cipro, Croatia, Finland, Georgia, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Republic of North Macedonia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine.

  11. 11.

    See, for example, E.B. v. France [GC], App. No. 43546/02, Judgment of 22 January 2008, para 47.

  12. 12.

    See Dudgeon v. United Kingdom, supra n. 9, para 67. More recently, Fedotova v. Russia, App. No. 40792/10, 30538/14, 43439/1, Judgment of 13 July 2021, para 57.

  13. 13.

    See, for example, Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, App. No. 30141/04, ECHR 2010-IV, para 99.

  14. 14.

    X. and others v. Austria [GC], App. No. 19010/07, ECHR 2013-II, para 139.

  15. 15.

    Taddeucci and McCall v. Italy, App. No. 51362/09, Judgment of 30 June 2016, para 93.

  16. 16.

    Bayev and others v. Russia, App. No. 67667/09, 44092/12, 56717/12, Judgment of 20 June 2017, para 67. See also Vallianatos and others v. Grecia [GC], App. No. 29381/09, 32684/09, ECHR 2013-VI, para 89.

  17. 17.

    Burden v. United Kingdom [GC], App. No. 13378/05, Judgment of 29 April 2008, para 60.

  18. 18.

    X. and others v. Austria [GC], supra n. 14, para 99.

  19. 19.

    See Dzehtsiarou 2015, p. 9. Similarly, see Brems 2001, p. 420.

  20. 20.

    Morawa 2002, p. 8, Dzehtsiarou 2015, p. 28.

  21. 21.

    See, for example, Christine Goodwin v. United Kingdom [GC], App. No. 28957/95, ECHR 2002-VI. See also Dzehtsiarou 2011, 2015, p. 1730.

  22. 22.

    Additional rights are described as ‘falling within the general scope of any Article of the Convention, for which the State has voluntarily decided to provide’, see E.B. v. France [GC], supra n. 11, para 48.

  23. 23.

    E.B. v. France [GC], supra n. 11.

  24. 24.

    Ibid., paras 94–96.

  25. 25.

    See, e.g., Karner v. Austria, App. No. 40016/98, ECHR 2003-IX; P.B. and J.S. v. Austria, App. No. 18984/02, Judgment of 20 March 2008; Kozak v. Poland, App. No. 13102/02, Judgment of 2 March 2010; X. and others v. Austria [GC], supra n. 14; Pajic v. Croatia, App. No. 68453/13, judgment of 23 February 2016; Taddeucci and McCall v. Italy, supra n. 15.

  26. 26.

    Kozak v. Poland, supra n. 25.

  27. 27.

    ‘Nevertheless, having regard to the State's narrow margin of appreciation in adopting measures that result in a difference based on sexual orientation, a blanket exclusion of persons living in a homosexual relationship from succession to a tenancy cannot be accepted by the Court as necessary for the protection of the family viewed in its traditional sense, ibid., para 99.

  28. 28.

    X. and others v. Austria [GC], supra n. 14.

  29. 29.

    ‘Had the first and third applicants been an unmarried different-sex couple, the domestic courts would not have been able to refuse the adoption request as a matter of principle.’ Ibid., para 125.

  30. 30.

    Pajic v. Croatia, supra n. 25.

  31. 31.

    Section 56 of the Aliens Act guaranteed family reunification only to heterosexual married couples or to heterosexual couples in a stable relationship for more than three years. Even though the Croatian State had introduced civil unions, this was not included in the Aliens Act.

  32. 32.

    Pajic v. Croatia, supra n. 25, para 79.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., para 80.

  34. 34.

    Taddeucci and McCall v. Italy, supra n. 15.

  35. 35.

    Ibid., paras 81–83. It is worth noting that the applicants were married in a third State. It was thus easier for the Court to rule in favour of a duty to recognize their status in order to exercise the rights connected to it. In the same vein, see the Court of Justice of the European Union in C-673/16, Relu Adrian Coman and Others v. Inspectoratul General pentru Imigrări and Ministerul Afacerilor Interne [GC] [2018] ECLI:EU:C:2018:385.

  36. 36.

    See, amongst many, European Commission of Human Rights, C. and L.M. v. United Kingdom, App. No. 14753/89, Decision of 9 October 1989; Rees v. United Kingdom [GC], supra n. 8; Christine Goodwin v. United Kingdom [GC], supra n. 21.

  37. 37.

    Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, supra n. 13, para 61.

  38. 38.

    Ibid., para 62.

  39. 39.

    Ibid., paras 58 and 61.

  40. 40.

    Ibid., para 101.

  41. 41.

    Oliari and others v. Italy, App. No. 18766/11, 36030/11, Judgment of 21 July 2015. See also Orlandi and others v. Italy, App. No. 26431/12, 26742/12, 44057/12, 60088/12, Judgment of 14 December 2017, originally joined with Oliari. The applications were eventually separated; however, the conclusions of the Court were pretty much the same with regard to the right to marry and the discrimination principle.

  42. 42.

    Chapin and Charpentier v. France, App. No. 40183/07, Judgment of 9 June 2016.

  43. 43.

    Oliari and others v. Italy, supra n. 41, para 193.

  44. 44.

    Chapin and Charpentier v. France, supra n. 42, paras 38–39.

  45. 45.

    Ibid., para 36.

  46. 46.

    See, e.g., Oliari and others v. Italy, supra n. 41, para 165; Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, supra n. 13, para 99; Vallianatos and others v. Greece [GC], supra n. 16, paras 78 and 81.

  47. 47.

    See X. and others v. Austria, supra n. 14, para 139: ‘The aim of protecting the family in the traditional sense is rather abstract and a broad variety of concrete measures may be used to implement it. Also, given that the Convention is a living instrument, to be interpreted in present-day conditions, the State, in its choice of means designed to protect the family and secure respect for family life as required by Article 8, must necessarily take into account developments in society and changes in the perception of social, civil-status and relational issues, including the fact that there is not just one way or one choice when it comes to leading one’s family or private life’.

  48. 48.

    Christine Goodwin v. United Kingdom [GC], supra n. 21, para 98: ‘Reviewing the situation in 2002, the Court observes that Article 12 secures the fundamental right of a man and woman to marry and to found a family. The second aspect is not however a condition of the first and the inability of any couple to conceive or parent a child cannot be regarded as per se removing their right to enjoy the first limb of this provision’.

  49. 49.

    The existence of a general positive obligation of recognition flowing from Article 8 has been long debated. Contra; Hayward 2016; Marzano 2017, p. 268; Ziyadov 2019, p. 639. In favour, see e.g. Rudan 2016, pp. 197–198; Lenti 2015, p. 581; Savarese 2015. The matter was recently set in Fedotova v. Russia (2021), supra n. 12, where the Court unequivocally held the Russian State under an obligation to recognize same-sex unions.

  50. 50.

    ‘Indeed, the instant case concerns solely the general need for legal recognition and the core protection of the applicants as same-sex couples. The Court considers the latter to be facets of an individual’s existence and identity to which the relevant margin should apply’. Oliari and others v. Italy, supra n. 41, para 177.

  51. 51.

    Following the judgment in Oliari Italy has adopted Law No. 76/2016 establishing civil unions. Further pending cases will provide the Court of Strasbourg with the possibility to further elaborate on the existence of positive obligations flowing from Article 8: see the pending applications against Poland (No. 18822/18, 11454/17, 11560/19, 131/15, 45301/19, 58828/12, 78030/14 and 23669/16) and Romania (case communicated on 23 January 2020, No. 5926/20, S.K.K. and A.C.G v. Romania). In these cases, similarly to Oliari, same-sex couples complain of the absence of means of having their relationship recognized.

  52. 52.

    Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, supra n. 13, paras 102–104.

  53. 53.

    Ibid., para 105.

  54. 54.

    Vallianatos and others v. Greece [GC], supra n. 16.

  55. 55.

    Ibid., para 75.

  56. 56.

    Vallianatos, for the first time, identified a positive obligation for a State to extend legal recognition to same-sex couples, but it does so only if the State chooses to act on the issue of legal recognition for unmarried couples’ (emphasis mine), v. Marzano 2017, p. 271.

  57. 57.

    Oliari and others v. Italy, supra n. 41.

  58. 58.

    Ibid., para 188.

  59. 59.

    Dudgeon v. United Kingdom, supra n. 9, para 67.

  60. 60.

    See the concurring opinion of judge Mahoney joined by judges Tsotsoria and Vehabovic in Oliari v. Italy, supra n. 41.

  61. 61.

    Oliari v. Italy, supra n. 41, para 184.

  62. 62.

    Taddeucci and McCall, supra n. 15, para 94.

  63. 63.

    Fedotova v. Russia, supra n. 12.

  64. 64.

    Although the existence of a certain degree of consensus is not per se decisive to impose a general duty to introduce equal marriage, if single States disagree. This principle is expressed in A. B. and C. v. Ireland [GC], App. No. 25579/05, ECHR 2010-VI, para 188. For further reading, see also Dzehtsiarou 2011, 2015, p. 1733.

  65. 65.

    See Bassok 2019 on the use of consensus by the European Court as a tool of legitimacy in what he defines as a ‘quest for public confidence’.

  66. 66.

    See, amongst many, Oliari and others v. Italy, supra n. 41, para 177.

  67. 67.

    ‘The reference to “men and women” is descriptive of an assumed reality, rather than prescriptive of a normative structure for all time’, see Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie, CCT60/04 (Official Case No) [2005] ZACC 19, para 100.

  68. 68.

    ‘[...] the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest’, see Obergefell v. Hodges [2015] 576 U.S. 644, para 17.

  69. 69.

    See, amongst many, Strain and others v. Romania, App. No. 57001/00, ECHR 2005-VII, para 59; S.A.S. v. France [GC], App. No. 43835/11, ECHR 2014-III, para 149.

  70. 70.

    On the difficulties of the European Court to act as countermajoritarian, see Bassok 2019 and more generally Bassok 2012.

  71. 71.

    Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Opinión Consultiva de 24 de Noviembre de 2017, solicitada por la República de Costa Rica, Identidad de género, e igualdad y no discriminación a parejas del mismo sexo, OC-24/17, see in particular para 218–220 for the rejection of consensus and also para 223.

  72. 72.

    Claims in favour of a more proactive countermajoritarian role by human rights courts are supported by numerous authors. See for example Benvenisti 2018, pp. 851–853.


  • Bassok O (2012) The Two Countermajoritarian Difficulties. Saint Louis University Public Law Review 31(2):333–382

    Google Scholar 

  • Bassok O (2019) The European Consensus Doctrine and the ECtHR Quest for Public Confidence. In: Kapotas P, Tzevelekos V P (eds) Building Consensus on European Consensus: Judicial Interpretation of Human Rights in Europe and Beyond. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 236–257

    Google Scholar 

  • Benvenisti E (2018) The Margin of Appreciation, Subsidiarity and Global Challenges to Democracy. Journal of International Dispute Settlement 9(2):240–253

    Google Scholar 

  • Brems E (2001) Human Rights: Universality and Diversity. Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague/Boston/Leiden

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler J (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Butler J (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Dzehtsiarou K (2011) European Consensus and the Evolutive Interpretation of the European Convention on Human Rights. German Law Journal 12(10):1730–1745

    Google Scholar 

  • Dzehtsiarou K (2015) European Consensus and the Legitimacy of the European Court of Human Rights. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  • Falcetta S (2015) L’eteronormatività nell’operato della Corte europea dei diritti umani: luci e ombre in materia di riconoscimento giuridico delle coppie formate da persone dello stesso sesso. International Journal of Gender Studies 7(4):19–41

    Google Scholar 

  • Fuss D (1991) Inside/Out. In: Fuss D (ed) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. Routledge, New York, pp 1–10

    Google Scholar 

  • Grigolo M (2003) Sexualities and the ECHR: Introducing the Universal Sexual Legal Subject. European Journal of International Law 14(5):1023–1044

    Google Scholar 

  • Hayward A (2016) Same-Sex Registered Partnerships – A Right to Be Recognized. Cambridge Law Journal 75(1):27–30

    Google Scholar 

  • Jackson S (2006) Gender, Sexuality and Heterosexuality: The Complexity (and Limits) of Heteronormativity. Feminist Theory 7(1):105–121

    Google Scholar 

  • Jagose A (1996) Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnson P (2012) Heteronormativity and the European Court of Human Rights. Law Critique 23:43–66

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnson P (2013) Homosexuality and the European Court of Human Rights. Routledge, Abingdon

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnson P (2015) Marriage, Heteronormativity and the European Court of Human Rights: A Reappraisal. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 29(1):56–77

    Google Scholar 

  • Lenti L (2015) Prime note in margine al caso Oliari c. Italia. La nuova giurisprudenza civile commentata 31(10):575–581

    Google Scholar 

  • Marzano V J (2017) Oliari and the European Court of Human Rights: Where the Court Failed. Pace International Law Review 29(1):250–287

    Google Scholar 

  • Morawa A (2002) The “Common European Approach”, “International Trends”, and the Evolution of Human Rights Law. A Comment on Goodwin and I. v. the United Kingdom. German Law Journal 3(8).

  • Oswald R F, Blume L B, Marks S R (2011) Decentering Heteronormativity: A Model for Family Studies. In: Bengston V L, Acock A C, Allen K R, Dilworth-Anderson P, Klein D M (eds) Sourcebook of Family Theory and Research. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, pp 143–165

    Google Scholar 

  • Rudan D (2016) L’obbligo di disporre il riconoscimento giuridico delle coppie dello stesso sesso: il caso Oliari e altri c. Italia. Rivisto di diritto internazionale 99(1):190–198

    Google Scholar 

  • Savarese E (2015) In margine al caso Oliari: ovvero di come il limbo italiano delle coppie omosessuali abbia violato gli obblighi positivi dell’art. 8 CEDU. Diritti umani e diritto internazionale 9(3):655–672

    Google Scholar 

  • Schuster A (2011) L’abbandono del dualismo eteronormativo della famiglia. In: Schuster A (ed) Omogenitorialità, Filiazione, orientamento sessuale e diritto. Mimesis, Milan

    Google Scholar 

  • Toomey R B, McGuire J K, Russell S T (2012) Heteronormativity, School Climates, and Perceived Safety for Gender Nonconforming Peers. Journal of Adolescence 35(1):187–196

    Google Scholar 

  • Warner M (1991) Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet. Social Text 29:3–17

    Google Scholar 

  • Ziyadov N (2019) From Justice to Injustice: Lowering the Threshold of European Consensus in Oliari and Others versus Italy. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 26(2):631–672

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Giulio Fedele .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

Copyright information

© 2023 T.M.C. ASSER PRESS and the authors

About this chapter

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Fedele, G. (2023). Equality and Heteronormativity: Heterosexual Majority and Homosexual Minority in the European Convention on Human Rights. In: Amoroso, D., Marotti, L., Rossi, P., Spagnolo, A., Zarra, G. (eds) More Equal than Others?. T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague.

Download citation

  • DOI:

  • Published:

  • Publisher Name: T.M.C. Asser Press, The Hague

  • Print ISBN: 978-94-6265-538-6

  • Online ISBN: 978-94-6265-539-3

  • eBook Packages: Law and CriminologyLaw and Criminology (R0)

Publish with us

Policies and ethics