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Marriage debate spreads to Eastern Europe

Gay advocates face prejudice, church opposition

PRAGUE -- Katarina Benova and Irina Vychopenova didn't want to wait for politicians to decide whether they could marry.

With the Czech parliament scheduled to debate a bill on same-sex civil unions this month, the lesbian couple donned veils and wedding dresses and held an unofficial wedding ceremony on Prague's historic Old Town Square. On a cloudy Saturday morning before dozens of friends and some local media, Benova and Vychopenova, who have lived together for several months, exchanged vows, rings, and embraces as curious tourists and other passersby looked on.

"We are here to show that we love each other and care for each other just like a heterosexual couple," Benova, 32, said after the ceremony. "The promise we made here was intimate and important."

The couple hope they can soon make those same vows again -- in a civil ceremony recognized by their government.

Gay marriage is becoming a hot political issue in Eastern Europe. As it has in the United States recently, the gay-marriage debate has been winding its way through courts and legislatures in Europe for years, producing a patchwork of laws and an array of legal statuses for same-sex couples across the continent.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, same-sex marriage is legal. Other European countries, including Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as some provinces in Spain and Switzerland, have laws recognizing some form of civil unions and partnerships.

Among the former communist nations of Eastern Europe, many of which have recently joined the European Union, the process has been slower.

In some of these countries, attitudes from the communist era -- when homosexuality was either illegal or considered a mental illness -- linger. Moreover, a high-profile Vatican campaign against gay marriage has resonated in heavily Roman Catholic countries such as Poland and Slovakia.

In a recent survey of the 15 Western European countries that made up the European Union before it expanded to 25 members in May, a solid majority of 57 percent favored gay marriage. The same survey suggested that in 13 mostly Eastern European nations -- including the 10 who joined the EU this year -- just 23 percent favor same-sex unions.

Nevertheless, the Czech Republic is among a handful of countries among the former communist nations, including Hungary and Slovenia, where gay and lesbian couples believe there is cause for guarded optimism.

Czech lawmakers have already voted down legislation several times on same-sex civil unions -- or "registered partnerships" as they are known here. But public opinion has become increasingly and steadily favorable toward same-sex unions in recent years, and analysts say the legislation has a reasonable chance of passing when parliament begins debating the issue this week.

"We're trying not to raise our hopes too high," said Tereza Kodickova, spokeswoman for the Prague-based gay and lesbian rights group G-Liga.

Gay rights activists here say the Czech bill is significantly weaker than they would like. It contains neither tax nor pension benefits, for example. It also does not allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

"We know that under the current circumstances, an act that would satisfy our needs and wishes will not pass," Kodickova said, adding that she and others hope the measure would be the first step toward full marriage rights.

The proposed law -- a compromise sponsored by lawmakers from four of the five parties represented in parliament -- has nonetheless met with fierce resistance from the Christian Democratic Party, which says it would destroy the institution of marriage.

The last time the issue was before parliament, in 2001, Czech Roman Catholic bishops initiated an opposing petition signed by 68,000 people, press reports said. The petition said the legislation "risks confusing a significant number of young people who are having problems seeking their own sexual identity" and that "the state gives married people and families a particular legal standing which does not belong to the members of any other community."

Today, some 50 percent of Czechs, say they favor gay marriage, according to recent polls, the highest among the former communist nations. And despite what gay-rights activists call lingering homophobia in some segments of society, support for same-sex unions has been steadily rising since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, pollsters and sociologists say.

"The attitude toward gay marriage is relatively positive and open," said Jan Hartl, director of the Prague-based STEM polling agency.

One reason for this, analysts and gay rights activists say, is the low influence religion has in politics in the Czech Republic, one of the most secular and anticlerical nations in Europe.

Proponents of civil unions are having a harder time in heavily Roman Catholic Poland, where antigay sentiment runs strong and just 19 percent supportsame-sex unions. When approximately 800 gay-rights activists marched through Krakow in May, they were met by about 200 counterdemonstrators who threw stones, eggs, and firecrackers, some chanting: "down with gays."

A lawmaker who introduced a bill on same-sex civil unions into the Polish Senate earlier this year was picketed by antigay demonstrators who called her a "witch," presented her with a broom, and compared her to denizens of biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, according to press reports.

Gay-rights activists are also looking hopefully at Hungary and Slovenia.

In 1995, Hungary's Constitutional Court struck down a law barring homosexual couples from common-law marriage; but stopped short of allowing same-sex couples the right to full-fledged civil marriages. In 1996, the Hungarian parliament passed a law granting homosexual common-law unions the same rights as heterosexual couples, except the right to adopt children.

In Slovenia, the government submitted civil-unions legislation to parliament for debate on April 28. The bill gives registered same-sex couples the same rights as married couples, except for adoption rights.

Gay-rights activists say they are confident that same-sex unions -- and eventually full-fledged marriage -- will become the norm across the continent.

"We are trying to do this bit by bit," Benova said, before heading off with her bride to their wedding reception. "This is progress. You have no chance against progress." 

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