Brno, Czech Republic – The LGBT question in Central Europe is not as much of a hot topic as it usually is in other Western democracies. While this topic rose to the front-scene of public debate right at the borders of the V4, with Germany (2017) and Austria (2019) both legalising same-sex marriage despite being run by conservative-leaning governments, this poses an interesting conundrum for Central European countries.
Could the most recent change in Austria, a country historically and culturally close to the region’s other states, signal an imminent change among Visegrad Group countries? Given that the states and nations east of Germany and Austria are known to be more conservative, is it even a possibility to consider?
In the first article of this series dedicated to LGBT rights in Central Europe, we’ll examine how the issue plays out in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Czech Republic: Europe’s first former Communist state to legalize same-sex marriage?
It is the best to begin with the most interesting member of the V4, which arguably holds the most progressive stance on many divisive topics in the region, including LGBT rights. Just as much as Prague may seem more Western than Vienna, Czechia’s more liberal way of thinking has influenced the way people and politicians look at certain topics. As an example, the Czech Republic has one of the most progressive views on abortion in the region, with it being legal up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, with medical help even up to 24 weeks. It is a rare occurrence, as the V4 countries usually have very conservative laws on this topic (especially in Poland, where abortion is highly restricted).
As a follow-up to this example, the Czech Republic has recently stated that it is going to have a vote – postponed for the moment – on the legalisation of same-sex marriage, thus possibly becoming the first country in Europe’s former Eastern bloc to do so. These talks started to gain more traction after the legalisation in Germany and Austria. The Czech Republic is already one of the most tolerant countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as exemplified by the large and peaceful pride marches regularly held across the country and the sizable LGBT communities in the main Czech cities, including Prague and Brno.
Moreover, many LGBT couples are protected under registered partnerships that provide some legal recognition for same-sex couples but still don’t offer taxation and property rights equal to those offered under heterosexual marriages. Under the scheme, same-sex couples do not receive equal benefits when one partner dies, for instance, and are not eligible to adopt children.
The question of same-sex marriage is far from being a taboo in Czechia: according to polls, 60% of the population support legalizing same-sex marriage, with the current Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis also stating: “I think that same-sex couples should have the same rights to marriage”. With the PM expressing support and the majority of the population in favour of the legalization of same-sex marriages, the only obstacle would probably come from President Milos Zeman, who vowed to veto the bill – a veto that can be overruled by a simple majority of MP’s.
Although the vote in Czech Parliament on the legalisation of same-sex marriage has been discussed since last year and was supposed to be held on March 26, it was postponed to a later date. According to most predictions, a vote on the matter will probably still be held this year, or the next at the latest. The future for same-sex marriages in the Czech Republic looks brighter than ever, and could serve as an example for other Central European states.
Slovakia, the Czech Republic’s conservative counterparts?
Slovaks are, quite obviously, the closest and “brotherly” nation to the Czechs. However, as much as the languages are close to one another, the politics and cultures widely differ on several key issues: it might be like comparing apples and oranges. While Czechs tout national pride and sovereign satisfaction in still having the Czech crowns, Slovakia got rid of theirs as soon as possible to join the Eurozone. While the Czech Republic hails and celebrates the creation of the first Czechoslovak state, Slovaks don’t even have a dedicated holiday for the birth of Czechoslovakia and don’t care as much as their neighbours, an illustration of both countries’ diverging views on their 1993 break-up. And while Czechs rank among the most secular nations in Europe, if not the world, Slovaks count among the most devout.
These are just a few examples of how Czechs and Slovaks differ. On the issue of LGBT rights, the contrast is even more pronounced. In Slovakia, only 47% of the population think gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexual ones, a similar rate as those who firmly oppose it. More troubling are also the findings of Inakost initiative (a pro-LGBT organization in Slovakia), which states that more than 39% (including nearly 60% admitting to being harassed) of LGBT people in Slovakia felt discriminated. According to a research conducted by Inakost, 94% of LGBT people in Slovakia remember having had to deal with negative attitudes and behavior towards them.
In 2014, a constitutional amendment was passed, which defined marriage as the union between a man and woman. While Slovakia might theoretically have to recognize foreign same-sex marriages, due to last year’s landmark EU ruling, and grants some limited rights for unregistered cohabiting same-sex couples since 2018, legal marriages, as well as adoption for gay couples, are still just a pipe-dream.
All of these numbers and recent developments may appear worrying for equal rights advocates. Pride events in Slovakia do happen, but remain quite small while attendees are often harassed. Will the situation ever change? Will Slovaks take cues from their Czech and Austrian neighbours? Or will the majority opinion remain more Eastern-leaning? These questions are still up in the air. However, after having elected a president openly supporting gay marriage, and given its habit of following the general stances and trends of the European Union, Slovakia might be more open to change than expected.
Written by Márk Szabó
An international relations and European politics student at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Márk grew up in a bi-cultural Slovak-Hungarian family, stoking his interest in Central European politics and cross-national relations. A former intern at the Bratislava-based Globsec Institute, Márk aims for a career in diplomacy. He joined the team of Kafkadesk contributors in April 2019. Feel free to read the rest of his articles right here.