Argument

Can the Czech Republic Tear Down Europe’s Rainbow Curtain?

Eastern Europe has long resisted same-sex marriage. Prague might be about to change that.

Participants at a gay pride festival in Prague celebrate on Aug. 17, 2013. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Participants at a gay pride festival in Prague celebrate on Aug. 17, 2013. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

When Veronika Sediva, a 32-year-old consultant, visited the passport office in Prague two years ago to pick up documents for her partner and their son, she was turned away.

“It’s heartbreaking to be told your family is not real,” Sediva said. “That you’re not equal.”

Czech law does not officially recognize her place in the family. Should anything happen to her partner, who gave birth to their child, Sediva would have no legal right to custody, although she is also his mother.

This nightmare for parents, among other inequities, has members of parliament and activists pushing for a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage. A first reading of the draft legislation in Parliament is scheduled for March 26.

The Czech Republic is already one of the most tolerant countries in Central and Eastern Europe toward the LGBT community. Large, peaceful pride events are regular features of life, and many LGBT families 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 marriage. Under the scheme, same-sex couples do not receive equal benefits when one partner dies and are not eligible to adopt children. Some couples, like Sediva and her partner, prefer to wait for full equality.

“The main impetus [for the proposed legislation] is the great legal uncertainty for children who grow up in same-sex couples,” said Radka Maxova of ANO, the centrist party that leads the country’s governing minority coalition. She proposed the bill, noting a parallel with the struggle for women’s rights.

Some 60 percent or more of the population approves of the measure, according to recent polls, and the government gave the bill its official blessing last June. However, it faces opposition from parties on the right, and they’ve been delaying its passage with filibusters and through backroom horse-trading.

“We want to protect matrimony,” said Marek Vyborny, a member of parliament for the Christian and Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party, who is sponsoring a bill—which seeks to amend the constitution and would thus need a two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass—that would define marriage in heterosexual terms. “We want to prevent the dilution of it by liberal forces,” he added.

These positions mirror debates on the issue that have taken place around the world over the past several decades.

A map of same-sex marriage rights across Europe reveals a stark division that almost replicates the Cold War Iron Curtain. Most Western European countries have legislation in place; no former Communist state does.

By and large, Eastern Europe is not seeing an increase in LGBT rights. A global, resurgent wave of conservatism is hard at work in the region. Hungary changed its constitution to ban same-sex marriage in 2012, followed two years later by the Czech Republic’s neighbor Slovakia. In addition, the Kremlin, hand in hand with the Russian Orthodox Church, has been pushing a socially conservative agenda beyond Russia’s borders.

“LGBT rights have become a tool of geopolitical competition,” said Adela Horakova, a lawyer and activist for Jsme Fer (“We Are Fair”), a coalition of nongovernmental organizations that supports the Czech bill. “Russia has weaponized these issues. It can’t compete in terms of quality of life so creates a picture of the West where morality has declined.”

In that context, those fighting for the same-sex marriage bill see it as a chance for the Czech Republic to reassert its commitment to liberal, Western values. “We can connect LGBT rights to issues like migrants and globalization,” said Daniel Prokop, a sociologist who works with the polling company Median.

While nationalist conservatism and attendant Euroskepticism have spread rapidly in the region, these are issues the Czechs tend to avoid facing head-on.

Hungary, for instance, has angered the European Union and the United States because of its disruptive influence on Western geopolitical efforts by criticizing sanctions against Russia. Official Czech policies remain instinctively pro-Western.

Czech President Milos Zeman—the head of state, whose xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric and links to China and Russia have made headlines—is an exception. Although his role is largely ceremonial, he has said he will veto the same-sex marriage bill should it be passed by Parliament.

“LGBT rights are a litmus test for rights in general,” Horakova said. “We feel the eyes of the world. Which way will we go: east or west?”

An additional force is pushing many Czech politicians toward LGBT rights: widespread support among the population. That’s in part because religion has come to play a very small role in Czech society. Just 29 percent of Czechs say they believe in God, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s in sharp contrast to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, where believers make up 86 percent of the population. 

Still, some socially conservative religious leaders are seeking to move the debate. Petr Pitha, a Catholic priest, claimed during a high-profile sermon in Prague last September that gay people would soon “be declared a superior ruling class.” He warned that elites would place the children of heterosexual couples in “re-education camps.”

The Catholic Church, however, commands the ear of just 20 percent or so of the population, and of those a decent proportion supports gay marriage, Prokop said.

The sociologist said Czech society lacked a “unified conservative identity,” which is prevalent in many other areas, including the United States and Western Europe. “In most countries, you can see similar attitudes on different social and political issues,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen here.”

Many cite the Communist era’s official atheism as a factor in the Czech approach to religion—it is among the most secular countries in Europe, in terms of religious participation. But attendance at Orthodox and Catholic churches across the rest of the region formerly dominated by the Soviet Union has risen as part of a broader religious and conservative wave, often with strong support from nationalist governments.

Unlike the president, populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis supports the bill. He has taken a hard-line stance on immigration, pledging that the country won’t accept “a single refugee,” but he espouses a much more liberal stance on LGBT issues.

Prokop suggested that backing the bill allows the billionaire to present himself as a Western, liberal leader—an image he is keen to project internationally—without annoying his base.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the debate, Vyborny’s traditionalist party has been joined in its efforts to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage by the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party—which has advocated for an end to EU sanctions against Russia, promoted an EU exit, and used pigs and dogs to protest mosques.

Vyborny said his Christian Democrats have nothing in common with the Freedom and Direct Democracy party. The party must, however, continue its efforts to “protect the traditional family,” he said. “Babis is a populist,” he added. “For 60 percent approval he’ll do anything.”

The bill would likely pass if members of parliament voted in line with the polls, but politics is rarely so straightforward, of course.

Some MPs are wary of standing against the conservative winds blowing through the region or provoking Zeman, a wily political veteran and powerful (if crude) orator who commands a large electorate outside the major cities.

Others are in favor but claim their “voters would never forgive them” if they were to support the bill, said Maxova of ANO.

Still others are simply behind the times. “Men of 45-plus are the only significant social group opposed to gay marriage in the Czech Republic,” Prokop said. “This group makes up around half of Parliament, so in this sense the political establishment is much more conservative than the population.”

All of this has helped slow the bill’s momentum. Persistent delays have activists worried that the legislation is a hostage to the minority government’s need to wheel and deal to muster support for other legislation.

“Technically the bill could remain in limbo forever,” said Horakova, who worries that electioneering for 2021 parliamentary elections could ambush the effort if progress remains elusive.

Sediva, who couldn’t pick up documents for her partner and child, is among those hoping the process will pick up speed. Her family’s insecure legal status has her and her partner mulling a registered partnership that would place Sediva in line for custody of their son should disaster strike—but her partner’s parents and siblings would be first in line, and Sediva would have to provide evidence to prove her relationship to the boy.

With the prospect of full marriage on the horizon, they continue to resist the move.

“I don’t want to agree to being a second-class citizen,” she said.

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE

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