Post-Communist countries can be likened to Western societies operating with a time lag — repeating the same debates that their Western counterparts had some 10 years ago. One such example is Slovakia’s current controversy over gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.
Although the institutionalization of gay marriages or child adoptions by same-sex couples hardly figures on the agenda of most political parties, the country has come a long way since its first Gay Pride event in 2010, which was disrupted by neo-Nazi youths. Because it is probably just a matter of time until gay unions and same-sex adoptions become palatable to most Slovaks, opponents of these reforms have launched a pre-emptive assault to make these reforms legally and politically costly.
Earlier this year, Slovakia’s Christian Democrats teamed up with the governing left-populist party, “Smer” (“Direction” in Slovak) of Prime Minister Robert Fico to pass a constitutional amendment to “protect the Slovak family,” vaguely reminiscent of the infamous Defense of Marriage Act, overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Since this past September, the Constitution of Slovakia thus stipulates that “marriage is a union solely between man and woman. The Slovak Republic fully protects marriage and provides all means to secure its wellbeing.”
Encouraged, Slovakia’s traditionalists are on the offensive. Following a petition organized by the civic campaign Alliance for Family, a nationwide referendum has been called for February to provide answers to several questions, including whether any form of partnership other than between a man and a woman could be called a marriage and whether a ban should be imposed on adoption of children by same-sex couples. The initial proposal contained another question — whether any other form of cohabitation should be given the legal attributes of marriage — which was ruled invalid by the country’s Constitutional Court, as it could violate people’s fundamental rights.
Anton Chromik, one of the leaders of the Alliance for Family, claims that “homosexuals are not asking just for ‘rights,’ but want to shut the mouths of other people. They will be making decisions over other people’s lives, careers, and that has always in history resulted in dictatorships and sometimes even in mass murders.”
Supporters of the campaign also question why professional psychological and psychiatric associations, or the World Health Organization, declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in the latter half of the 20th century, and point to allegedly successful examples of “therapy” provided to gay people.
For the government of Prime Minister Fico, the controversy is a welcome — though temporary — distraction from some very real problems facing Slovakia. While its transition from Communism was a success, the country is still plagued by rampant corruption, chronic unemployment — exceeding 30 percent in some regions — and by the intergenerational poverty of the sizeable Roma population.
The country has also seen a geopolitical shift following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Mr. Fico becoming one of the Kremlin’s leading apologists. Unsurprisingly, Slovakia’s anti-gay activists have a soft spot for Vladimir Putin, too. Former Prime Minister Jan Carnogursky, a former Catholic dissident and an outspoken supporter of the referendum, noted recently that “in Russia, one would not even have to campaign for this — over there, the protection of traditional Christian values is an integral part of government policy” and warned against the “gender ideology” exported from the United States.
The neighboring Czech Republic has applied its own version of civil partnerships of same-sex couples since 2006, with very little controversy — largely because none of the doomsday predictions about the demise of the “traditional family” made by the law’s opponents have materialized. The Slovak case is different, in part, because of the stronger religiosity of its population. Most churches have endorsed the Alliance’s campaign and some clergymen have played a role in heating up the rhetoric, making parallels between homosexuality and genocide, for example.
The advocates of gay unions appear frustrated by the one-sidedness of the debate. “Our arguments have been exhausted and tend to be repetitive because we are not lying,” says Romana Schlesinger, one of the main organizers of the annual Gay Pride events in Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava. “The other side is much more creative. They will make up any argument, directed at anyone, just to appear persuasive.”
It seems unlikely that Slovak traditionalists will ultimately be on the winning side of this argument. In the meantime, the mean-spirited campaigning and frequent disparaging remarks about gays and their “condition” are a poor substitute for serious policy discussions and are making the country a much less pleasant place, and not just for its gay population.