Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Gays Take Heart From Austrian Ruling

Pavol Stracansky

VIENNA, Dec 17 2009 (IPS) - Landmark legislation on same-sex registered partnerships in Catholic Austria is an example that politicians in Eastern Europe’s Catholic countries should now follow, gay rights groups in the region say.

The legislation, which was passed by lawmakers last week, gives legal recognition to same sex couples’ partnerships as well as many of the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples such as access to pension on the death of a partner and alimony if a pair separates.

Austrian gay rights groups hailed the legislation as the work of more than two decades of lobbying, while politicians who backed the law, due to come into effect Jan. 1 next year, described it as a “step forward” for the country.

Campaigners in Catholic Eastern European states say the decision shows that politicians’ use of religious arguments against same sex marriages is unfounded.

Tomasz Szypula, vice-president of Poland’s Campaign Against Homophobia told IPS: “This could be a good example for Poland in that it came in a Catholic country and there was the agreement of both conservative and Christian politicians which made it possible. Austrian society is thought of as a conservative, Catholic society, and this is a sign that in such societies registered partnerships are possible. It is an example to Polish leaders.

“Not just in Poland, but also in places like Latvia and Lithuania where the attitude towards homosexuals is similar to that in Poland, politicians often use religious arguments to justify opposition to same-sex marriages. Now the Austrian legislation has shown that Catholic societies and their politicians can accept registered partnerships and that those societies can change.”

Across Europe there are 17 countries, not including Austria, that have gender neutral marriage law or provide registered partnership schemes for same- sex partners. Four of those – Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden – recognise full same-sex marriages.

But only three – the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia – are in Eastern Europe, and attitudes to homosexuals in many countries in the region, especially those with strong religious backgrounds and Church influence, remain discriminatory at many levels, activists say.

They point to violent clashes earlier this year at gay pride rallies in Poland and Russia, and outright bans in the Ukraine on similar events. The first ever Baltic Pride event in Riga, Latvia, only went ahead this year after a ban imposed by city councillors was overturned by authorities.

Surveys have also exposed the depth of anti-gay feeling in some states.

A report earlier this year from the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency showed that support for same sex marriages in western European countries like the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark (82 percent, 71 percent and 69 percent respectively) was high but that the figure in Eastern European countries, such as Latvia (12 percent) and in Romania (11 percent) was much lower.

Meanwhile powerful politicians in some countries in the region are openly homophobic. The head of the Slovakian government coalition Slovak National Party has made repeated anti-gay comments, while members of the Polish opposition Law and Justice party have claimed homosexuality is a disease. Its former leader and now Poland’s President Lech Kazcynski once also said homosexuality would bring about the end of the world. And Yuriy Luzkhov, mayor of Moscow, branded homosexuality “satanic” when he announced a ban on a gay pride march.

In Poland, where in a 2002 census 90 percent of the population said they were Catholic, a poll published in local media in August showed that three- quarters of people were against allowing homosexual couples to wed and 87 percent rejected allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.

Gay rights groups say that the depth of such feelings in some Eastern European states means it could be some time before laws like those in Austria are passed, despite the example it may set to local politicians.

Juris Lavrikos of the European International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) told IPS: “Catholics themselves are different in different countries and have varying views. In Latvia, for instance, the Church there would not accept registered partnerships even if the Vatican gave them its blessing.”

But the legislation in Austria has already started public discussion on the issue in countries where until now it has been low on the societal and political agenda.

In Slovakia, another strongly Catholic state, some media commentators have pointed out the importance of the ruling in its Western neighbour and said that following the Austrian law, and Spain’s adoption of similar legislation four years ago, there is no reason why it should not be allowed in Slovakia.

Gay rights campaigners are convinced the situation on same-sex partnerships in Eastern European states will change, sooner or later.

Lavrikos said: “Only a few decades ago Austria had very draconian laws on homosexuality, and the situation is very different now to even just 15 years ago, so it shows change can be made. It is only a matter of time until similar laws come (to Eastern European states).”

Szypula added: “We hope to persuade our politicians that the same can happen here in Poland. Many countries in Europe now have this kind of legislation and soon there will only be a small number of them left without it, and they will have to catch up with the rest.”

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