Homophobia was the social norm in communist Yugoslavia
The significant levels of homophobia that regrettably still exist in Croatia (as it does in other countries) are not solely the product of Catholic indoctrination over the years as many, including the current communist-nostalgic government, would like to claim but rather the product of complex historical circumstances in which harsh opposition to gay sexual orientation had also been a communist party driven oppressive social norm for more than half of the communist Yugoslavia’s existence. While one can come across many media articles and reporting that tend to spin the politically coloured story that Croatia’s government officials recently challenged the Catholic Church opposition to gay marriage and passed the “life partnership” law to create greater rights for same-sex unions, the truth on the ground is evidently far more complex than that.
Same-sex sexual activity was illegal in Croatia/all of the communist Yugoslavia between 1951 and 1977 and the Catholic Church had nothing to do with these laws. The 26 years of such oppression of gay people by the communist regime has undoubtedly made significant inroads into the psyche of a largely Catholic (Christian) society whose religion had no tolerance for homosexuality in the first place. The communists did not accept the Church, did not attend the church, were not and are not “believers” and yet, when it came to homosexuality, they acted the same and even worse than the Church itself (for the Church had no powers to pass legislation). The communists poisoned a whole generation – the parents and grandparents of today’s young – against homosexuality. And while the current left and centre-left government and citizens’ associations supporting them point the finger against the Croatian Catholic Church as being discriminatory against the gay population the fact is that vast numbers of citizens in Croatia who do not practice religion, but were poisoned by communist laws and social norms, were also among those who voted in the referendum of 2013, which amended the Constitution to define marriage as a union exclusively ”between a man and woman”, thus preventing same-sex marriages from being legalized even in the future.
Anti-discrimination legislation reflecting the democratic course Croatia had embarked on with its secession from Yugoslavia movement in the early 1990’s had been passed from the very beginning and amended as democracy gradually made its stronger steps into everyday life. Discrimination based on sexual orientation has been banned in Croatia since 2003. Additionally, in January 2013, a new Penal Code was introduced, protecting against hate crimes related to gender identity.
A step forward for democracy
On Tuesday 15 July Croatia joined the large number of European countries that recognise civil partnerships for same-sex couples. Thus making another step forward towards equality of homosexual citizens with the rest, albeit not complete equality because gay people desire marriage just as much as non-gay people do.
A civil partnership law was passed by the Croatian parliament, recognising same-sex unions and granting them the same rights as those in traditional/heterosexual marriages with the exception of the right to adopt children. It’s reported that this law in Croatia has been drafted along the lines of its German counterpart, with 89 votes in favour mostly from centre-left and liberal parties in the government coalition. Voting against the measure were 16 right-wing and centre-right parties, which are not against the recognition of same-sex couples but object that the law is too liberal. Furthermore, the Catholic Church and the conservative citizens’ association who work towards protecting the “traditional family values” have expressed their opposition to the law, but as such matters also stand everywhere else in the world this opposition is not crucial in the passing of legislation.
One of the complications, which the community had faced since 2013 “family” referendum, was a Constitutional requirement that the State ‘protect the family’. Lawmakers got around that problem by defining life partnerships to be a form of family life.
Gay and lesbian couples in Croatia will thus from August 2014 enjoy all the same rights and duties as married couples, such as inheritance rights, social benefits and tax deductions. Their unions will be called ”life partnerships” and not ”marriage”, but are defined as a form of family and as such protected by the Constitution. The official ceremonies will be held in town councils/ local Registries. Despite not including the right to adopt, which is disappointing just as it is disappointing for the other European countries with similar life partnership laws, Croatia has made progress in the area of same-sex couples’ rights under the law. Although adoption of children by same-sex couples is not permitted under this or any other law in Croatia the law nevertheless recognises the fact that there are same-sex partnerships where children do exist. And so, if a child does not have a second, officially recognised parent – or their other parent is dead – the same-sex partner of their biological parent will be able to become the legal guardian of the child, if they live with the couple. If the second biological parent is known and alive, then the partner of the homosexual parent will have the rights granted to stepparents. Decisions of this nature will be the matter for the Courts to rule on.
The gay community in Croatia has hailed the new life partnership legislation with strong applauses all around. And why wouldn’t they! Non-gay community should also applaud this legislative move and many of its members surely have. It’s a matter of human rights practices as translated through a life of democracy. After all, almost all gay people in Croatia are a part of and stem from traditional families; they are someone’s sons, daughters, brother, sisters, parents, grandparents…The life partnership legislation is also surely to contribute to a decrease and eventual minimisation of homophobia that exists in Croatia, as it does elsewhere and, hence a greater acceptance of gay people as a part that contributes valuably to the general society. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)