A little more than a year has passed since the Croatian citizens voted on a referendum to introduce the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman in the national constitution. Inspired by recent Slovak referendum on same-sex marriage and adoption rights, this article will give a brief overview of the developments related to the referendum in Croatia as well as its legal, social and political ramifications.
After the dissolution of SFR Yugoslavia, Croatia went through two transitional phases: the nationalist phase in the 1990s and the EU integration phase, which marked the 2000s. When it comes to the citizenship status of sexual minorities, the nationalist phase saw the prevalence of homophobic discourses in the public space reflected in legal, social and cultural marginalization and discrimination of LGBT persons. On the other hand, certain steps forward were made in the EU integration phase in terms of institutional and legal changes with the aim of changing the unequal citizenship status of sexual minorities, mostly due to the incorporation of LGBT rights into the EU accession criteria. These changes were most evident in the introduction of the Anti-discrimination Act, sanctioning discrimination on the grounds of ‘sexual orientation’, and the implementation of anti-discrimination measures in other legislative acts, as well as in the growing relevance of Gay Pride Marches. However, it cannot be said that the aforementioned changes have been reflected in the cultural sphere, which is still dominated by homophobic patterns.
In May 2013, less than two months before Croatia joined the EU, a conservative civil initiative group „In the name of the family“, led by Željka Markić, started a campaign to protect the heteronormative family by defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Although this provision already existed in the Family Law, the campaign started by gathering signatures for the referendum to introduce this provision into the Croatian Constitution. Acting in the context of deep economic and social crisis, public dissatisfaction with Government’s policies, and supported by the Catholic Church, (inter)national conservative organizations and right-wing parties, the initiative managed to gather 749,316 signatures in the period from 12 May to 26 May. This number significantly exceeded a minimum of approximately 450,000 signatures (10% of registered voters) required to organize a referendum, indicating that the initiative was well organized, articulated and funded, but also that homophobia is still deeply rooted in the Croatian society and culture.
The center-left and liberal ruling coalition distanced themselves from the actions of the initiative from the beginning. Many civil society organizations such as LGBT, feminist and human rights NGOs protested and organized against the referendum in the coalition named „Citizens vote against“. However, the Government did not translate its disagreement into any kind of action, but rather ignored the initiative, whereas the NGO coalition started rather late with its activities. Thus, the referendum was organized without any formal submission from the Government or civil society organizations to the Constitutional Court to evaluate if the referendum question was discriminatory and unconstitutional. Finally, the referendum was held on 1 December 2013, attracting a relatively low number of voters (37.90%), with 65.87% supporting the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
In this way discrimination towards LGBT persons has been institutionalized in the Croatian Constitution. However, the campaign also had its unintended outcomes in the improvement of citizenship status of sexual minorities. Immediately after the referendum, the Government reacted rather swiftly by finalizing the procedure for the adoption of the Same Sex Life Partnership Act. On 12 December 2013 the Government passed the proposed Bill, and the Act was adopted in the Croatian Parliament on 15 July 2014. The Act grants same-sex couples many of the same rights as marriage, with the exception of adoption. The same-sex partners are now provided access to labor rights, social benefits, tax benefits, retirement, health insurance and protection, as well as family privileges already granted to married different-sex couples. It should also be noted that the Act recognizes the institution of ‘partnership care’ that can be granted to a partner who is not a parent of a child living in a household of same-sex partners. Between 30 and 40 life partnerships have been registered since September 2014.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from these developments. First, when the ‘external political pressure’ characteristic for the EU accession process disappeared, we saw a significant rise in discriminatory discourses and practices, backed by the Catholic Church, (inter)national conservative organizations and right-wing parties, and fueled by general dissatisfaction with the social and economic crisis. The radical right organizations and parties that gained momentum in the context of the marriage referendum have become relevant social and political factors, now focusing on the restriction of reproductive rights, especially right to abortion. Second, although the ruling center-left and liberal coalition passed the same sex partnership act, the fact that they did not present the referendum question before the Constitutional Court, never had the intention to regulate the status of same sex couples within the family law, consider their access to adoption or label same sex partnership as marriage points to their weakness in front of the Catholic Church and radical right forces as well as a lack of genuine political interest to fight homophobia and discrimination against sexual minorities in full extent. Third, the late reaction of civil society organizations to the referendum initiative shows that they were not prepared for such a well organized neo-conservative alliance, and that they passively relied on the reaction from “above” (whether it be the Government, Constitutional Court or the EU). Therefore, the local ‘civil scene’ as well as other social and political actors fighting for sexual and gender equality need to engage more actively in detecting new strategies to oppose those backlash initiatives, expand their networks and alliances at the national and international level, and find innovative ways in reaching the wider population in order to work on changing the dominant homophobic and patriarchal culture. This is especially important if we take into consideration a high probability of right-wing coalition winning the upcoming parliamentary elections that will take place at the end of this year.