LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Why Balkan countries are wrong about gay marriage

ILGA-Europe opinion in Balkan Insight: Authorities in the region should realise that defining marriage in the constitution as a union between a man and a woman is not only pointless, but actually harmful.

(Originally posted in Balkan Insight)

By Juris Lavrikovs, Communications Manager

Last weekend the government of Macedonia submitted a motion to parliament to amend the country’s constitution and make it explicit that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

On June 4 this year, Slovak parliamentarians adopted a constitutional amendment proposed by the Christian Democrats making an explicit reference to marriage as a unique union of a man and a woman.

Just a few months ago, Croats voted in a referendum to support a similar constitutional amendment initiated by Catholic campaigners defending the ‘traditional family’.

This trend is not new. It began in 2005 when parliamentarians in Latvia voted to amend the constitution in the same way. In 2012 the Hungarians did the same.

So what are these amendments all about?
Over the past couple of decades, the understanding and concept of marriage and family have gone through profound transformation, whether it in response to demands for legal and social recognition by lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people or as a result of the emergence of other forms of family structure in society.


Today, an increasing number of European countries provide marriage equality and recognition of unmarried heterosexual and same-sex couples. One of the many reactions against these developments is the use of constitutional amendments in attempts to protect the ‘old order’.

Indeed, groups who push for restrictive constitutional definitions of marriage claim these are not meant to discriminate against same-sex partners but simply to strengthen traditional families and marriage.

In effect, in most countries where such amendments have been introduced, same-sex partners are currently not legally recognised so the amendments do not change the status quo.
However, having a closer look, it becomes rather clear that the objective of these initiatives is neither innocent nor noble. In most cases, it is quite evident that the aim is to hinder further advances of human rights of LGBTI people and finally to further enshrine discrimination.

Firstly, such amendments automatically create a hierarchy between different types of family, and send a clear message that same-sex families, unmarried heterosexual families, or single parent families are less worthy of state recognition, respect and protection than married heterosexual couples. This inevitable contributes towards further stigmatisation of so-called ‘non-traditional’ families.

Secondly, there is clear evidence of the homophobic motive behind the proposal of constitutional definitions of marriage. For example, the Latvian constitution was amended after the very first Pride march took place in Riga, at a time when some religious extremists and ultra-conservatives made homophobia their political platform. When she signed the amendment in 2005, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the then Latvian president, recognised that the parliamentary debate around the amendment “demonstrated very explicit intolerance and explicit homophobia, which I believe, in a democratic nation, neither should be unexpected or encouraged.”

Likewise, in 2013 Zoran Milanovic, the Croatian prime minister, like many other Croatian politicians, denounced the referendum on the definition of marriage and promised that “this was the last referendum in which a majority limits the rights of a minority.” 

Thirdly, such constitutional amendments are in practice being actively used by the groups to limit the human rights of LGBTI people, not only in relation to the adoption of laws on same-sex partnership, but also in relation to other civil and political rights. The amended Article 110 of the Latvian constitution became the most used legislative reference for those who protested and vigorously opposed the Pride event in Riga, those who campaigned to ban a school textbook which included neutral information on sexual orientation, and those who initiated a referendum to ban “popularisation and propaganda of same-sex relationships”.

In 2014, Robert Zīle, a Latvian Member of the European Parliament (EP), used that the constitutional definition of marriage to justify voting against the EP report calling on the EU Commission to adopt an EU Strategy on LGBT Rights, a report which in fact does not even mention family law and marriage which are sovereign competence of EU Member States.

Similarly, the Polish government used Article 18 of the Polish constitution which also defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman as an argument to deny the right of a gay man, Piotr Kozak, to inherit tenancy contract of his deceased partner, a right afforded to unmarried heterosexual partners by Polish law.

Fortunately, Piotr Kozak brought a case against Poland to the European Court of Human Rights and won. The court said that constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman cannot justify discrimination against same-sex partners.

There is also a myriad of anti-LGBT legislative proposals tabled and discussed in the Lithuanian parliament which are based on the argument that Article 38 of Lithuanian Constitution also defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Finally, constitutional bans on marriage equality basically take away and undermine fundamental respect for and dignity of LGBTI people.

This was a principle affirmed by the US Supreme Court. In 2013, in a landmark case, the Court said that restricting US federal interpretation of marriage and spouse as only heterosexual union (which was introduced by the infamous Defence of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional because it “disparage[s] and ... injure[s] those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity”.

The US Supreme Court decision highlights the essence of what is at stake with this trend to constitutionally limit the definition of marriage to a heterosexual union: these initiatives are harmful and aim to diminish the personhood and dignity of a minority. They are in complete contradiction to the very spirit and principles of human rights, equality, dignity and respect.

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