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Marriage equality in Greece: what does this mean for the Balkan region?

By Diandra Monhemius and Jarne van der Poel

On February 16th, Greece made history by becoming the first Orthodox country to legalise marriage for same-sex couples. What is the impact of this groundbreaking move on the Balkan region? We interviewed Christos Papagiannis – director of Social Change Institute Eteron – and Dajana Bakić – president of Rainbow Rose and part of the Sarajevo Open Centre, an organisation for LGBTI+ equality.

On February 16th, a significant milestone was reached for the LGBTI+ community as Greece became the first Southeastern European country to officially recognise same-sex marriage. The Greek parliament approved a comprehensive bill not only legalising same-sex marriage but also allowing adoption and granting equal parental rights to same-sex couples. With 176 out of 300 votes, the bill signifies a monumental shift in Greece’s socio-political landscape. Despite this progress, Greece trails as the 16th European Union member state to legalise same-sex marriage, facing notable opposition primarily from the Christian Orthodox community. As a result, the passage of the bill has sparked division within the nation, evident in protests staged by supporters of the Greek Christian Orthodox community in Athens. Nevertheless, Greece has now emerged as the first Christian Orthodox-majority nation to allow same-sex marriage.

Being the first Southeastern European and Christian Orthodox-majority country to legalise same-sex marriage, one might wonder about the potential ripple effects of the passing of this bill on other states in Southeastern Europe, or other states with significant Christian Orthodox communities. What regional influence can this advancement of LGBTI+ rights in Greece have? We spoke with Christos Papagiannis, director of Research and Social Change Institute Eteron, from Greece and Dajana Bakić, president of Rainbow Rose, from Bosnia and Herzegovina, to find out more.

“A big step for the Balkan region”

Christos Papagiannis describes the developments in Greece as “a big step for the Balkan region.” He highlights a distinction with new generations:  “I think that we can see that younger generations are much more liberal than the older ones when it comes to post-materialist issues such as LGBT+ rights.” While it is a signal to the wider region, and more Balkan countries may follow in Greece’s footsteps, “changing society is a long process,” Christos emphasises. “We have to keep in mind that Greece is also a country that has been in the European Union for many years and this also shapes Greek society.”

Dajana Bakić shares this positive sentiment on the potential influence on the region: “Greece is certainly an example to the region. The fact that it is possible in an Orthodox country with a conservative government. This can help us push decision-makers here to put it on the agenda.” However, Dajana recognises that we can definitely not yet speak of a ripple effect. “Especially because there was no strong response here from politicians or the media.”

“A law is an important step, but is not directly linked to people’s behavior”

Even though this law marks a significant milestone towards LGBTI+ acceptance, both discussed how there is still a lot that needs to be done. Papagiannis stated: “Some rights have not been resolved. Such as the right for medical reproduction, which is accessible for heterosexual couples but not same-sex couples. This should still be resolved in the upcoming years.” He additionally describes other issues the Greek LGBTQ+ community faces, claiming that: “There is still transphobia in Greece. Transgender people in Greece do not have equal access to jobs and education as other people. We also need positive rolemodels to fight transphobia in Greece. That’s why political parties should encourage diversity and make their internal structures more inclusive.”

Another significant problem is backlash from the Orthodox church, which occurs in several Balkan countries. Bakić mentions the example of Serbia, where “the Serbian Orthodox Church organises a counter event every Belgrade Pride. Politics in the region is very influenced by the religious communities. They have regular meetings with senior politicians. And citizens trust the religious leaders.”

“When joining a socialdemocratic party, there is no discussion about whether you should support LGBTI rights”

Despite the majority of parliament voting for the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Greece, there were multiple votes against. “Within every party, there were people who voted for and who voted against. So the parties themselves were divided, just like society is divided,” said Papagiannis.

Even though the social-democratic party PASOK officially endorsed the law and the majority of socialdemocratic parliamentarians voted in favour, one third still abstained. Bakić sees that LGBTI+ issues sometimes remain a taboo topic, also in progressive circles. “I am concerned because members of our socialdemocratic family are not entirely true to our fundamental values and principles.” Adding that “when joining a socialdemocratic party, in my opinion, there is no discussion about whether you should support LGBTI+ rights.”

There is still a long way to go when it comes to LGBTI+ inclusion, and it is important to keep supporting regional activists and organisations that advocate for LGBTI+ rights. Bakić: “We need to thank the decision-makers who voted for the law, but most of the progress in the region is done by LGBTI+ activists. They work tirelessly, they work directly with the communities, they do research and they push decision-makers towards change. A lot of positive progress and changes happens because of activists. I always believe we stand on their shoulders. Decision-makers should be thanked, but I want to praise the day-to-day work of the activists.”

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