Serbian LGBTQ+ couples hope Greek marriage law kick-starts change

A person waves a flag during the European LGBTQ pride march in Belgrade, Serbia, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic

A person waves a flag during the European LGBTQ pride march in Belgrade, Serbia, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Zorana Jevtic

What’s the context?

LGBTQ+ couples in the Balkans are still fighting for recognition as Greece becomes first Orthodox nation to back same-sex marriage

  • Serbia among European nations with no civil union law
  • Orthodox leaders oppose progress on LGBTQ+ rights
  • Activists hope Greek gay marriage law boosts their fight

LONDON - Stefana Budimirovic and Radica Stevanov share a home and dreams of starting a family, but the lesbian couple's relationship does not exist in the eyes of the law in Serbia - one of more than a dozen European nations yet to recognise same-sex unions.

"Everything (we have) is in just either one of our names," said Budimirovic, 33, as she described the everyday problems the couple face. "(Radica's) name needs to be on the paperwork for the house, we need to be legally covered."

But Greece's decision last month to legalise same-sex marriage - becoming the first Orthodox Christian nation to do so - has raised hopes of rights gains among LGBTQ+ people in other mainly Orthodox countries in the Balkans, such as Serbia.

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"It does give me hope for our future here as well (but) Serbia is so far behind, with so much work to do in order for us to be accepted as equal," Budimirovic told Context by phone from the couple's home in the town of Stara Pazova.

Despite having an openly lesbian prime minister, Serbia - a country of about 6.6 million that has been a candidate for European Union membership since 2012 - currently ranks 26th out of 49 for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, according to the 2023 ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map.

Other European countries that do not allow same-sex marriage or civil unions include Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, North Macedonia, Albania, Moldova and Monaco. Poland's government plans to introduce a civil union law shortly.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament, after the vote in favour of a bill which approved allowing same-sex civil marriages, in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament, after the vote in favour of a bill which approved allowing same-sex civil marriages, in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and supporters celebrate in front of the Greek parliament, after the vote in favour of a bill which approved allowing same-sex civil marriages, in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2024. REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki

'Traditional Society'

In Serbia, the last legislative push for same-sex partnerships to be recognised was rejected in 2021, and President Aleksandar Vucic said last year no partnership law would be adopted before the end of his term in 2027.

"We are a traditional society, I don't mind the LGBTQ+ population, I have nothing against them, but as long as I am the president, (this) cannot happen," he said during an interview with Pink Television.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who said on March 6 that she would be resigning from the post, is a close ally of Vucic and has not made advancing LGBTQ+ rights a policy priority.

Last year, she pushed for fertility treatment to be made available to single women for the first time, but the lack of a civil unions law means children born to lesbian couples will only have one registered parent.

LGBTQ+ couples in Serbia and other nations without same-sex partnership laws say their lack of legal protection means they miss out on countless spousal benefits such as tax exemptions, property inheritance, health access and joint parenting rights.

Some LGBTQ+ couples in Serbia have found ways to give their relationships legal standing through other means, such as notarised documents and contracts.

But the paperwork is far from easy and also has the risk of being overturned in court, said Jelena Vasiljević, executive director of Rainbow Ignite, a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

"Instead of one paper (as a married couple would have), there are 50 papers," Vasiljević said.

"There are admin fees to do this, and you need a level of education to understand what you need. How many rights you have becomes a question of class and money," Vasiljević added.

Orthodox Church Influence

As in Greece, the Orthodox Church retains considerable influence in public life in Serbia – and is not in favour of progressing LGBTQ+ rights.

Porfirije, the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has called LGBTQ+ rights an import from Western Europe, and backed a ban on a Pride event in September 2022, which was marked by large protests by members of religious and right-wing groups.

One of Belgrade Pride's organisers, Nikola Brkljač, said the protests reflected a small group of "very anti-LGBTQ+" people.

"It just so happens that they are very loud," Brkljač said.

Despite lacking a centralised leadership, the Orthodox Church has been united in its opposition to legally recognising same-sex relationships across the Balkans and beyond.

Russia, the most populous majority Orthodox country, has cracked down on LGBTQ+ rights, declaring such organisations "extremist" in 2023 and banning people from changing their gender legally or medically.

Though the situation is less hostile in Serbia, "society is really unfriendly", said Boris Bogdanovic, 45, in a telephone interview together with his partner.

He said legal recognition of civil partnerships could help change attitudes and foster acceptance.

"If our partnership was recognised I would feel stronger to be more open about it," he said.

Serbian LGBTQ+ rights advocates say fighting for a same-sex union law is their top priority, and plan to highlight in their campaigning the gay marriage legalisation in Greece - a country with which Serbia shares close religious and historical ties.

"If Greece can do it, then why not us?" said Filip Vulović, a programme assistant at Civil Rights Defenders, an NGO.

(Reporting by Lucy Middleton in London; Editing by Helen Popper.)


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