A halo of flashes from news cameras hovered over the couple standing in the middle of a ceremony at the town hall one recent morning, the din of clicking shutters nearly drowning out their voices when they finally said \”I do.\”
A clink of champagne glasses, then applause and endless congratulations.
The couple looked relieved it was over. As they left the building, the reporters trailed close behind, eager to snatch one more quick comment, one final picture.
This wasn\’t some celebrity wedding, though it seemed like one. At 9:30 a.m. July 1, Pavel Sýkora, 39, and Miloslav Sejkora, 53, became one of the first three gay couples in the country to enter into a registered partnership, gaining instant fame for a few minutes.
They were unprepared for all the media interest.
\”I\’m not any sort of activist,\” Sýkora said when it was all over. \”We weren\’t looking to attract so much attention. We just wanted to make it official.\”
For gay and lesbian couples across the country, the day of Sejkora and Sýkora\’s ceremony was historic. The Czech Republic passed a law in March establishing registered partnerships that went into effect July 1, making the country the first in the former Eastern bloc to put its registered partnership law into practice.
No longer a taboo
Same-sex couples who become registered as partners now have some of the same rights as married couples, including the right to an inheritance, the right to receive information about each other\’s health and the option not to testify against each other in court.
But gays and lesbians still cannot adopt children. Although many same-sex couples choose to register as partners in a ceremony that resembles a wedding, such events are not necessary. Entering a registered partnership can be as simple as signing a contract in front of a town hall registrar.
Martin Strachoň, spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian League, said it will take a while before same-sex couples here have the same rights as married, heterosexual couples. \”The timing has to be right,\” he says. \”It takes a while for a society to be ripe for such changes.\”
Strachoň said Czechs have come a long way in terms of tolerating gays and lesbians since the 1989 revolution. \”Under communism, homosexuality was a taboo,\” he said. \”Now people here seem to be pretty accepting.\”
Other post-communist countries are also on the way to giving gay couples more rights.
In Slovenia, for instance, a law on registered partnership will come into effect July 23.
As of 1996, Hungary has allowed same-sex couples who live together to obtain some of the same rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, regardless of whether they are registered.
The majority of the original 15 European Union countries allow some form of registered partnership or marriage for same-sex couples.
Holland leads the way, having given a number of rights to same-sex couples living together as unregistered partners in 1979. Registered partnership was established in 1998, and marriage for same-sex couples, including the right to adopt children, in 2001.
The only other countries in which same-sex partners can marry are Canada, South Africa and Spain. Same-sex marriage is also legal in several U.S. states, namely Vermont and Massachusetts.
As elsewhere, years of political struggle in the Czech Republic preceded establishing registered partnership. The law approved in the spring took 11 years to come to fruition.
The country remains divided on its support of same-sex unions. But according to some surveys, more than 60 percent of Czechs are in favor of allowing registered partnership. Conservative Civic Democrats (ODS) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) were consistently against passing the registered partnership law.
\”It\’s not a tragedy that this law was passed, and we have nothing against homosexuals,\” said KDU-ČSL spokesman Ondřej Jakob. \”We just think this law is unnecessary.\”
Czech bishops\’ conference spokesman Martin Horálek is more critical. \”The law is a mistake,\” he said. \”It devalues the institution of marriage. The traditional family in our society is under threat.\”
Some say it\’s too late to save the traditional family in a country with a 40 percent divorce rate, where one-third of all children are born out of wedlock.
\”This is reversed logic,\” said Horálek. \”It\’s because the traditional family is being eroded that we need to protect it.\”
An emotional ceremony
Same-sex couples can now register at 14 different town halls across the country. So far, town hall registrars are saying that not too many couples have rushed to do the ceremony. They seem to be waiting until the dust settles.
The Kladno town hall, where Sejkora and Sýkora had their ceremony, was an exception. Jaroslava Vrňáková, the town hall\’s registrar, says about 17 ceremonies for same-sex couples are scheduled through the end of the summer.
\”Everyone from Central Bohemia comes here, so that\’s probably why we have so many,\” said Vrňáková. Most of the 17 couples, she said, have been waiting for the chance to register as partners for a very long time. \”One couple has been together for 10 years,\” she says. \”They\’re certainly not having second thoughts.\”
Vrňáková said she was surprised by the amount of media interest that Sejkora and Sýkora\’s ceremony generated.
\”The older gentleman [Sejkora] was especially upset,\” she recalled. \”I had to offer him a shot of slivovice before the ceremony. I thought he was going to pass out when he saw so many people.\”
He didn\’t. But Sejkora\’s nerves were evidently shaken. After the ceremony, he stood in the sun outside the building, nervously smoking cigarettes, surrounded by well-wishers.
\”It\’s terrible. It\’s terrible,\” he kept repeating. \”What\’s terrible?\” his friends would ask. He just gestured back to the town hall. \”Back there. All that media.\”
But the situation wasn\’t too different for the couple who registered in Ostrava on the same day half an hour before Sejkora and Sýkora. The first few weddings inevitably generated the most interest. Vrňáková said a registered partnership ceremony that happened several days later was much calmer than the July 1 ceremony.
Sýkora, for his part, appeared to take the situation in stride. He said that although he hadn\’t sought all this attention, he\’s happy to be able to be so open about his relationship with his partner.
\”The biggest challenge by far for many gay people continues to be admitting their sexual orientations to themselves,\” he said. \”It took me 32 years.\”