New era for gay rights movement

January 10, 2007

Advocates call for changes in recently passed partnership law

Six months after the country adopted historic legislation legalizing registered partnerships for same-sex couples, the Czech Republic is scrambling to adapt to a new era in the gay rights movement.

Since last July, when the bill went into effect — the first, and most sweeping, adopted in the former Eastern bloc — more than 200 couples have registered their unions, gaining many of the same rights as married heterosexual couples.

Czech businesses are changing policies to reflect a new reality.

“Based on the law, these people have the right to claim the same benefits” as heterosexual couples, says Aleš Ondrůj, a spokesman for Czech Railways (ČD).

ČD this month began providing free tickets for registered partners of their employees. Czech Airlines offers discounted tickets to employees’ partners, whether they are hetero- or homosexual. And the Poštovní spořitelna bank now offers a special loan that was previously only for married couples. Wedding agencies are offering tailored services for clients planning a same-sex ceremony, like at the Sunny Life agency in Brno. “I have nothing against homosexual orientation, and I would like to help these people. Their situation is not at all easy,” owner Hana Nováková said.

But, if the past six months have highlighted a society gradually becoming more unified in acceptance of same-sex couples, it has challenged the very movement that pushed for, and achieved, that seminal piece of legislation. Some members of the gay rights movement say there is nothing more to accomplish. Others say there is.

Some are hanging up their hats. Others urge the movement to fight on.

‘More freedom’

For supporters of gay rights, the legalization of registered partnerships was a major success. The new law was the culmination of years of activism and lobbying. In the past, homosexuals often entered into sham heterosexual relationships or marriages, said Jiří Hromada, chairman of the Gay Initiative (GI) group that spearheaded the partnership movement for 17 years.

Now, “There’s more freedom to live the life you choose for yourself,” he said at his New Town flat, cradling a teacup in his large hands. “That’s a beautiful thing.”

As partners, the couple become “close persons” and enjoy new benefits: the right to an inheritance and spousal privilege, which gives partners the option to not testify against each other in court.

Hromada is so satisfied with these advances in gay rights that he’s decided to give up the activist life.

“I don’t want to say that everything has been accomplished,” he said. “But our priorities have been achieved.”

Now that the GI has achieved its main goal of seeing a same-sex partnership law passed, it’s time for a younger generation of activists to take over and draft their own goals for the future, Hromada said. As of Dec. 31, the GI ceased to formally exist.

“[Dissolution] is the logical conclusion of our activities,” Hromada said. “I remember that, in 1990, when we had our first press conference, journalists asked what our main goal was. And I said, ‘To dissolve. Not to be needed.’ ”

Questions in community

Not all activists would agree with this, however.

“Easily visible goals have been achieved, but the reality is that the [partnership] law is not ideal,” said Martin Strachoň, a rights activist and spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian League (GLL). “There are some issues over which we had to compromise.”

The GLL has three major concerns, Strachoň said. Same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt children, period. Even if one-half of a lesbian couple, for example, has children from a previous relationship, her partner is barred from sharing parental rights.

Also, same-sex partners cannot hold joint ownership of property or file taxes together for financial benefit, like heterosexual couples can.

Finally, if the partnership is between a foreigner and a Czech, the foreigner will not be fast-tracked to Czech residency or citizenship as in a heterosexual marriage, Strachoň said.

These conditions add up to a clear conclusion, GLL spokeswoman Tereza Kodičková said.

“Same-sex couples are definitely not equal to heterosexual couples,” she said. “We think this needs to change.”

The end of the GI means the Czech gay rights movement is at a crossroads and needs renewed focus if it’s to continue moving forward, she said.

While the greatest enemy for the older generation of activists was society at large, today’s challenge is overcoming apathy from within the gay community, she said.

“Czech society feels [gay rights] are not their business. We need the gay and lesbian community to convince society that it is their business,” she said. “Unless they come out and show they feel they are being discriminated against, things are not going to change.”

However, apathy has stalled the gay and lesbian movement, Kodičková said, and workplace discrimination in particular remains a problem. The GLL will spend the next year reaching out to get the gay community involved.

“Unless people come out and become visible, we have nothing to work with,” she said.

Naďa Černá contributed to this report.

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