Croatia gays say marriage referendum major setback

After six years together, Hana and Iva both decided they had met "the one" -- but the Croatian couple's dream of getting married and having children risks being derailed by a referendum to outlaw same-sex marriage.

Conservative values hold sway in predominantly Catholic Croatia, where a vote to be held Sunday on banning gay marriage has been called a major setback for homosexual rights.

"The basic problem is that the state does not recognise us and does not protect our families," said Iva, a 41-year-old translator from the capital Zagreb who did not want to give her last name.

"One can live relatively freely in one's own little nest but as soon as something unpredictable happens, everything falls apart," she told AFP.

Such worries are well-known to gay couples around the world where such unions have no legal status. If one of them dies, the other cannot inherit her property; if one of them falls sick, the other may be powerless to make crucial medical decisions.

But the "most difficult is that we are prevented from having children," said Hana, a 40-year-old journalist. "Meanwhile, our biological clocks are ticking."

More than half of Croatian gays -- 53 percent -- would like to marry while more than a third would like to have children, according to a recent survey by the Zagreb Pride gay rights group.

Gays in the former Yugoslav republic have made slow but steady gains since the first Gay Pride parade in Zagreb in 2002, when dozens of participants were beaten up by extremists.

The legal framework and general attitude on homosexuality have grown more tolerant across the country, which became the European Union's 28th member in July.

In 2003, Croatia adopted a law recognising same-sex couples who have lived together for at least three years. Yet apart from official acknowledgement, the measure granted them few rights.

"Visibility of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) population in Croatia increased significantly in the past decade," a gay activist from the coastal town of Split Ljubomir Mateljan told AFP.

Pride parades are held regularly -- if still under strong security , gay rights activism has developed, the media talk more about the issue and people "come out" as gay more than in the past.

The Zagreb Pride survey found that 37 percent of gays do not hide their sexual orientation.

But 74 percent, the same poll showed, had been exposed to some form of violence due to their sexual orientation, including 17 percent who had been physically attacked -- and attackers have been known to get off with minimal fines.

While an EU survey showed that 66 percent of LGBT people across the bloc avoid holding hands in public, such a gesture is even less likely, if not taboo, in Croatia.

"I don't change my behaviour when I'm surrounded by people I know or in a circle I trust," said Stjepan Pavlek, a 34-year-old Zagreb resident who heads a consulting company.

"But I'm afraid my attitude is very rare in Croatia, where maybe one percent of LGBT people have such absolute openness."

End of 'openly fascist attitudes'

Croatia ranked 13th among 49 European countries in a recent study on respect for gay rights by the European arm of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.

"We've left behind the initial bloody phase of street violence and openly fascist attitudes towards the gay community," writer and activist Gordan Duhacek told AFP.

"But instead of open hate speech, homophobes now use cunning pretence about protection of the family and traditional values."

Croatia's current constitution does not define marriage. But the referendum, if passed, will amend the text with a clause defining marriage as a "union between a woman and a man."

The vote comes after the centre-left government announced a draft law to let gay couples register as "life partners", alarming many conservatives and sparking a heated public debate that has split opinion in this country of 4.2 million people.

The government and human rights activists have encouraged voters to say "no" to what they call a discriminatory initiative.

The influential Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, which has publicly branded homosexuality a "handicap" and a "perversion", is urging a "yes" vote.

Eighty-six percent of Croatians are Catholic, and the church has voiced deep opposition to equality for gays.

"Before this campaign it seemed that we had become a more tolerant society and that Croatia would allow us not to feel like second-class citizens," Iva said.

EU membership had also raised the promise of greater rights, she added.

But analysts say economic troubles in the country -- which has been hit by a long recession that has left many unemployed and frustrated -- has boosted radicalism of all sorts.

According to an opinion poll, 54 percent of Croatians will vote "yes" on Sunday and 30 percent "no", raising gays' fears that their rights will be diminished from December 1.

"But despite everything we will still love each other and will have our family, which no one ever -- neither the state nor the rightist crowd -- can take away," Hana said.

ljv/jhb/ns