The first terrorist attack in modern Slovak history was committed on the evening of 12 October 2022 when a young neo-Nazi shot and killed two people, non-binary Juraj Vankulič and bisexual Matúš Horváth. Rather than serving as a catalyst for eliminating LGBT+ inequality, that attack marked yet another step toward worsening the situation in Slovakia for LGBT+ people. Since the terrorist attack, which took place outside a queer bar called Tepláreň in the nation’s capital, Bratislava, the state has failed to adopt adequate measures to signal that homophobia and transphobia are incompatible with the values of the Slovak Republic. In fact, homophobia and transphobia seem to be the country’s values.
Slovakia against LGBT+ people
Within the EU, Slovakia ranks among the least accepting societies towards non-heterosexual and trans people. According to Eurobarometer, only 31% of respondents think that gay, lesbian and bisexual people should have the same rights as the heterosexual majority, and only 25% think that trans people should be able to change their official documents to match their gender identity. Public displays of affection by non-heterosexual couples, including something as minor as holding hands, are socially unacceptable in Slovakia and often serve as a pretext for violence.
Queer people in Slovakia meet obstacles in every area and at every stage of their lives. A nation-wide LGBT+ survey conducted last year by the non-profit Iniciatíva Inakosť [Difference Initiative] has shown that LGBT+ people most often feel unsafe in the streets and in other public places and that they suffer humiliation and marginalization from a very early age. The respondents ranked creating “programs aimed at preventing and addressing homophobic and transphobic bullying in every school” as one of their highest priorities. Sexual orientation, gender identity and similar topics are taboo within the educational context, and it is no coincidence that up to 86.5% of the respondents said they have encountered homophobic and transphobic comments at school. Transgender people specifically often suffer bullying and a lack of respect toward their gender identity, and they wish the schools could serve as inclusive spaces.
Same-sex couples in Slovakia still lack legal recognition in the form of adequate legislative regulations: Bills on civil partnership for same-sex couples are regularly shot down by politicians, while same-sex marriage has been prohibited by the Slovak Constitution since 2014. The advantages provided by the legal recognition of a partnership, such as community property, simplified inheritance proceedings, or access to housing, as well as the possibility to adopt a partner’s child(ren), are only available to heterosexual couples. Same-sex/same-gender couples and their children are denied equal access to a full life.
The worst obstacles, however, are faced by transgender people. Zara Kromková from the community and counseling center Prizma Košice said in an interview for the national daily SME: “So many of the trans women I know have experienced discrimination; they have lost their jobs or been unable to find work, they are bullied at school and subject to domestic and sexual violence.” Furthermore, transgender people encounter problems with access to transition-related healthcare. There is a lack of healthcare professionals specializing in transitions: “The waiting times are currently very long. We need these doctors in every region,” sexologist Barbora Vašečková said on the podcast TransFér.
The situation of transgender people is further aggravated by legal ambiguities and political chaos regarding changes to civil documents. Until recently, an unspecified “physical assessment” was required to change one’s name and national identification number (which indicates the person’s gender as assigned at birth). Activists have long pointed out that in reality, vital records offices also require proof that the transgender person has undergone sterilization, even though the United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe have all denounced this practice. In March of this year, the Ministry of Health issued a directive which should end these forced sterilizations. However, legal gender recognition is still complicated by political attempts to block the process completely.
Swept along by the mainstream
The consensus on the unacceptability of equal rights for LGBT+ people covers the entire political spectrum in Slovakia. The last parliamentary election was won by the conservative party OĽaNO (Ordinary People and Independent Personalities), whose campaign included a promise not to allow even civil partnership to pass on their watch. OĽaNO’s closest government ally is the far-right party Sme rodina (We Are Family), whose leader calls LGBT+ people “perverts” who “belong in an institution”. Smer-SD, the strongest opposition party, is also led by people well known for their homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.
In this context, the free market SaS (Freedom and Solidarity) party and the socially liberal Progressive Slovakia party could be seen as positive exceptions, but their efforts to improve life for LGBT+ people in Slovakia have been limited, both in terms of their visions and their political actions. Neither party promises to introduce equal marriage rights and neither mentions the problems faced by transgender people. In its latest program, SaS proposes a version of civil partnership without maintenance obligations if the partners separate. Progressive Slovakia, which currently holds one seat in parliament, proposed a similar provision, called a “life partnership”, in its program. SaS was part of the governing coalition until recently, yet even their modest attempts to improve the situation for LGBT+ people were politically blocked.
The government’s policy statement from April 2021 states the intent to “improve legislative provisions regarding ownership rights for people who share a household”. However, no bills moving towards this goal have been put through the parliament. Already in October 2021, a bill on “life partnership” proposed by Tomáš Valášek from Progressive Slovakia was struck down by an overwhelming majority of MPs, including most members from the SaS. Valášek’s proposal failed again a year later, just a few days before the terrorist attack in Bratislava. Immediately after the attack, a much more modest bill put forward by SaS representatives which would have regulated some aspects of community property also failed.
The refusal to afford LGBT+ people equal rights is nothing new in Slovakia. In 2014, the Christian Democratic Movement and social democratic Smer joined forces to amend the Constitution, which now explicitly defines marriage as the unique bond between a man and a woman. The bill was supported not just by parliament members from OĽaNO, but also by former prime minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, who once led Slovakia into the European Union. This tradition of coalition and opposition parties coming together to reject LGBT+ rights shows that regardless of any organizational disagreements, homophobia and transphobia are values that never fail to bring these parties together. It is clear that political actors who wish to provide such equal rights will not succeed through compromises and euphemisms.
The war on trans people
Immediately after the terrorist attack at Tepláreň, the equal rights movement mobilized, and there was a surge of (mostly symbolic) support for LGBT+ rights among some institutions and the wider public. Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová visited the crime scene, published a Facebook status update condemning intolerance and hate, and gave a speech at a memorial procession two days after the murders. A number of charities came together to create a platform called Ide nám o život (Our Lives Are on the Line); a petition published by that platform calling for legalizing “life partnerships” and the long-promised end to forced sterilizations, among other provisions, has been signed by over 32,000 people. In November, a number of concerts in support of LGBT+ rights were organized all over Slovakia under the heading of Slovenská Tepláreň.
Those events also sparked a new intensification in the rhetoric and activities of anti-LGBT+ actors, both from the public and from political parties. In November, the leaders of more than 40 Christian and conservative organizations called on Prime Minister Eduard Heger to stop the Health Ministry’s plans to end the forced sterilizations of trans people and demanded that the possibility of full gender transition be eliminated altogether, including after sterilization.
Since the attack, the parliament has debated several bills targeting LGBT+ rights, including a proposal by the religious right-wing party Život (Life) to prohibit teaching students about sexual orientation and gender identity, or a bill brought by representatives from the neo-Nazi party Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (People's Party Our Slovakia) that would punish doctors for providing healthcare to trans people with prison sentences between four and 12 years. Neither proposal passed, as is usually the case with the smaller parliamentary fascist groups.
At the end of March, a bill brought by MPs from OĽaNO and Sme Rodina to make legal gender recognition practically impossible – exactly as the Christian and conservative groups asked in their November plea – gained a near-supermajority on the first reading. If this becomes law, one’s national identification number could only be changed based on a genetic test. The justification for the bill uses identical arguments to previous efforts, citing the immutability of biological sex and claiming to protect the rights of women and children. The charity Saplinq and the Prizma counseling center warn that if it is signed into law, this bill would have an “extremely negative impact on trans people’s lives, preventing them from living a full, good life, and the mental health ramifications would be catastrophic.”
The future has not been written yet
Several positive changes did take place in Slovakia after the Tepláreň attack but were either quickly repealed or are now under threat. On Wednesday, 15 March, a parliamentary committee adopted a EuropeanUnion measure that would afford validity under Slovak law to parental rights obtained abroad. The committee reversed its decision just a few days later. A similar fate might await another directive aimed at ending forced sterilizations as a requirement for legal gender recognition: If that OĽaNO and Sme rodina proposal is approved by parliament, the directive will become irrelevant. This directive already took effect once, only to be suspended by a minister under pressure from conservative politicians.
Given the deep-rooted homophobia and transphobia in the Slovak parliament, a viable way forward seems to be through strategic litigation. This approach has been defined by Maroš Matiaško and Sandra Žatková as “actions or motions brought to relevant judicial or quasi-judicial authorities with the goal of not just protecting the rights of an individual, but also achieving a lasting change in the rights of a larger group of people”. In the Fedotova and Others v. Russia case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that states which fail to afford legal recognition to same-sex couples violate the European Convention on Human Rights. At the local level, the Regional Court in Žilina has decided in favor of a gay couple married in Argentina: the Argentinian man was granted the right to permanent residence even though his marriage to a Slovak national is not recognized under Slovak law. In November, the High Administrative Court also sided with a trans woman who had been required to present confirmation of gender reassignment surgery to a records office. It is therefore understandable that litigation is becoming an attractive form of rights activism.
Since the terrorist attack, the Slovak movement for LGBT+ rights has been forced to see homophobia and transphobia more than ever before in a broader context: The problem is not just bad laws, but also the complex mechanisms that restrict and complicate people’s lives – and sometimes even end them. The more the depth of homophobia and transphobia in Slovak society is exposed, the more it becomes apparent that these attitudes have never existed in a vacuum, but intersect with other forms of oppression. If the movement in Slovakia is to achieve the creation of a respectful, dignified, equal society, it must think – and act – in an intersectional way.
Translated from Slovak by Sára Foitová.
This article first appeared here: cz.boell.org