Out in the World: Greece becomes first Orthodox Christian country to legalize same-sex marriage

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday February 29, 2024
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A supporter reacts to the passage of a same-sex marriage bill during a rally at central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, Thursday, February 15. Greece is the first Orthodox Christian country to enact marriage equality. Photo: Michael Varaklas/AP
A supporter reacts to the passage of a same-sex marriage bill during a rally at central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece, Thursday, February 15. Greece is the first Orthodox Christian country to enact marriage equality. Photo: Michael Varaklas/AP

Greece granted the right to marriage to same-sex couples earlier this month in a landmark parliamentary vote, making the Mediterranean country the 38th country in the world to do so.

In the 300-member Parliament in Athens, lawmakers voted 176-76 in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. Two members abstained from the February 15 vote. Another 46 members were not present.

The law's passage makes Greece the first Orthodox Christian country in the world to grant same-sex marriage rights. It also makes Greece the first country in southeastern Europe and the 16th European Union country to usher in marriage equality.

The Greek port city of Thessaloniki, on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, will host EuroPride 2024 June 21-29.

Orthodox Christianity is one of the world's three major Christian traditions. There are 14 Orthodox Christian-majority countries in the world, all of which are in Europe, except Cypress and Eritrea, according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center.

The landmark bill was drafted by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis' center-right New Democracy Party to fulfill a campaign promise after winning a landslide election for a second term, reported CNN.

Mitsotakis told lawmakers before the vote, "For every democratic citizen, today is a day of joy."

Same-sex couples have been able to enter into civil unions since 2015. However, civil unions did not provide many parental rights granted by marriage, leaving many partners with children in limbo as only biological parents were recognized for legal guardianship.

Not all New Democracy Party members agreed with legalizing same-sex marriage. Most of the 124 lawmakers who openly opposed or abstained from the vote came from the New Democracy Party, according to Voice of America.

Former prime minister Antonis Samaras, a New Democracy lawmaker, told Reuters, "Of course I will vote against it. The marriage of same-sex couples ... is not a human right."

But Mitsotakis catapulted the bill to victory with the aid of four left-wing parties. A key ally was the main opposition party, the left-wing Syriza, led by one of Greece's first gay politicians, Greek American Stefanos Kasselakis, who was elected last September.

Spiros Bibilas, 68, a gay man, was also elected to office at the same time.

Kasselakis, 35, a business owner turned politician, introduced an alternative marriage equality bill but later pressed his colleagues to back Mitsotakis' bill, reported the New York Times.

Kasselakis married his American partner, Tyler McBeth, in New York last October. He publicly expressed a desire to have and raise children with McBeth, though the new law excludes surrogacy for gay men and gender-nonconforming people, reported the Times.

Surrogacy was an issue that Mitsotakis would not touch.

"The idea of women who are turned into child-producing machines on demand ... that is not going to happen," Mitsotakis said early on, reported CNN.

In Greece, surrogacy is only allowed for single women and straight couples for health reasons.

Bibilas urged members of parliament to vote yes for the same-sex marriage bill ahead of the vote. From the podium, he told his colleagues about his personal experiences as a young Greek boy knowing he was different. Ashamed he "cried secretly," reported Greek newspaper, Ethnos.

"These secret tears of mine lead me to the age of 68 to fight so that other children do not cry," he said. "At last, we are all human."

Greece's same-sex marriage bill granted rights for same-sex couples to marry and adopt. It also recognizes the legal status of existing children adopted or born to surrogates abroad.

The bill does not provide automatic parental rights for second parent and adopted children through marriage; access to assisted reproduction procedures, such as IVF or surrogacy; and it does not grant transgender and gender-nonconforming people parental rights, which angered some LGBTQ activists.

The bill also "fails to amend a provision that prevents changing the name and gender of a transgender person in their children's birth certificate," added Despina Paraskeva-Veloudogianni, Greece's campaigns coordinator at Amnesty International, in a February 16 statement from the organization following the vote.

The law does not require any church to perform same-sex marriages, reported the AP.

Supporters and opponents of the bill camped outside parliament watching the vote on a screen in Syntagma Square in Athens.

Cheers erupted as rainbow flags waved and pro-marriage equality banners were unfurled as the results of the vote were announced. Opponents clutched their bibles and huddled in prayer.

Minutes after the vote, Mitsotakis posted on X, "The vote has passed: as of tonight Greece is proud to become the 16th EU country to legislate marriage equality.

"This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today's Greece - a progressive and democratic country, passionately committed to European values," he wrote.

According to Reuters, the bill will become law when it is published in the official government gazette.

The long battle for marriage equality

The bill's passage didn't come easy. It faced stiff opposition from the conservative country's powerful Greek Orthodox Church, weeks of public outcry and protests, and two days of heated debates on the parliamentary floor, where supporters called it "long overdue" and detractors called it "unchristian," reported The Guardian.

It was a long road to marriage equality in the country. More than a decade ago, a gay couple and a lesbian couple defied Greek law. They wedded in ceremonies on the tiny island of Tilos in 2008, reported Reuters. Their weddings were later annulled by a top court, but their audacity sparked hope for many others desiring to marry.

Marriage equality advocates in Greece began to push for same-sex marriage. Seven years later, Greek same-sex couples were granted civil unions under Alexis Tsipras's left-wing government, reported Time.

The scale has shifted regarding Greek attitudes toward same-sex marriage, with the country evenly split between those opposing and supporting marriage equality, according to a November 2023 Pew Research Center poll. The Pew Research Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Praise and criticism

The church argued against the law, stating same-sex parenting "does not satisfy the rights of children to have both a father and a mother" and same-sex marriage "leads to same-sex parenting," according to a December 20, 2023 statement from the church, reported the Orthodox Times.

Twenty-eight U.S. and European embassies, Amnesty International, Greek LGBTQ organizations, and others praised Greek lawmakers for passing the bill.

"We would like to welcome the adoption of marriage equality legislation and the recognition of same-sex families," read the statement from U.S., European Union, Australian, South American, and other representatives. "Extending the fundamental right to marriage to same-sex couples has been an important milestone in the journey toward equality and dignity in all our countries."

Amnesty's Paraskeva-Veloudogianni called the law "an important milestone in the fight against homophobia and transphobia and a hard-won victory for those who have led that fight," in a statement.

"It gives same-sex couples and their children the visibility and rights that they have long been denied," she said.

Stella Belia, the head of same-sex parents group Rainbow Families, told Reuters, "This is a historic moment. This is a day of joy."

Katerina Trimmi, a member of the Greek National Commission of Human Rights and a lawyer from the organization Rainbow Families, added that "the new law will finally provide same-sex parents some peace of mind on fundamental issues."

Athens Pride praised the law's passage, "The legislation provides a legal basis to further build on," Andrea Gilbert, a founding member of Athens Pride, told CNN.

"For far too long, our love has been questioned, our families disregarded, and our rights denied. This isn't just about legal recognition; it's about validation, acceptance, and the affirmation of our inherent worth. It's about the right to love who we love, to build families rooted in love and respect, and to live authentically without fear of discrimination," they stated.

Not far enough

Not all opposition came from the church and conservatives. Many LGBTQ activists also opposed the bill, arguing it did not go far enough.

The Pride organization joined 12 other LGBTQ and social justice organizations in criticizing the law in a February 15 joint statement. Representatives of the coalition recognized the legislation was "a historic turning point for the LGBTQI+ movement both in Greece and throughout Southeast Europe," but they took issue with several areas they claim lawmakers overlooked.

In the coalition's opinion, Greece's same-sex marriage law ignored entire populations of the LGBTQ community. They noted the "heteronormative-patriarchal model of the nuclear family" in the bill. The usage of gender is narrow and binary, and did not consider their suggestions for phrases such as "regardless of gender," which would be inclusive of every gender identity.

They cited the adoption procedures for second parent adoptions and the usage of binary language rather than using "presumption of parentage" that would have been more inclusive language for parents. Finally, the coalition noted the law did not recognize "transpaternity," surrogacy, and "implement the provisions of the anti-racist law," Greece's anti-discrimination law.

The coalition noted that since 2002, Greek law bans "surrogacy for single men, families of same-sex men, as well as transgender and intersex people."

"We call for the visibility and protection of all family structures, regardless of the identity, gender expression and characteristics, and sexual orientation of the parents. For equality without asterisks," the coalition stated in the release.

"It's been devastating for gay men and trans people who want to have children ... once again, they've been left with the feeling that the state has judged them not to be good enough to have the same rights as others," Christidi said.

Despite the lack of parental rights for transgender parents, Ermina Papadima, a member of the Greek Transgender Support Association, expressed pride in the passage of the same-sex marriage law.

"I'm very proud as a Greek citizen because Greece is actually - now - one of the most progressive countries," Papadima told Reuters.

Greece legally recognized gender identity in 2017. In 2022, the country banned conversion therapy for minors, according to Reuters.

Conversion therapy is a practice that attempts to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity that has been widely discredited and is considered torture by international bodies, such as the United Nations.

Greece drafted a national strategy on reforms promoting gender equality that runs until 2025, according to Reuters.

Politicking or pink washing?

Some questioned the timing of Greece's vote so close to the E.U.'s parliamentary elections in June.

According to CNN, Greece is now in line with 20 E.U. nations. Granting same-sex marriage just gave Greece a boost by strengthening its human rights credentials, analysts noted. It also distracts from the ruling party's political problems that include, but are not limited to, allegations of wiretapping opponents, migrant pushbacks, and backsliding on media freedom.

Greece's political move also should help the E.U. with standardizing legislation across its 27 countries, despite push back from Hungary and Italy, according to CNN.

Mitsotakis' government is currently on safe ground. The same-sex marriage law should not hurt his government politically, according to the AP, but there is a far-right threat present, according to CNN. The media outlet suggested the law could push some angry voters to the right leading up to the European elections.

However, Konstantinos Eleftheriadis, a diversity and inclusion consultant and professor at the Sciences Po University in Paris, told the Washington Post that he hopes it will "spark broader regional change on LGBTQ rights."

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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