LGBTI-Croatia was recently in the news. At the end of February, an effigy of two gay men and their child was burned there. A few years ago, Croatia held a referendum to clearly define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A referendum that was convincingly won by the conservatives. Apparently, Croatia is not the nicest place to live for an LGBTI person.

Or are things a bit more nuanced than that? Because Croatia (2019) also ranks 17th in the ILGA-Europe rating of the 49 European countries. We find it just after Germany and just before Ireland. I talk to Daniel MartinovIc, the coordinator of the Croatian LGBTI association Dugine Obitelji (Rainbow Family), about the referendum, the burning of the effigy, and the acceptance of LGBTI people…

Bruno De Lille: Why was a referendum organised in 2013 to limit marriage to male-female couples?

Daniel MartinovIc: Actually, nobody expected this to happen. In 2011, our government had announced civil unions that would also be applicable to same-sex couples. And there was hardly any discussion about it. Nobody seemed to worry about it. Until U ime obitelji (In the name of the Family), a conservative group, announced in 2012 that they wanted a referendum to limit marriage to male-female couples.

They said they wanted to save Croatia from a ‘French scenario’. France, where civil unions for LGBTI couples had been around for several years, had also introduced same-sex marriage at this time. Apparently, the people behind ime obitelji assumed that this would be the next step in Croatia as well. And they wanted to avoid that, they said.

In reality, this was a way for them to gain political power. That was all they really cared about. They are not only against LGBTI people but also against migrants, Muslims and minorities. They want to ban abortion, sex education, divorce and pornography. They envision a very narrow-minded society, and they thought that by abusing us as their first target they could immediately mobilise a lot of people – and hopefully get into parliament soon after. 

BDL: Who was behind the group U ime obitelji?

DM: Mostly conservative people. There was Željka Markić who used to be the chairwoman of a small right-wing extremist party. And many members came from strict Christian associations or groups linked to the church. The church here is a state within the state. Priests regularly take extreme positions and often even disagree with the Pope because they find him too soft. 

However, instead of using one of those existing associations for their campaign, ime obiteljifounded a new NGO. So they could start over with a clean slate and pretend to be a grassroots organisation of ordinary people.

They have looked very closely at the French collective La Manif pour tous. By the way, we have discovered that the leading figures of ime obitelji are in the same European network as the French members of La Manif pour tous. They go to the same congresses, undergo training together and try to strengthen each other. 

BDL: Why didn’t they work through parliament?

DM: At the time, Croatia had a centre-left majority. It wasn’t necessarily very LGBTI-minded, but the LGBTI people had been promised additional rights. Our opponents couldn’t just break that majority. They were hardly represented in the parliament anyway – it was only about a small group of people. 

But they played it cleverly. Croatia has a very easy referendum law. If you manage to collect signatures from 10% of the Croatians, you can demand a referendum. The government has to respect the result anyway, no matter how low the voter turnout. 

We owe that indirectly to the EU, actually. Croatia’s accession to the EU had to be done by means of a referendum according to our constitution. It was assumed that most Croats were pro-EU but did not like to vote. So every threshold was removed. Even if very few voters turned up, a majority would be sufficient to change the constitution. And our opponents used this provision skilfully. Not even 40% of the Croats came to vote in this referendum. If you add up all the people who voted against the opening of marriage, you get only a quarter of the Croats who were eligible to vote. But unfortunately…

BDL: Couldn’t the referendum be stopped?

DM: Then the government would have had to change the law on referendums, but imeobitelji had collected no less than 700,000 signatures so that wasn’t really an option. They could have also checked with the Constitutional Court whether the question asked in the referendum was in accordance with the constitution, but they didn’t. So we can only speculate about what that would have given us.

The government thought, “We’ll give the civil union to the left and the referendum to the right, and then everyone will be satisfied.” Which wasn’t the case because a year later they lost the elections.

BDL: How did your opponents convince the population?

DM: I have to admit, it wasn’t an openly homophobic campaign. They were trying to keep it right and positive. Their campaign was about protecting the traditional Croatian family. For example, they said they weren’t really against the law on the civil union. “The homosexuals can have their own laws but they have to stay away from marriage” – that’s how you can summarisetheir mind-set. That’s also how they managed to convince a lot of people who had nothing against the LGBTI community.

It was clear that they had a lot of resources. They seemed to have no trouble paying for large billboards, advertisements, TV commercials, and so on. Their campaign was omnipresent. 

BDL: Were you prepared to campaign?

DM: After the first surprise, we quickly joined forces. We had a network that cooperated well and ran the counterattack. And we didn’t just get support from LGBTI associations. Some 60 NGOs – working for women, migrants, human rights, the environment – also helped. All these people were well aware that they could be the next victims. 

We also received financial resources from them, but unfortunately that was not enough. So we went ahead and organised a crowdfunding project; there was a benefit-concert and we mobilised a lot of volunteers. It was amazingly easy to find volunteers and send them out.

BDL: How did the pro-same-sex-marriage-camp fight back? What were your tactics?

DM: We mainly ran an awareness campaign. We made it clear to people what the real intentions of our opponents were – “Today they’re coming for the LGBTI people, tomorrow it’s another group’s turn.” Luckily, we got the chance to tell our story in many places and on many media platforms. Only the state television didn’t help us very much – we always ended up in debates where the opponents were in the majority. Anyway, that didn’t stop us from making our statement.

We had a lot of celebrities supporting us. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find high-profile same-sex couples who said they wanted to get married. Most were afraid of negative reactions. But thankfully, there were many other LGBTI people who dared to talk openly about themselves and their loves. This made us visible as a community. The Croatian media, who had ignored us up until then, have been much more interested in us ever since. Actually, we should thank imeobitelji for that (laughs).

BDL: Did you think you could win?

DM: Never (laughs). We felt like most people were going along with our opponents’ story. The right-wing supporters were also more motivated to vote. What makes me happy is that they didn’t really manage to mobilise a majority against us. 65.87% may have voted yes, but the fact is that only 37.88% of the Croats actually turned up to vote. 

On top of that, our campaign resulted in the masks falling off. When they wanted a second referendum to change the electoral law and exclude minorities from parliament, for instance, it was a complete failure. The citizens had figured out who was behind the so-called family movement. That’s what we’ve taken care of.

BDL: Has the constitution been amended in the meantime?

DM: Yes, but in a way that gives us some leeway. It now says, “Marriage is a union between a man and a woman.” It doesn’t say, “Marriage is only a union between a man and a woman.” Soit’s more of a statement, a declaration, not a ban on same-sex marriage. Not that we expect the law on marriage to be changed soon. Most people now think we have to be content with the civil union law for a while. But at least our lawyers have a long-term perspective on this. 

Fortunately, our constitution protects the rights of the Croatian LGBTIs quite efficiently. The first articles say that all Croats are equal and that there should be no discrimination. And the Constitutional Court has always applied this to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Moreover, there is also an anti-discrimination law and the combination of these laws ensures that we’re constantly making progress.

BDL: Can you give examples of this?

DM: Recently, there was the matter of the legislation on foster care. The government tried to exclude LGBTI couples from this. But the Constitutional Court said that if something is allowed to married couples, it should also be allowed to civil union couples. The far right was furious about that.

Unfortunately, we often have to go to court in order to move forward. There is very little political courage in Croatia when it comes to LGBTI rights. So we go to trial and we enforce the change. It is expensive and it takes a long time, but it is the only way. The political parties can then hide behind the court’s decision. There are comments from the far right about the judges who make these kinds of decisions, but fortunately, such criticisms tend to be isolated.

BDL: And now? What are your next battles?

DM: Adoption is an important case. Right now you can adopt as a single person but not as a same-sex couple. We’ve got a lawsuit on that and now it’s time to wait and see. 

IVF for single women or lesbian couples is currently non-refundable. And we would like to see that changing. 

Step by step, we’ll move towards full equality. I hope that in a few years’ time we’ll be able to say that in reality there is no longer any difference between a civil union and a marriage. And once they realise that, maybe they’ll open up marriage as well. You never know.

BDL: Is there more support for this now than there was in 2013?

DM: I don’t think we’d win a referendum today. But in general I notice that the support for and acceptance of LGBTI people is growing in Croatia. Yes, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there are a number of issues around adoption and how we deal with transpeople. But things are improving every day. Especially in the big cities.

Of course, there’s a setback every now and then. We’ve just had the whole world on the phone because the effigy of a gay couple and their child was burnt at a carnival in Imotski. I don’t want to downplay the incident, but I can assure you that it was an extreme exception. So it was condemned by many Croats, including the prime minister.

If you want to learn more about Daniel MartinovIc and Dugine Obitelji’s work in Croatia, be sure to check out this video from ILGA-Europe: