A 'seed change' in Greece

Rainbow confetti was thrown into the air as a crowd of people cheered and hugged one another outside the Greek parliament on 15 February. After years of advocacy work and months of tense debate, a bill had finally been passed to legalize same-sex marriage.

Stella Belia was one of many activists celebrating that evening. A member of an LGBTQI+ parents group called Rainbow Families Greece, she has been advocating for marriage equality for years.

‘This law will be important for so many families,’ she said. ‘This law can educate us going forward.’

Parental rights

Greece has become the first Orthodox-Christian majority country and the first in south-eastern Europe to have marriage equality.

‘This is a milestone for human rights, reflecting today’s Greece – a progressive, and democratic country, passionately committed to European values,’ wrote Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on X, formerly Twitter.

The new law also grants parental rights to same-sex couples, who were previously allowed to enter into civil partnerships but were denied joint legal custody of their children. In Belia’s family, this meant that although she and her ex-partner have raised five children together, they each had custody only of their biological children.

This lack of legal recognition left Belia and other LGBTQI+ parents with a range of practical problems, from being unable to sign school permission slips to being denied hospital visitation rights or the right to maintain custody should the biological parent die.

‘Finally my second mother will be seen in the eyes of the law.’

Yannis Belias, Belia’s 16-year-old son, said he has never been ashamed of his family, but he sees the difficulties they faced without full legal recognition. ‘This law will be a big relief for many families,’ he said. ‘Finally my second mother will be seen in the eyes of the law.’

But while many LGBTQI+ families across Greece celebrate this historic victory, those who opposed the law are unlikely to back down.

Fierce opposition

In the weeks leading up to the parliament’s vote, the Greek Orthodox Church – a powerful political force in the country – released a statement that criticized the bill for putting ‘the sexual choices of gay adults above the interests of future children.’

Former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras railed against the legislation, stating: ‘Same-sex marriage does not constitute a human right.’

Recent polls found that around 40 per cent of Greeks disagreed with legalizing same-sex marriage, and around 59 per cent disagree with same-sex couples raising children.

Experts say that the fierce opposition to Greece’s same-sex marriage bill is reflective of the advancement of the far right across Europe, and the political weaponization of the rights of LGBTQI+ people in the EU and globally.

Rights under attack

Despite the critics, Greece is the 16th of 27 European Union member states to legalize same-sex marriage. While there has been a general progressive trend towards recognizing and accepting of LGBTQI+ rights more broadly in the bloc, and in public opinion polls, discrimination persists and there are signs of regression in several countries.

‘We’re quite concerned about the increase of anti-rights actors participating in the international fora and in human rights spaces,’ said Belinda Dear, a senior advocacy officer at the European International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). ‘This is coming from Russia but also the US Christian right which is very influential, and the Vatican. It really is a global phenomenon and they’re very well organized.’

Ahead of the vote in Greece, hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament, chanting ‘hands off our children.’ Among them were members of several far right political parties who won seats in last year’s election, pushing the Greek parliament the furthest to the Right it has been since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974.

Elsewhere in Europe, Italy’s extremist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her government have been toying with the rights of LGBTQI+ people. Draft legislation has been created to remove protections for asylum seekers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, deregister lesbian mothers in several Italian cities, penalize teachers supporting trans kids, and criminalize surrogacy conducted abroad.

Experts say that the fierce opposition to Greece’s same-sex marriage bill is reflective of the advancement of the far right across Europe, and the political weaponization of the rights of LGBTQI+ people in the EU and globally.

Hungary has also made it illegal to inform children about homosexuality, conflating it with pedophilia. Poland's president has critiqued so-called ‘LGBT ideology’ and has vowed to block gay marriage and adoption. Across the country hundreds of regions have declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones.’

Ahead of the EU parliamentary elections in June, Dear said that ILGA expects ‘massive misinformation’ from anti-rights groups.

A seed change

While Greece’s new law is undoubtedly a historic victory for LGBTIQ+ people and their families, it comes with caveats.

Amnesty International welcomed the law, but said it does ‘not go far in providing full equality for non-biological parents and does not recognize non-binary gender identities.’ Amnesty also noted that transgender parents are still not permitted to change their name or gender on their children's birth certificates, and that the new law does not permit same-sex couples or single men to access surrogacy, which is legal in Greece for heterosexual couples.

For same-sex couples who have a civil union they will need to dissolve that and  seek a marriage to have paternity of their children recognized.

Still, for many LGBTQI+ people, the new law is long overdue. ‘It’s important,’ said Konstans Zaphiri, who lives in Athens with her partner and their 19-month-old. ‘This solves many of the practical problems we have in everyday life.’

But the couple still needs to make some compromises. Zaphiri said that they had not been interested in seeking a civil union, but they will proceed with a marriage to ensure they have equal parental rights to their daughter. ‘I believe this new law is positive,’ she said. ‘It will not change my practices as a parent. But now I will have custody of my child.’

Belia’s children are older now, so she no longer worries about not being allowed to pick them up from school, or to take them to the doctor. But she hopes this law will act as a seed change in Greece and that if LGBTQI+ families are discussed in schools, it will pave the way for other equality laws to be passed in the future.

‘Of course what I want is to reach a level where there’s no need for Rainbow Families at all,’ she said. ‘Where we are equal with all other families and we don’t need to advocate for our basic rights.’