Somewhere, over the rainbow? How Greece became the first Orthodox country to legalize same-sex marriage

“What do you mean you don’t allow gay marriage? And you are supposed to be a European country?” This is what a classmate of mine spontaneously exclaimed in a family law class when it was mentioned that Greece had not yet opened the institution of marriage to same-sex couples. Such legal moves took place in 2020 in France (where I studied for my law degree). If I knew back then what the epicenter of public debate would be in Greece these days, I would probably tell him to wait a little – four years to be exact. On February 15th 2024 a legislative project legalizing marriage and the adoption for LGBTQ+ couples was approved by the Greek Parliament, opening a new door to equality and promotion of human rights in the country.

My classmate’s comment was made during the study of a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, namely Vallianatos & Others v. Greece (2013), according to which Greece had been violating articles 8 and 14 of the Convention by limiting the scope of its 2008 legalizing civil unions (in Greek, Σύμφωνο Συμβίωσης) only to heterosexual unions. The condemnation by the Strasbourg judge paved the way towards the swift legalization of same-sex civil unions in Greece. However, extending the law for same-sex marriage was not yet on the horizon. To the eyes of many, the aforementioned might seem rather absurd, for the mere reason that the recognition of LGBTQ+ marriage would be nothing more than a completing step following the recognition of civil unions, whereas in fact such an evolution of the legal landscape in Greece would come to fill an enormous void; one that would touch the obligations of the state towards those families.

To set the record straight, we need to acknowledge that at least from a legal perspective the proposal of the bill legalizing gay marriage did not come out of nowhere. Following the European Court of Human Rights’ condemnation of Italy and the Court of Justice of the EU’s ruling against Romania for denying residence permits to same-sex spouses (the couples in question had been married abroad) on the grounds that those countries had not allowed same-sex marriage established an (even indirect) obligation for member states that have still not legalized same-sex marriage to protect the right to privacy and the right to respect of family life, regardless of the domestic legal order’s attitude towards homosexual unions.

Yet marriage still has a great social weight in Greek society. This is mainly due to the sacred character that the Orthodox Church has bestowed on it and that it retains to this day. Even civil weddings which take place in the town halls share a common characteristic with religious weddings – they are considered something public, contrary to civil unions that are concluded rather privately in notary offices. It is suffice to say that the proposal of this law has instigated rage of some associated with the Greek Orthodox Church with Archbishop Ieronymos (the most senior cleric of the Greek Orthodox Church) urging for the question to be posed in a referendum, while Serapheim, the Metropolitan of Piraeus, seeing gay marriage as a sin and claiming that MPs who voted in favor of the legislation “cannot remain members of the Church”.

In this sense, the legislative project has been proven to be a colorful Pandora’s box for the Greek political spectrum and society altogether. The governing party, New Democracy, which proposed the law, faced a deficit of votes, mainly due to the abstention of its more conservative right-wing MPs, and was in the paradoxical position of relying on the votes on the opposition, which was not any less fragmented.

With the exception of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), according to formal statements of which legalizing adoptions by gay couples would bring the “breakdown of motherhood and fatherhood”, parties of the left were generally in favor of the law (if we assume that legislative projects of crucial importance related to fundamental rights should enjoy a general support induced by political consensus). Yet apparently, the greatest lie is the one closest to truth. Within SYRIZA, MP Pavlos Polakis, a core supporter of the recently elected leader of the party, Stephanos Kasselakis and the first openly gay leader of a political party in Greece, has made clear his opposition to the legislation. Meanwhile, an MP of the Socialist Party (PASOK), the party which in the 1980s brought a series of progressive reforms to the country, including the abolition of the trousseau and of the crime of adultery along with the legalization of abortion and civil weddings, would publicly express his concerns that “homosexual couples will a fortiori raise homosexual children” – a comment for which he was reprimanded by Adonis Georgiadis, one of the most conservative MPs of the right wing of New Democracy, which completes a paranoid mix in which ideology is relative and fluid. In essence, many tables have turned, unity is absent, and it appears that the topic of human rights was pushed aside in favor of political gaming.

Above all, though, this chaos within the parliament is nothing more than a mere illustration of what is happening outside, in the Greek society. Since the beginning of the year, as if participating in a coordinated national panic, almost everyone (regardless of their status or expertise, ranging from politicians, jurists and journalists to artists, socialites, influencers, and everything in between) is being asked by the Greek media whether they are in favor or against LGBTQ+ marriage and adoption – as if they are ignoring the societal reality. Whatever the outcome, regardless of whether we are in favor or not, the composition of society will not change. One cannot erase rainbow families from the map. As long as the legalization does not exist, what we manage is simply to make the life of a number of our compatriots extremely difficult, and create families with “invisible parents” who, due to their non-recognition by the state, cannot travel alone with their children, visit them at the hospital ward and are doomed to live in a constant dread if something happens to their spouse. The child risks being taken away by the social services and sent to an orphanage. The colorful Pandora’s Box proved how complicated it was for the public opinion to understand that the law is not introducing new morals, it is only acknowledging and recognizing something that already exists.

On a concluding note, focusing on the content of the legislative text per se, it was difficult not to notice the absence of provisions for trans people. In Greece in order to proceed with gender transition one must first divorce (because you cannot stay married to your spouse if you are now of the same sex), and still, if you have children, your deadname will stay on their birth certificates forever. Another sensitive topic in this legislative project is surrogacy. Despite it remaining prohibited (Greece has traditionally been opposed to making a marketable product out of pregnancies, for heterosexual and homosexual couples alike), the government wishes to proceed in recognizing children that have been and will be born via surrogacy, allowing for an ostensible discrimination against those who cannot afford to resort to surrogacy abroad.

Nevertheless, it makes up for a convenient measure for the Greek state to escape a condemnation such as in Switzerland by the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that it was a right, maybe not of the two fathers but certainly of the child born to a surrogate, to have the filiation link to both of his fathers established by the state.

As a post scriptum, I would like to leave you with what is essential: regardless of my country’s trajectory to reach this outcome, February 15th gave us a reason to be proud and hopeful, and to my compatriots who are covered by this legislation (my thoughts are especially with some of loved ones), I wish you the best, which is yet (and, now, will) come…


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