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    Dispatch from Bratislava

    marriageequalityWhen our 18-year-old niece told us she would be spending a gap year between high school and college in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava, we must confess that we had to double-check the map of eastern and central Europe to locate exactly where Bratislava was. But no sooner had we found it, we realized that visiting her there would provide the perfect opportunity to explore a region where we had never been before. We soon began making travel plans with her and reaching out to LGBT activists in Slovakia about our trip.

    As luck would have it, I arrived the weekend of the annual Slovak Queer Film Festival. 2015 has been a somewhat difficult year for LGBT people in Slovakia. In February, the community had faced a nationwide referendum to reenact by popular vote the country’s existing constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The Slovakian Catholic Church strongly supported the measure. Although those who voted favored the measure by over 90 percent, the referendum failed because only 21 percent of the electorate turned out, far short of the required 50 percent for the vote to have legal effect. Still, the anti-LGBT campaign had taken its toll, and Bratislava Pride organizers cancelled this year’s Pride celebration because of the poisonous atmosphere the referendum created. Neo-Nazis had disrupted Bratislava’s first Pride march five years ago, although the march had taken place peacefully in subsequent years.

    The activists invited me to make a presentation (which they entitled “From California with Love”) at the LGBT film festival. They said that they had just endured their own Proposition 8, and they were eager to hear our experiences and talk about the way forward. It was a great opportunity to connect with the LGBT community in Bratislava, and I found we had much in common. The film festival, now in its 9th year, in fact featured some of the films presented at Frameline’s San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival and, as in the U.S., transgender awareness and visibility were a burgeoning part of the festival. Also like the U.S. historically, many LGBT people from rural or mountainous parts of Slovakia seem to come to the “big city,” Bratislava (whose population is only 500,000), to live a more open life. Also as in the U.S., Slovakian LGBT activists saw coming out as critical to building the movement and gaining support there.

    Despite the referendum campaign and the formidable legal obstacles to gaining marriage equality soon, Slovakian activists are moving forward strategically. They are seeking to defuse polarization in the country and are providing platforms for LGBT Slovakians to tell their personal stories in their own words so that people learn that LGBT people are their neighbors, colleagues, and family members. Some non-LGBT people we talked to speculate that the Communist period in Slovakia had set the LGBT movement in the country back for decades because, during that time, it was not possible for LGBT people to come out and for public discussion to take place. But one LGBT activist, underscoring the sense of urgency she and many others feel, countered that it had now been over a quarter century since the end of Communist rule, and that 25 years was plenty of time to make up for lost years. LGBT people told us that they understood that the process took time, but that they were trying to press the accelerator pedal.

    Legislatively, activists are now proposing a life partnership law with all the rights and protections of marriage, available to all couples, not just LGBT couples. Indeed, nearly 40 percent of Slovakian children are now born to parents who are not married. The most recent polling shows that 50.4 percent of Slovakians support such a law. Unlike the employment, housing, and education nationwide (initially passed to comply European Union requirements). However, activists told us that a wide gap exists between the letter of the law and the actual ability of LGBT people to live and work openly. Creating understanding and building popular support are critical both to passage of the partnership law and to making workplace equality a reality, not something just existing on paper.

    Bratislava has a charming old town on the Danube River with a stately castle on the hill, cobblestone streets, beautiful old buildings, and loads of cafes. Our sense of LGBT life in Bratislava was of one of varying and sometimes seemingly contradictory impressions. From our conversations, we understand that the city has only one LGBT café (a wonderful place where I hung out until 3 am at the Film Festival after party) and no dedicated LGBT bars or nightclubs, although regular events take place at rotating venues. At the same time, the Bratislava City Museum, just off the main square in the heart of the old town, currently features the solo exhibition “Rural Desires” from the openly gay Slovakian artist Andrej Dubravsky, who at age 28 is gaining worldwide acclaim. Some LGBT people use Bratislava as their base, but conceive of themselves more as Europeans and often spend time in other places where LGBT life is more open. Others feel trapped and confined by life in Bratislava. One person who attended my presentation told me he became so overwhelmed emotionally that he had to leave the presentation, because he felt that he would never be able to experience in Slovakia the things I was describing.

    The connections I made with LGBT people in Bratislava made me feel very lucky to be gay. Being LGBT allowed us to connect as people. Although we lived on different continents in different cultural settings, we shared a bond. Our coming out stories, taking place 6,000 miles apart, sounded universal themes: feelings of isolation, the desire to find love and community, and the wish that LGBT people could grow up and live free from being told that something was wrong with them. I ended my presentation at the film festival by saying spontaneously that despite this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court victory, “We really don’t have marriage equality in America until we have equality in Slovakia.” I was gratified when a participant, who leads an LGBT theatre troupe in Bratislava, told me that he had never thought of it that way. And then, he took it a step further when he said that he indeed could not feel satisfied as a gay man in Slovakia until LGBT people in Africa and all other parts of the world could live freely, too.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. They are leaders in the nationwide grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA.