By Maria Viglasova
The Referendum held in Slovakia in February 2015 gained an attribute ‘On Family’. Yet, interestingly, the very word ‘family’ did not appear in the three questions of the referendum at all. This ‘Referendum on Family’ was the initiative of groups generally known for holding traditional and/or religious views on the matters of family and marriage, the most being the Alliance for Family (AZR), supported by the official Catholic Church authorities in Slovakia. LGBTQ rights activists were busy debating, criticizing and even urging the citizens to not participate in the Referendum.
The questions asked whether marriage can only be a union of one man and one woman; whether same-sex couples should be banned from adopting children; and whether schools have the right to demand participation in classes involving education on sexual matters and euthanasia against the children or their parents’ will.
Although more than 90% of participants replied ‘yes’, this only represented the opinion of 21.4% of the population that came to the polls. Slovak law requires a minimum 50% turnout to make the referendum valid. However, it is not my aim here to look at why the referendum failed. Instead, I will attempt to analyse the discourse that allowed the referendum to take place and fueled the discussions that surrounded it.
Why did Slovakia need such a referendum? Are same-sex marriages or adoptions legal in Slovakia? No. These have never been legal, nor were there any official attempts to make them so. Marriage has always been defined as a union of a man and a woman. Same-sex couples have been banned from adoption since the establishment of the Slovak Republic 25 years ago. So why the referendum if it would not change any of the current legal statuses regarding marriage, adoption or sexual education? According to its organizers, the referendum aimed to strengthen the legislation regarding these matters.
The discussions around the referendum were so fierce that, in my opinion, they could be compared to a ‘trench warfare’. The two opposite camps found it extremely difficult to change their positions. Convinced about the rightfulness of their opinions, they were both throwing hateful grenades on the other side out of the relative safety of their trenches, unable to listen and engage properly with the other side. Tolerance seemed to have vanish. Maybe that is why this topic has not been addressed publicly or in parliament ever since .
How does this relate to nationalism? This issue touches upon the three key pillars of the nationalist trinity: the relationship between identity, rights and the state. The latter, as the provider and guarantor of rights, is supposed to distribute them in a manner that would ultimately benefit all citizens. Under nationalism, the state provides these rights only to a specific group of people – those who have the ‘right’ identity and therefore deserve them. In our case we engage with sexual identity. But human rights are rights that ought to be guaranteed to everyone without exception. The human rights at stake here concern especially equality, human dignity and the right to the protection of the private and family life.
The referendum claimed to be about family and its rightful protection. This, in my opinion, is certainly a good thing to do. The problem lies in the fact that, only a certain type of family was deemed to deserve this rightful protection – a family composed of one man, one woman, and children. The model of a heterosexual nuclear family seems to be overwhelmingly present in Slovak society. It is considered by many the best framework due to its capacity to make new life, and thus bring about a new generation. Also, as the AZR kept claiming, it is the best “because a child is growing up seeing a role model of a father and a mother“. For some, this should be the only model. Others uphold an extended conceptualisation of what family means. This includes, for instance, two women raising up adopted children. What I find very sad is that it sought to protect this particular model of family by withdrawing other models from the table. In this blog, I have no ambition to judge individual opinions about these matters. By analysing this referendum through the nationalist prism, however, I want to point at how these individual opinions get to matter a great deal when identity – in this case sexual orientation – is politicized.
As most post-structuralist thinkers argue (e.g. M. Shapiro, R. Ashley, L. Hansen, W. Connolly etc.), in order to have an identity, an awareness of a Self, there needs to be an Other. The degree of Otherness can vary, it can be: radically opposite, somehow different from the Self, or almost, but not quite, the Self. Framing of the questions created a binary between a ‘traditional’ heterosexual nuclear family with the potential to reproduce and have children on the one hand, and a homosexual couple bringing up adopted children on the other. Thus, asking for opinion about these very complex social questions via an official state tool of direct democracy, AZR sought to strengthen the constitutional protection of heterosexual marriage by removing the possibility of homosexual marriages. They portrayed the former component of this binary in normative terms, while rejecting the latter as not worthy of state protection and state-guaranteed rights.
To rephrase Al-Saji (2010) on the effects of these binary representations within our context: “the images of family where children are raised by same sex parents provided the negative mirror in which a nuclear family composed of a heterosexual couple bringing up children (usually their own) could be positively reflected.” Put differently, the problems of most of the ‘normal’ families are brushed aside by the fact that there are ‘abnormal or bad’ unions between two men or two women, who even want to raise children. Because there is this ‘bad’ homosexual Other, a heterosexual family is the ‘good’ and the right one to have. This discourse calls for mobilisation in the name of protection of heterosexual family, otherwise different people’s claims for rights might destroy the institution of family.
Furthermore, in the discourse heavily influenced and put forward by the Catholic Church, the same-sex couples were represented as unable to raise children because they are “perverse and vicious”. By linking this inability with homosexuality, this discourse insinuates that same-sex couples are harmful to children and puts the blame on homosexual identity, makes it immanent. Is this not quite a presumptuous and dangerous claim to make in a country where around half of its population admit that they do not know anyone with a homosexual orientation?
The Catholic Church was very active in officially supporting the referendum. Its leaflets and sermons reiterated the importance of going to the polls and ‘ticking three times yes!’ “because by this we will protect the family” against the threats coming from abroad, but already existing in Slovakia as well. It was often the extreme cases from mostly Western countries that would be used to paint an image of a Homo-dragon, ready to destroy the family as a basic unit of the Slovak society. These extreme cases mostly referred to homosexual couples living promiscuous lives and not caring for the children they adopted; the social worker-police taking the children away from their families and giving them to LGBTQ people; or parents being prosecuted for not wanting their children to take classes on sexual education. While I am not disputing or debating the existence of such cases, they were very powerfully and dangerously used by the priests and pro-life activists to paint a huge monster that we have to fight against. By participating in the referendum, “the Slovak citizens can express their opinion and thus defend the ‘true’ family.”
Is this a real problem of Slovak families? What about economic hardship forcing men and women to search for jobs abroad; imposing heavy tax burden on families; offering a mortgage for young families but almost no help with accommodation; setting the statutory maternity pay at only 65% of the mother’s average earning etc.? Are these problems not being faced by nuclear, non-nuclear or families with same-sex parents alike? Sadly, the above-described discourse succeeded in convincing 21.4% of Slovaks that people with different sexual orientation are the problem.
Although it would be very useful to engage and make a comparison with the other side’s discourse, the main objective of this blog post was to do an analysis of the discursive practices of the pro-referendum camp. These discursive grenades fired at the other succeeded in silencing basic human tolerance and respect. It seems to me that instead of protecting families, they ended up fighting over which side can dig itself deeper trenches.
Al-Saji, A. (2010). The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 36(8), 875-902. (can be found on: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0191453710375589)
Featured Picture: Caricature showing the ‘normal’ family being attacked by Slovakian media who criticized the referendum. By Peter Sedlak
Maria is a final year International Relations student from Slovakia. She is interested in the role of Religion in Nationalism and Gender issues surrounding Global Politics.