The legislation in Greece is catching up with reality

The situation for LGBT people in Greece is complex. One the one hand legislation is outlawing hate speech directed at minorities. On the other, violence and threats are commonplace. There is an important battle raging within modern legislation, as lawyer Vagos Mallios points out in this essay.

December 16 2014 Text: Vagelis Mallios

Hate speech and racist violence
Two years ago, in 2012, there were strong protests against the staging of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi play, put on at Hitirio Theatre (in the centre of Athens, Greece). The play tells the story of 13 young men, an allusion to Jesus’s story, including Judas, kissing him on the lips. The play caused a fierce reaction. To start with, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church convened and declared that this play was blasphemous, urging the Greek people to decry it. Every day there were people protesting outside the theatre, with Golden Dawn MPs taking the lead. According to reports in the press, the actors and director were jeered at and threatened on a daily basis. Outside the theatre, protesters scuffled with riot police forces, and a journalist was reportedly beaten and verbally abused, while police forces allegedly stood by. All the above led to the play’s ultimate cancellation. There were no consequences for any of the misdemeanours perpetrated.

Unfortunately, it’s not only the extremist Golden Dawn MP’s who adopt racist speech and attitude towards LGBT’s. Despite the conciliatory attitude of the head of the Greek Christian Orthodox Church (which plays an important role in Greek society), many clergymen (including bishops) repeatedly express themselves in an openly homophobic way. Moreover, many high-profile politicians, among them serving Ministers, have openly expressed disdain towards LGBT people and their claims.

Until today, none of these people who openly used homophobic rhetoric was convicted. One of the main reasons was because of the lack of a specific legislation. Until now no specific protection was offered to LGBT’s. Hate speech was regulated exclusively by the insufficient Law 927/1979, who has been idle for many years and did not cover hate speech towards LGBT’s.

Finally, last September the Greek Parliament reformed its legislation on hate speech by adopting Law n. 4285/2014. For the first time, hate speech against people on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is being prohibited. Persons found guilty may face up to three years imprisonment, as well as a fine up to €20.000.

This reform is extremely important and is voted after many efforts and many unsuccessful legislative initiatives. In fact, since over the last 3 years there have been 4 bills that have never even been introduced for debate in Parliament because of the reactions by some politicians and bishops who wish to continue their public homophobic rhetoric without facing consequences.

Regrettably, homophobia and racist speech is not the only problem that LGBT person face. Over the last years, there was also a significant increase in incidents of violence against the LGBT community, which may be congruent with the rise of Golden Dawn’s popularity. In addition, we should also stress the fact that more and more such acts of violence against LGBTs are being reported and recorded at the Racist Violence Recording Network. In recent years, hate attacks against transgender people have also been on the increase. However, the authorities’ inertia and sometimes unwillingness to investigate crimes that manifestly have homophobic motives and the subsequent impunity of perpetrators, has resulted in an increase in homophobic acts of violence and in an escalating intensity of their brutality.

Homophobic demonstrations
Moreover, besides the ‘Pride Parades’ that are held annually in Athens (from 2005) and in Thessaloniki (from 2012), during the last 3 years, 3 homophobic demonstrations have taken place in Greece. Particular emphasis should be paid to the Bishop of Thessaloniki, who expressed his fierce opposition to the Gay Pride in Thessaloniki that was held in 2012, calling upon the mayor to cancel the parade. In his announcement he stressed that he had gathered about 20,000 signatures from Thessaloniki residents, and had urged parents to keep their children away from such ‘unnatural’ demonstrations. This resulted in several Thessaloniki residents staging a counter-demonstration and heckling pride parade participants.

Discrimination against same sex couples
There is one last dimension concerning discrimination towards LGBT people in Greece that should be noted: In 2009, four same-sex couples lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights. They complained about law 3919/2008 on civil unions which applies only to couples of different sex. The applicants complained that, by excluding them from the scope of the law 3919/2008, the Greek State had introduced a distinction which unlawfully discriminated against them.

In its judgment in the joint cases of Vallianatos and others v. Greece delivered on 7. November 2013, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Greece had violated article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken together with article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its decision, the Court ruled that Greece had failed to provide a convincing justification for excluding same-sex couples. The government’s argument, according to which the law’s main purpose was to protect children of unmarried parents, did not constitute a valid reason, because the law’s real objective was the legal recognition of a new form of family life. Therefore, exclusion of same-sex couples breaches the Convention. In addition, the Court observed that under Greek law different-sex couples, unlike same-sex couples, could have their relationship legally recognised even before the enactment of Law no. 3719/2008, whether fully on the basis of the institution of marriage or in a more limited form under the provisions of the Civil Code dealing with de facto partnerships.

Consequently, same-sex couples had every interest in entering into a civil union since it would give them the sole basis in Greek law on which to have their relationship legally recognised. Finally, the Court remarked that there was no consensus among Council of Europe member States but that a trend was currently emerging towards introducing forms of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Therefore, the European Court of Human Rights held (by 16 votes to 1) that there had been a violation of Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) taken together with Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life).

Regrettably, to this date, despite its conviction by the European Court of Human Rights, Greece has still not modified law 3719/2008, so that it incorporates same-sex couples.

Homophobia and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation remain, to a large extent, “unspoken” legal issues under the Greek legal system. Greek society is quite unaware of, or indifferent about, discrimination and harassment, verbal or material, suffered by LGBT people. While the social realities are there, the legal system is catching up with great delay and, often, in a (deliberately) inefficient manner. In this context, recent law n. 4285/2014 prohibiting hate speech towards LGBT’s, does show some openness and allows for some optimism.