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In Greece, same-sex couples await a landmark parliamentary vote on marriage equality

Participants hold a giant rainbow flag in front of the Greek parliament during the Athens Pride parade in Athens on June 10, 2023.
Angelos Tzortzinis
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AFP via Getty Images
Participants hold a giant rainbow flag in front of the Greek parliament during the Athens Pride parade in Athens on June 10, 2023.

ATHENS, Greece — After Stella Belia's 25-year-old son got into a motorcycle accident in Athens two years ago, Belia was not permitted to visit him in the hospital. Staff forced her to wait outside the emergency room, and doctors refused to inform her how her son was faring.

Only her ex-partner had the right to be notified.

In Greece, same-sex couples cannot have joint custody of children. Belia's former partner is registered as the young man's mother. Legally speaking, Belia has no relation to the son she raised.

"In everyday life there are many problems," says Belia. "We are a family, it's not right for children to grow up with this insecurity."

Stella Belia (right), a member of the Rainbow Families of Greece, an organization that focuses on LGBTQ parents, poses for a portrait with one of five children, Yannis, in Athens, on Jan. 30. Greek lawmakers are set to vote on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption this week.
Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Stella Belia (right), a member of the Rainbow Families of Greece, an organization that focuses on LGBTQ parents, poses for a portrait with one of five children, Yannis, in Athens, on Jan. 30. Greek lawmakers are set to vote on a bill legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption this week.

Greece's parliament is poised to vote Thursday on a controversial bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which would include new parental rights for LGBTQ couples. Greece's LGBTQ parents and organizations have been advocating for such rights for years, but the Greek Orthodox Church and much of Greek society fiercely reject same-sex marriage.

A recent poll showed that 49% of Greeks oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece — the highest authority of the Greek Orthodox Church — released a unanimous statement opposing it and LGBTQ parenthood generally. About 60 members of Greece's 300-member parliament have expressed intent to vote against the same-sex marriage bill or abstain, despite their parties' expressed support.

LGBTQ parents say they and their children are treated as second-class citizens

Greece legalized civil partnerships for couples of all genders in 2015, allowing couples certain rights such as hospital visitation and the ability to name each other in their wills. But the law does not afford gay couples the right to jointly have or adopt children.

Belia, a member of the queer family support group Rainbow Families, says this leaves many parents without the legal right to drop off or pick up their children from school, travel with them outside of the country, visit them in hospitals and more.

Stella Belia (left), a member of the Rainbow Families of Greece organization for LGBTQ parents, speaks during a press conference at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens, on Jan. 30.
Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Stella Belia (left), a member of the Rainbow Families of Greece organization for LGBTQ parents, speaks during a press conference at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens, on Jan. 30.

Gay parents argue that they and their children have been fenced in with bureaucracy and feel they are treated as second-class citizens.

"We do not have the same rights as heterosexual families," says Katerina Kassapaki. "As parents, we experience the following paradox: we are both visible and invisible at the same time."

Kassapaki and her partner Maria Kanaki live on the island of Crete with their three children. They live in a house with a courtyard, a home Katerina describes as "full of toys, books, paintings, and musical children's voices." Katerina gave birth to their first child, Irene, now 15, and Maria gave birth to twins Harry and Zoe, who are 5. The couple each has custody of their own biological children.

"So, for us mothers, each of us experiences exclusion in the daily life of our children," says Kassapaki. "And for us, every moment with them is important. From having the right to know their progress at school, to traveling with them on the plane, to something more serious like hospitalization."

Their worst fear is that if one of them dies, one or two of their children will be separated from the rest of the family and could be sent to the state system, as would be the norm under current Greek law — a scenario that the ruling conservative New Democracy party says will be resolvedif the new law takes effect.

Gay couples currently have no access to assisted reproduction processes

Georgia Kalantzi lives outside the northern city of Thessaloniki with her partner and their 3-year-old son whom she calls "the light of our lives."

"He has friends, he has many talents," says Kalantzi. "What can I tell you? I'm his mother, you understand, you're not going to hear something different from me."

When Kalantzi became pregnant via assisted reproduction processes, she and her partner signed a civil union. Upon the advice of lawyers, on the same day Kalantzi wrote her will, naming her partner as the guardian of the baby they were going to have.

Kalantzi and her partner have started discussing having another baby. But when they went back to the doctor to again begin the process of assisted reproduction, they say they were met with bureaucratic blockades.

According to current Greek law, because gay couples cannot jointly have children, they do not have access to sperm banks, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy or other assisted reproduction therapies. Only single women or heterosexual couples are legally permitted access. What was accessible to Kalantzi when she was legally a single woman became impossible once she was in a same-sex civil partnership.

"We signed the civil partnership to attempt to mitigate the worst possibilities and protect our child," says Kalantzi. "But when we signed the civil partnership we immediately ruled out the possibility of having a second child. Therefore it creates this problem, this paradox."

Marriage equality may also boost rights for single parents

The definition of parenthood in Greece as only available to married, heterosexual couples also affects single parents. Legalization of marriage equality in Greece could also broaden their access to rights.

Angelos Michailidis, a gay single man, decided to create a family via surrogacy and traveled to the United States to do so. He is hoping legalization of same-sex marriage in Greece would allow him to finally register his twin daughters as full citizens.
/ Moira Lavelle for NPR
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Moira Lavelle for NPR
Angelos Michailidis, a gay single man, decided to create a family via surrogacy and traveled to the United States to do so. He is hoping legalization of same-sex marriage in Greece would allow him to finally register his twin daughters as full citizens.

Angelos Michailidis, a gay single man, is also facing bureaucratic paradoxes. He felt committed to becoming a father, but knew he would never be approved for adoption in Greece. And surrogacy is only legally permitted in Greece for married heterosexual couples with fertility issues.

So Michailidis decided to travel to the United States to have children via a surrogate there. He is now the father of 2 1/2-year-old twin girls, and lives with them in Athens in an apartment filled with plastic musical instruments. But the girls cannot be listed as citizens on the civil registry, the official archive that contains the name of every Greek citizen and information including parents' names, date and location of birth and if they have been baptized.

"There is a very large legal gap," says Michailidis. "Regardless of the fact that it was legal, and that I had them in a legal manner — and I made a big effort to have them in a legal manner — regardless of the fact that I am a Greek citizen, I cannot register my children on the national registry because they do not have a listed mother's name," he explains.

"It's important this bill passes to help people and their kids have an easier life," Michailidis says of the same-sex marriage bill coming up for vote on Thursday. "So they don't feel like second-class citizens. Children don't understand Mama and Baba, they understand love."

The marriage equality bill looks likely to become law

The marriage equality bill proposed by the New Democracy party would allow gay couples to have joint full custody of children, to jointly adopt and to recognize as Greek citizens children born via surrogacy abroad to Greek parents. The bill would not legalize surrogacy for same-sex couples or single men within Greece.

But the bill has caused controversy within the governing party, and at least one minister has threatened to resign rather than vote on the bill. Members of parliament with the left opposition party Syriza have also expressed concerns their constituents would not approve of the law, despite party leader Stefanos Kasselakis — Greece's first openly gay party president — stating Syriza would support the bill as a bloc.

Based on initial committee discussion in parliament, when the parties stated their positions on the bill, it looks likely to garner just enough votes to become law when it goes up for a vote on Thursday.

Stefanos Kasselakis, leader of the Syriza party, right, meets with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece's prime minister, in Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.
Yorgos Karahalis / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Stefanos Kasselakis, leader of the Syriza party, right, meets with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece's prime minister, in Athens, Greece, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023.
Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against the upcoming vote in parliament on the same-sex marriage bill, in Athens on Feb. 11. Greece's parliament is set to vote on legislation to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday.
Nick Paleologos / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Bloomberg via Getty Images
Protesters hold banners during a demonstration against the upcoming vote in parliament on the same-sex marriage bill, in Athens on Feb. 11. Greece's parliament is set to vote on legislation to legalize same-sex marriage on Thursday.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, the issue of same-sex marriage and parenting has become a contested subject of debate across Greek media. There are almost daily op-eds in the country's largest magazines and newspapers from lawyers, psychologists and LGBTQ parents, arguing in favor of gay marriage.

But opposition runs deep across the country. The Archbishop of Crete stated that gay couples raise "traumatized children." Right-wing tabloids have devoted front pages to deriding gay families. Last weekend, hundreds protested against the bill in Athens' central Syntagma square, with speeches from various hard-line religious groups and the leader of the Christian conservative party Victory in attendance.

"These arguments that come out of people's mouths have to do with issues that do not concern them," says Kalantzi. "For children it doesn't matter if they grow up with two fathers, what matters is if they grow up in a safe environment, a supportive environment."

Kalantzi and her partner had discussed leaving Greece at one point, assuming marriage equality would not come to bear any time soon. Now they are hopeful.

"This bill is something we have waited for for a very long time, we have fought for this," says Kalantzi. "This would relieve a lot of anxiety. Now we live with a permanent anxiety."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Moira Lavelle
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