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LGBTQ+ rights situation at home drives young Slovaks abroad

May 1, 2023

A double murder outside an LGBTQ+ bar in the Slovak capital last October unleashed a wave of solidarity. Now, however, many members of the LGBTQ+ community feel badly let down by politicians.

Candles and flowers with messages on the pavement outside Teplaren on Zamocka Street, Bratislava, Slovakia, October 13, 2022
Flowers, candles and signs reading 'hate never wins' and 'fear never wins' were placed outside the bar where the shooting took placeImage: Vladimir Simicek/AFP

Six months have passed since the murder of two young members of the LGBTQ+ community in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. On October 12, 2022, teenage gunman Juraj K. opened fire outside Teplaren, an LGBTQ+ bar on Zamocka Street in downtown Bratislava, shooting dead 27-year-old Juraj Vankulic and 23-year-old Matus Horvath. The killer committed suicide the next morning.

In addition to losing two of its members, the LGBTQ+ community in Slovakia has lost its sense of security. Teplaren was more than just a bar, it was a safe haven for the queer community in Bratislava.

The day after the murders, owner Roman Samotny announced that Teplaren would permanently cease to operate as a bar. Instead, it is now used as a location for discussions and educational events about the LGBTQ+ community.

Police officers stand on the cordoned off Zamocka Street on the night of the double murder, Bratislava, Slovakia, October 12, 2022
Juraj Vankulic and Matus Horvath were sitting on a bench outside the LGBTQ+ bar Teplaren in Bratislava when a gunman opened fire, killing them instantlyImage: Vladimir Simicek/AFP

"That chapter of my life is still not closed," he told DW, "I am still in the process of healing. What happened here is still a wound for me that needs time. I had to process a lot of emotions, I had to learn how to work with my sadness, anger and pain, so I could carry on with my life."

Wave of solidarity

Despite all this, Samotny remains hopeful. "People showed an enormous amount of solidarity with the community. That gives me strength even now," he says. Samotny is now cooperating with the city of Bratislava to create a community center where more educational events about the LGBTQ+ community could be held.

"I'm trying to turn this experience into something meaningful, and the center is a concept that does it for me. I want to educate people on who we are and show them that misinformation and stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people are simply lies."

Dismay at proposed legislation

Nevertheless, both he and many members of the LGBTQ+ community are worried about what they see as a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ bills being submitted to the Slovak parliament — the Slovak National Council — by both MPs and the government.

Owner of the Teplaren bar in Bratislava, Roman Samotny, sits at a table and looks into the camera
'I'm trying to turn this experience into something meaningful,' says bar owner Roman Samotny, who wants to educate people about the LGBTQ+ communityImage: Magdaléna Tomalová

"The Slovak National Council recently rejected a European Parliament resolution calling for better protection of queer citizens. That and other laws being discussed by politicians show us that many of them do not hesitate to abuse this topic and foment society against us," says Samotny.

No civil partnerships in Slovakia

Gay people in Slovakia can neither marry nor enter into civil partnerships. Since the murders on Zamocka Street, only one party — Sloboda a Solidarita (Freedom and Solidarity) — has proposed a bill on the introduction of civil partnerships. But Slovakia's parliament rejected the proposal, and no other attempts have been made to submit proposals protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community since.

In February, Viliam Karas, Slovakia's caretaker justice minister, submitted a proposal he said was intended to make life easier for all unmarried couples. The bill introduced the idea of so-called "confidants," who would be able to obtain information — such as medical information — about their partners. The LGBTQ+ community in Slovakia was deeply offended by the proposal because they felt it fell far short of their call for gay marriage/civil partnerships. Despite opposition from the LGBTQ+ community, the caretaker government approved the proposal last week. Parliament will probably vote on it in May.

Threat to legal recognition of a transgender person's gender

Another bill approved by the Slovak parliament for a second reading this March also caused dismay in the LGBTQ+ community. If passed, the bill would prohibit transgender people from changing their so-called "birth number." In Slovakia, a citizen's birth number serves as a basic means of communication between the state and the citizen and carries information about the citizen's gender.

Participants gather during a protest in downtown Bratislava on October 14, 2022, two days after a teenager shot dead two men at a gay bar in the city
Public support for and solidarity with Slovakia's LGBTQ+ community was high after the double homicideImage: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images

The LGBTQ+ community says that this new bill would make it impossible to change legal gender, because in the eyes of the state, a transgender male would still be a female based on his birth number. This is not only a matter of concern for transgender people; it could also cause confusion at official level.

'Downright devastating'

"I was lucky enough to finish my transition before the National Council approved that proposal for a second reading," says Liberty Simon, a 36-year-old transgender activist who is well known in the community for her upfront approach to LGBTQ+ issues. "It must be downright devastating for transgender people," she told DW. "I can't even imagine going through something like that."

According to Simon, the proposed bill would be a violation of international law. Simon started her transition in the Netherlands and finished the process in Slovakia. She was lucky not to run into any legal or medical obstacles. Most transgender people are not so fortunate.

A demonstrator holds up a placard reading 'LOVE is a terrible thing to hate' as people march during a protest in Bratislava, Slovakia, October 14, 2022
Thousands of people marched in protest at the murder of two gay mean outside a bar in Bratislava last OctoberImage: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images

"My situation is very privileged, and I am aware of that," she says. "I have a loving family that supports me and I live in my bubble full of open and accepting people. But not many transgender people have the same experience; most text me and tell me about their troubles."

Reluctance to return to Slovakia

Petra is a 29-year-old Slovak social media coordinator living in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. She moved there right after finishing college and has been sharing a flat with her partner, Barbora, for 2 years. She asked that her name not appear in full for privacy reasons.

Petra grew up in a rather conservative region in northern Slovakia close to the Polish border, where LGBTQ+ topics are often taboo. "We discussed moving back to Slovakia. We wanted to live in the capital, so we could be closer to our families, but after what happened on Zamocka Street, we decided it was no longer an option for us," she told DW.

Life for LGBTQ+ people easier abroad?

Petra explains that living abroad is easier for many LGBTQ+ people from Slovakia. "The Czech Republic is definitely more open to people like us. I feel better here than I felt at home, even though some people in Brno occasionally do make nasty or sexual comments about me and my partner," she says.

Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova holds a bouquet of flowers as she walks next to her partner, Juraj Rizman (with rose), near the site of the shooting in Bratislava, Slovakia
Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova (with bouquet) visited the bar on the day after the shootingImage: Radovan Stoklasa/REUTERS

In the Czech Republic, only Czech citizens can enter into civil partnerships. Since both women would lose their Slovak citizenship if they became Czech citizens, Petra and Barbora have decided to continue without a civil partnership.

Marriage in Austria

Marian Kukelka, a 40-year-old journalist, has been with his partner for 13 years. They want to marry, but cannot do so in Slovakia. "Austria is just across the border and it does allow gay marriage. Even though it wouldn't be legally recognized here in Slovakia, we see it as a symbolic gesture," he told DW.

Marian and his partner live together in Bratislava. They both want something that is absolutely standard for heterosexual couples: "We just want a traditional form of partnership. We long for nothing more but a basic right that everybody else has. We do not want to be viewed as different; we want to blend in with the rest, and giving us the opportunity to marry is the least this state could do," says Marian.

Edited by: Aingeal Flanagan, Keno Verseck

A red-haired woman (Sona Otajovicova) stands beside a large shrub and smiles into the camera
Sona Otajovicova Bratislava-based Slovakia correspondent