By Rachel Savage
LONDON, July 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A lesbian couple launched a landmark bid on Thursday to win legal recognition for same-sex partners in Serbia, saying they wanted to step out and stand up for LGBT+ rights in the Balkans.
It is the first such legal challenge to be filed in Serbia, which has come under fire in the West over minority rights and widespread homophobia.
Jelena Dubovi and Suncica Kopunovic, from the northern city of Novi Sad, tried to get a civil partnership at the municipal registrar's office in April, but were told that only men and women can marry and turned away, their lawyer said.
"As not many same-sex couples in Serbia are willing to step out, we decided to stand for all of us and try to fight and aim to win," said Dubovi, 27, who began dating 29-year-old Kopunovic four years ago then proposed to her in 2016.
"We are not afraid... we got sick of hiding who we are, because that is actually nothing bad," Dubovi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. "We just love each other, which is absolutely a normal thing."
Serbia's government did not respond to requests for comment.
The country legalised gay sex in 1994 and outlawed discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in education and employment in 2010. However, many LGBT+ people are still afraid to come out for fear of losing jobs and homes.
Serbia is a country in flux.
It has its first openly lesbian prime minister yet the head of its Orthodox Church has likened same-sex relations to incest.
The largest state to emerge from the former Yugoslavia, Serbia is performing a delicate balancing act between its hopes of joining the European Union and a popular affinity for Russia.
PRIDE IS BACK
At a 2010 Pride march, 7,000 policemen fought off attackers and the parade was banned until 2014. Last month, hundreds of people marched anew in Belgrade Pride, one month after Novi Sad, the country's second city, held its first LGBT+ rights march.
Serbia's prime minister since 2017, Ana Brnabic, is the first openly lesbian leader of an eastern European country. Her partner gave birth to a son in February.
But same-sex partnerships remain elusive.
Slovenia and Croatia, which are both in the European Union, have legalised same-sex partnerships while Montenegro and its neighbour Bosnia and Herzegovina are considering legalisation.
The Serbian couple is unlikely to win in their home courts, said Arpi Avetisyan, a litigation officer with ILGA-Europe, a regional LGBT+ advocacy group.
But the couple's lawyer, Marjana Majstorovic, said the case could make it to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) - Serbia is a member - which in 2015 recognised same-sex couples' right to civil partnerships in a case against Italy.
It could take three to five years of legal wrangling if it reaches the ECHR, said Majstorovic, who is representing two more lesbian couples blocked from civil partnerships.
A new, draft civil code proposes granting property rights to same-sex couples but is divided on adoption and fertility rights, Olga Cvejic-Jancic, a former law professor and commission member, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
A lack of equal rights in Serbia means couples struggle to buy property, take out loans and visit one another in hospital, said Dubovi, a manager at an IT company.
"We are absolutely not asking for anything much, we are just asking to be equal human beings just as heterosexual couples are," she said. "It would mean a normal and a proper life."
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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