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Croatia has a complicated history when it comes to LGBT rights. The current situation with the LGBT community in Croatia is even more complex.

On paper, Croatia seems to be doing well on this issue. For example, Rainbow Europe’s score puts Croatia close to some countries traditionally deemed as progressive. In reality, though, general public attitudes have proved to be quite susceptible to the broader political climate.

The not-so-brief history of LGBTIQ rights in Croatia

Homosexuality was first decriminalized in 1977 by the then Socialist Republic of Croatia. Four years earlier, it was removed from the official list of mental disorders. (Mind you, it wasn’t until 1990 that the World Health Organisation did the same!)

After Croatia became independent in the early 1990s, there wasn’t any advancement in gay rights until the early 2000s. That’s when a centre-left coalition took power from the conservative, Christian democratic HDZ party. The coalition passed a same-sex union law in 2003, legally recognizing same-sex relationships. That was the first time gay couples got some of the rights enjoyed by unmarried hetero cohabiting partners. 

Several laws and directives prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression have also been introduced over the years. These include a penal code recognizing hate crime based on gender identity.

When it comes to the protection of people other than gay men and lesbians who fall under the LGBTIQ umbrella, the laws are scanter. Gender transition is legal in Croatia and the law allows for a person to change their name. This includes transgender persons who haven’t undergone gender affirmation surgery. The rights of intersex people, however, have not yet been legally protected in any way.

Constitutional Amendments

Well organized and funded conservative movements have swept Europe and the rest of the world over the past decade. Their rise has, unfortunately, not bypassed Croatia. With the aid of the Croatian Catholic Church, a lobby group ‘U Ime Obitelji’ (‘In the Name of the Family’) ran an aggressive campaign against same-sex marriage in 2013. They called for a referendum to introduce changes to the national constitution. The changes they proposed would constitutionally define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Obviously, that would effectively prevent the introduction of the same-sex marriage in Croatia.

The referendum took place in November 2013. The outcome: 65.87% of voters supported the change to the constitution, and 33.51% opposed it. It is worth noting, however, that voter turnout was less than 40 per cent, leading many civil rights groups to point to the issue of the turnout threshold which makes the referendum binding being set too low.

Life Partnership Act

Regardless of the aforementioned campaign and its legal results, the following year the government introduced the Life Partnership Act. This established registered civil partnerships, which grant same-sex couples equal rights to those of married hetero couples. The notable exception is that they wouldn’t be given full adoption rights.

Conservative pressure groups continued to push their agenda, switching to the demonization of trans people and the fight against so-called ‘gender ideology’. With the HDZ party now in power and the rise to prominence of some far-right parties and politicians, the socio-political climate has changed for the worse

However, there have also been some shifts in other directions. A left-green coalition has entered Croatia’s parliament for the first time in 2020. With many of its members coming from civil rights groups, the coalition openly supports LGBT rights in Croatia.

Pride in Croatia

The first Pride march of sexual and gender minorities happened in Zagreb in 2002. It was the first high-profile LGBT+ event ever in Croatia. Despite government support, its 300 participants were met with verbal violence from homophobic crowds. Participants reported a number of violent incidents. Pride continued to take place in Zagreb every June. With time, it became safer and garnered more support each year.

The first Pride event in Split was held in 2011, and it ended in physical violence, with homophobic attackers significantly outnumbering the march attendees. The media and general public condemned the government for failing to adequately protect the marchers. A march of support was held in Rijeka in the same year.

The events in Split marked a turning point for LGBT activism in Croatia. They prompted more public discussions on the issue than ever before. As a result, people who had once been passive bystanders at Pride events became active allies. That included attending Pride marches and speaking up for the LGBT community. Held a week after Split Pride, 2011’s Zagreb Pride became the biggest Pride march up until that point. The event was generally backed by the media, as well as some celebrities and politicians, and went without violence.

Another critical point was the 2013 Zagreb Pride event. Many citizens joined it to express their opposition to the outcome of the previous referendum on the definition of marriage. With 15,000 participants, it continues to be the biggest Pride event ever in Croatia. 

Poor mainstream representation

Mainstream representation of LGBT+ population in Croatia continues to be rather poor. There are barely any public figures who are out and proud. Therefore, the public events like the Pride marches still hold a very important place in LGBTIQ activism. Croatia has come a long way since 2002 – Pride marches have continued to take place in Zagreb and Split peacefully, and today gather large numbers of people of different generations and identities. The latest Pride in Zagreb, in particular, had an unusually high number of young participants. That gives us some hope for the future of the LGBT rights movements in Croatia!

Unlike the Pride parades taking over the streets of some western European capitals, it’s unlikely, at least for now, that Croatian Pride events will morph into more conventional, corporate-sponsored street parties. They’re still very much political protests, and this makes them quite emotionally charged.

LGBTIQ organizations

There is a number of organizations dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of various members of the LGBT community in Croatia. LGBTIQ centres exist in Zagreb, Split and Rijeka. 

Zagreb is home to initiatives such as Zagreb Pride, Iskorak, Kontra, LGBTIQ Initiative AUT, qSPORT and the recently initiated Ponosni Zagreb. Trans Aid protects the rights of trans, intersex and gender-variant persons. Dugine obitelji (Rainbow families) gathers LGBTIQ parents and those who wish to become ones.

Split Pride is known for their original approach to activism which includes hilarious videos uncovering, for example, the absurdity of mainstream reactions to the pride events. queerANarchive works on developing the queer discourse in Split. 

In Rijeka we have one of Croatia’s oldest LGBTIQ organizations LORI, which also runs Smoqua – a festival of queer and feminist cultures. New initiatives are popping up in the region and across the country, such as Osijek’s LiberOS and Pula’s Proces. There are even news sites dedicated to LGBT issues, such as CroL. The feminist platform VoxFeminae often covers topics relevant to the queer community.

Queer scene in Croatia

Although Zagreb is still the only Croatian city to have venues officially characterized as gay clubs, there is some form of queer gatherings in most major cities. Split and Rijeka in particular are more than catching up with the capital city’s queer culture and nightlife.

When it comes to going out as an LGBT person in Croatia, a general rule of thumb is that culture and arts scenes are – for the most part – open environments. Homophobic incidents are not likely on cultural events such as exhibitions openings, urban music festivals and shows, film festivals etc.

In recent years, queer events in Zagreb have usually taken place in alternative spaces. In addition to the established mainstream gay clubs and nights, this has made the alternative music scene more LGBT-friendly, and made venues like Attack! and Močvara feel more welcoming to the queer community. (Do make sure to check the program before heading to either of those, though, as they host a range of event types and musical genres, from concerts to literature readings, from punk gigs to techno parties!)

Zagreb-based Domino organization has been putting on various types of events for the queer population for years and has even organized events in New York.

Keep an eye out for a wacky show by drag collective House of Flamingo, which has become a Zagreb staple, a performance by the lesbian choir LeZbor, known for their queerified a’capella renditions of various popular and traditional songs, or a party thrown by any of the organizations mentioned in the LGBTIQ Organizations section above.

LGBTIQ tourism in Croatia

One recent research placed Croatia as 39th on the list of 150 world’s most popular countries for LGBTQ+ travel. While Croatia may not have a particular strategy for attracting LGBTIQ tourists, some 200.000 of them visit the country per year.

Seeing as the country heavily relies on tourism as its source of income, the sentiment of general public towards the LGBT population is a little more relaxed when it comes to tourists than it is when it comes the locals. This isn’t necessarily to say that tourist destinations and accommodation providers are more LGBTIQ-friendly, they are simply less concerned about to whom they provide their services than they are about making their profit.

Renting accommodation as a same-sex couple should generally not be a problem. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is illegal in Croatia, as one Zadar rentier has learned after refusing to host a gay couple. It is possible that things might look worse for trans and gender-non-conforming travelers, though.

Which destinations are the most welcoming?

Apart from the capital city of Zagreb, Rijeka is commonly hailed as the most open city – even as a gay and lesbian mecca of sorts, some might say. One of Croatia’s key port cities, it has always held a reputation of being a vibrant and diverse place. It’s telling that the city’s slogan for the Rijeka – European Capital of Culture 2020 project was “Port of Diversity”. Istria and Kvarner are traditionally known as the most tolerant regions in Croatia.

The island of Rab is considered to be one of the first openly gay-friendly destinations in Croatia. Ever since the 1980s, it has quietly but proudly held that ‘title’. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that Rab officially became the first place in Croatia to openly promote itself as a gay-friendly tourist destination.

As already mentioned, Split is becoming increasingly open to different types of visitors. As Croatia’s biggest tourist mecca, Dubrovnik is among the most accepting destinations. In 2020, the first gay music festival was to be held at Zrće, a popular party destination on the island of Pag. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented it from happening.

What to consider when in public?

When it comes to public places, restaurants and bars, there are no rules except to try and use your judgment. It’s always a good idea to do your homework and look for the LGBT-friendly places in a destination. Major cities, especially in northern Croatia and Istria, are generally more open, as are the traditional tourist hotspots such as Dubrovnik. However, public displays of affection are still not common – even among the local LGBT population, who are usually discreet about PDAs. And we all know that one hostile individual is more than enough to ruin our experience of a destination.

If naturist beaches are your thing, there are several guides with recommendations for gay beaches along the Croatian coast. You can even book a gay sailing cruise, or a gay nude sailing cruise. Gay Travel Croatia also has some tips for your stay. Finally here’s some useful advice from the popular Croatian-Canadian gay comedian Daniel-Ryan Spaulding: