* Many Eastern European nations still ban gay marriage
* Increase in anti-LGBT+ sentiment shifts activists' focus
* Constitutional bans seen limiting further legalisation
By Rachel Savage
LONDON, Sept 24 (Openly) - As Swiss voters decide this weekend whether to let same-sex couples marry and adopt children, LGBT+ rights activists elsewhere in Europe say their fight for gay marriage has taken a back seat to more urgent issues like tackling hate crime.
Sunday's referendum could make Switzerland one of the last countries in Western Europe to legalise same-sex marriage, but progress to boost the legal recognition of LGBT+ relationships in more conservative nations has slowed in recent years.
"People have just had to prioritise where they invested time and energy, in a political climate that is much less favourable than it was a few years back," said Evelyne Paradis, head of ILGA-Europe, an LGBT+ advocacy group.
She cited the example of Italy, where civil unions were legalised in 2016 and which will be the only large Western European country without same-sex marriage if Switzerland votes in favour on Sunday.
Italian LGBT+ activists are now pushing again to specifically outlaw homophobic and transphobic hate crimes - facing opposition from Roman Catholic groups.
"Making sure that there are more robust means to protect people and to prevent violence feels like a more immediate demand and piece of work than marriage equality," said Paradis.
It would be too difficult to get legislators to legalise same-sex marriage and adoption and pass a hate crime law all at once, said Gabriele Piazzoni of Italian LGBT+ group Arcigay.
"It's a bad reality, but it's true," he said.
Anti-LGBT+ speech by European politicians is on the increase, ILGA-Europe warned earlier this year, with Poland and Hungary's nationalist governments in particular taking aim at the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
If the Swiss referendum passes as expected, same-sex marriage would be legal in 17 European countries, all in western and southern states, with civil partnership allowed in another 14 nations, according to ILGA-World, another advocacy group.
Campaigning ahead of Sunday's vote has been charged, with opponents of the reform using images of crying babies on their website and social media. Support for a "yes" vote has fallen to 63% from 69% over the last month, according to a recent poll.
Nordic countries led the way on civil partnerships, with Denmark the first to grant same-sex couples that right in 1989. Now, all but six EU countries recognise such unions.
The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage, in 2001, with Belgium following in 2003 and Spain and Canada in 2005.
That momentum spread over the next decade, peaking with Finland, Germany and Malta all passing laws in 2017. Since then, in Europe, only Austria has legalised same-sex marriage, though a handful of others have approved civil partnerships.
"The overwhelming majority of European countries that were likely to introduce same-sex marriage ... have already done so," Alina Tryfonidou, a law professor at Neapolis University Pafos in Cyprus, said by email.
Tryfonidou, an expert in EU LGBT+ rights, noted that many Eastern European countries had introduced constitutional bans on same-sex marriages in recent years.
That reduces the possibility of same-sex civil partnership legislation being upgraded to marriage in the near future.
In early 2020, 14 European countries, seven of them in the EU, defined marriage as between a man and a woman in their constitutions, according to Martijn Mos of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Russia joined them in 2020.
While civil partnerships in many European countries offer most of the same formal rights as marriage, some are missing certain protections.
Civil partners in the Czech Republic, for example, cannot jointly adopt children or inherit one another's property or pension, according to the Marriage For All campaign.
The Czech government said it supported a same-sex marriage bill when it was introduced in parliament in 2018, but the draft law has since been stuck in the legislature.
'TREATING LOVE DIFFERENTLY'
In Switzerland, civil unions have been allowed since 2007, but same-sex couples who formalise their relationship cannot adopt and lesbian couples are not allowed to access fertility treatments involving sperm donation.
Opponents of same-sex marriage in the Alpine country have argued against allowing sperm donation in particular, saying children need a father.
A lesbian partner who has not given birth must also go through an expensive process to adopt their child that can take about two years, involving medical and psychological assessments.
Simona Liechti, a lawyer, has been in a civil union with her partner Sarah since 2016. Sarah, a teacher and dancer, is still not the legal parent of their daughter Ambra, who is nearly two.
"It's quite annoying," said Liechti. "(Sarah) has to have her doctor confirm that she's not mentally ill."
Marriage is also emotionally and symbolically important for the couple, who hope they will be able to celebrate on Sunday, and start planning their wedding.
"It's different to say, 'That's my wife,' than 'That's my registered partner,'" Liechti said. "I've never understood why you have to treat love differently."
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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