Slovakia will hold a referendum on Saturday in a pre-emptive attempt to block gay marriage, gay adoption, and gay sex education in schools.
LGBT activists are actively campaigning for people not to vote, given that the result is declared invalid if turnout is under 50 percent.
Slovakia has a high number of Catholics: 62 percent identify Catholicism as their religion, though the percentage that attend mass is believed to be considerably lower. Pope Francis himself has spoken out to praise Slovakians for holding the referendum. Speaking during an audience at the Vatican, he said that he was sending regards to "Slovak pilgrims" and the Slovakian Church, who are "encouraging everybody to continue in the fight for the defense of the family, the life-giving unit of society."
The referendum officially poses three questions: whether marriage can only be a union of a man and a woman, whether same-sex couples should be banned from adoptions, and whether children can skip classes involving education on sex and euthanasia.
Though homosexuality has been legal in the country since the 1960s, in recent years the country has in fact visibly tightened laws to restrict LGBT rights. Since last September, the Slovakian constitution has stipulated that "marriage is a union solely between man and woman. The Slovak Republic fully protects marriage and provides all means to secure its wellbeing."
A conservative group called the Alliance for Family forced the vote after they collected 400,000 signatures calling for a referendum. They are actively campaigning with a "three times YES in the referendum" slogan. Posts on their Facebook page have labeled the vote as an attempt to stop the "creeping Conchita Wurst consensus," a reference to an Austrian drag singer and Eurovision winner. They have also been running an advert in which a small child suddenly finds out he is being adopted by a gay couple, and with confusion asks: "Where is the mother?"
Peter Kremsky, a spokesperson for the Alliance for Family, told VICE News that they wanted to force Slovakians to confront the issue as a matter of transparency. "We have seen some initiatives bringing some new rights for sexual minorities into Slovak laws, and it wasn't discussed in public, it wasn't brought to parliament or public discussion," he said. "We wanted to bring it to public discussion and to ask why it is so important for Slovakia, and if it's good for Slovakia. In our opinion it (new rights) is not necessary so we brought this referendum into life."
Kremsky said that while he felt LGBT people "should have all the rights same as the other people have," he also thinks that Slovakian citizens don't have to "believe, all of us, that it is the right lifestyle what they are doing."
He told VICE News that he believes Saturday's referendum is about values. "We don't hate anybody, we just want clear goals for society and for the country. It's important to have clear goals."
For him, these goals involve marriage as the "basic cell of society," he said, adding: "We think that marriage is just for a man and a woman."
Asked how leaving the way open for gay marriages would harm anyone, Kremsky replied that he didn't think it was damaging in the short-term, "but we have to think in the long-term, and in the long-term some experiments are confusing society and there are some behavioral examples which are followed by children and by young people."
Kremsky said that even if the referendum is declared invalid his group would still be satisfied with how they had encouraged people to discuss the issue.
"I would be happy if someone would ask us if we should introduce gay marriages in Slovakia. No one has asked us."
Since Slovakia became independent in 1993, they have only managed to reach the required turnout in one of seven referendums — the vote on whether to join the European Union. In the most recent European elections, Slovakia experienced the worst turnout in the EU, with 13 percent casting a ballot.
Romana Schlesinger, director of the Queer Leaders Forum, told VICE News that encouraging people not to vote was the best strategy they could adopt at the moment. "The majority should not be worrying about the life of minorities," she said.
However, Schlesinger said that she had never seen people as interested in a referendum before, something which could bode poorly for gay activists. She told VICE News: "It's a hot topic for the last few weeks, and these last few days it's all over social networks, on the streets, in the bars. Everyone is talking about the referendum."
She also accused the yes campaigners of scaremongering, and stated that in her opinion she felt it was working. "They are scared I think. One of the strategies in this campaign is to scare people."
The country's first gay pride event in Bratislava in 2010 was interrupted by a crowd of about 500 neo-Nazi youths who threw rocks, eggs and tear gas at the participants. 29 people were later arrested.
Schlesinger was involved in organizing the march, but she said she feels that the situation for LGBT people in Slovakia has deteriorated since then. In a country with high unemployment rates and high corruption, Schlesinger told VICE News that she feels gay people have become easy scapegoats for much larger societal problems.
"People are not happy economically, socially, and then it's easy to find an enemy and to say that all your problems are here because the homosexuals are trying to destroy a family. But that's not true."
_Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: _@sallyhayd