German gay couples get ready to marry on Sunday, after decades of struggle for equal rights

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 12:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 12:27pm

Germany’s first gay marriages will take place on Sunday, after decades of struggle that campaigners say still has ground to make up.

Couples will convert existing civil partnerships or set the seal on their relationships for the first time in Berlin, while others exchange rings in Hanover, Hamburg and other cities.

Local authorities rushed to get weddings underway as soon as possible, after lawmakers voted on June 30 to give Germany’s roughly 94,000 same-sex couples the right to marry.

But German bureaucracy being what it is, government software will be unable to officially record two men or two women as married until next year – meaning some online paperwork will still register them as “husband” and “wife”.

“Finally our country is joining the rest of Europe!” said Joerg Steinert, head of gay and lesbian rights organisation LSVD in Berlin and Brandenburg state.

The Netherlands was the first country to legalise gay marriage in 2000, followed piecemeal by 14 European neighbours like Spain, Sweden, Britain and France.

But Germany made do with a 2001 civil partnership law, extended over the years to remove more and more gaps between gay and straight couples’ rights.

That was “a first breach in the institution,” Steinert said, paving the way for Sunday’s “very symbolic step.”

“We won’t be a second-class couple any longer,” Bode Mende, who with partner Karl Kreil will form the first couple to marry in Berlin, told newspaper Neues Deutschland Thursday.

Mende and Kreil, together since 1979, have for years campaigned for equal marriage rights.

The law now reads “marriage binds two people of different sexes or the same sex for life”.

By extending existing law to same-sex pairs, they automatically gain the same tax advantages and adoption rights as heterosexual families, avoiding the endless back-and-forth in some nations over adoption.

Along with the Greens party, the LSVD began its battle for equal marriage rights around the year 1990.

By 2017, same-sex relationships have become so normalised that polls show around 75 per cent of Germans are in favour of gay marriage.

Unlike in France, there were no rallies of hundreds of thousands against the law.

“Lots of people were amazed by the end that it hadn’t already happened, asking themselves, ‘surely we have that already?’” said MP Johannes Kahrs, gay and lesbian affairs commissioner for the SPD – who himself will act as witness in a close friend’s wedding Sunday.

Lawmaker Kahrs enjoyed a flash of fame in June, when he laid into the snap decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel allowing conservative MPs to follow their conscience on a gay marriage vote – the trigger for the rush to pass a bill.

“Thank you for nothing, Frau Merkel!” he stormed, pounding the lectern in the Bundestag with rage.

Merkel explained her thinking changed after a “memorable experience” when she met a lesbian couple who lovingly care for eight foster children in her Baltic coast constituency.

Her surprise shift in position – after 12 years of blockade by her Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies – was seen by some as a cynical ploy to rob her challengers of a popular cause ahead of September’s election.

The chancellor herself voted against the bill, arguing that the German constitution still defines marriage as “the union of a man and a woman”.

“I still think it was indecent to delay for so many years, and the fact that she voted no,” Kahrs said.

Even now, the conservative Bavarian government has put experts to work investigating a constitutional challenge against the law.

But Kahrs is confident that a case will never be brought – or, if it were, that judges would uphold gay marriage.

June was a bumper month for gay rights in Germany, as MPs also voted to quash the convictions of thousands of men convicted under a Nazi-era law against same-sex relationships which had remained on the statute book until 1994.

But there are still an array of issues familiar across western democracies, like blood donation or access to reproductive medicine, where homosexuals can be treated differently.

And the constitution – which forbids discrimination based on sex, parentage, race, language, homeland and origin, faith, religious or political opinions or disability – must be extended to protect against discrimination over gender or sexual orientation, Kahrs insisted.

“These are all things that we’ll tackle bit by bit,” the MP said.

“The important thing is that we’ve pushed through the opening of marriage, and that’s the signal everyone needed.”

Same-sex marriage around the world

Germany joins a host of European countries that allow gay marriages, although they are still outlawed in most parts of the world.

Europe: In April 2001 the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in a civil ceremony. More than a dozen European countries have followed: Belgium, Britain (except Northern Ireland), Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and now Germany.

Some European countries only allow same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships including Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland.

In October 2014, Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to authorise this type of civil union.

Americas: Canada led the way, authorising same-sex marriage and adoptions in June 2005. In the United States, a Supreme Court decision in June 2015 legalised gay marriage nationwide. Fourteen states nonetheless still consider it illegal. Mexico’s federal capital authorised gay marriages in 2009.

Same-sex marriages are also legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay.

Africa: On the African continent, only in South Africa can gays legally marry .

In the Middle East, Israel recognises gay marriages performed elsewhere but such marriages are not performed in the country itself.

Asia-Pacific: The only country that allows gays to marry is New Zealand, which passed a law in April 2013.Australia launched a contentious postal survey on same-sex marriage in September. Taiwan is set to legalise same-sex unions after its highest court in May ordered parliament to amend relevant laws within two years. Hong Kong does not recognise same-sex marriage, but this month the court of appeal ordered immigration authorities to grant a spousal visa to a British woman with a lesbian partner. Mainland China does not recognise same-sex marriage.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse