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Germany and Marriage Equality

It was a hot summer’s day in Berlin when I attached my bicycle to a fence close to the Bundestag building. I had an appointment with Johannes Kahrs, member of the national parliament for the SPD and spokesperson for LGBT rights. The elections were only a few weeks away and I wanted to hear from him if the SPD would take its party program seriously. The program promised its voters to introduce same sex marriage.

Kahrs was very candid with me. “We are dead serious. This is a very important issue for us, we are not like the FDP. We won’t give this away.” “But what if the election result will force you to make a coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU? They are not in favor of marriage equality,” I asked. Kahrs looked me in the eye. “There won’t be a coalition contract without same sex marriage. Period.”

I left the meeting in high spirit. While I rode my bike back to the office of Human Rights Watch I counted the countries in Western Europe that already did away with discrimination and inequality in marriage laws and treated their citizens equally irrespective of their sexual orientation:

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, United Kingdom, France.

Germany should join this club. From a human rights perspective, broadening the scope of civil marriage to couples of the same gender is the right thing to do. Gays and lesbians have been deprived of the right in Germany to marry the person they love. The fundamental rights of equality and non-discrimination should be enshrined in the German law pertaining to civil marriage.

In September the elections were won by Angela Merkel’s CDU, but also the SPD gained some seats in parliament.

This week the coalition contract between the two parties was made public. Eagerly I read through the paragraphs, but no, there was no agreement between the two parties on same sex marriage. The coalition contract is not definite yet, because the 474.000 members of the SPD party need to approve it in a vote by mail. The end result will be published on December 14.

I am disappointed in the SPD, especially after their spokesperson’s solid promise not to give in to the CDU/CSU. And of course I am disappointed in the CDU/CSU for apparently vetoing marriage equality. I find the CDU/CSU’s approach painfully undemocratic. In the German Bundestag there is a majority in favor of same sex marriage: SPD, die Grüne, die Linke and probably a few CDU members. When one of the members of parliament would introduce initiative legislation on same sex marriage and if all the members would vote according to their conscience, it’s virtually certain the initiative would become law. However, a minority of members of parliament hold the majority hostage and same sex couples and those who believe in equality in Germany will pay the price.

I struggle to understand the rationale for those who oppose marriage equality?  Does it hurt heterosexual people when same sex couples want to see their love, their commitment, their responsibility to one another being recognized by the law, equally to different gender couples?  In the other Western European countries the majority of parliaments have listened to the call for equality and non-discrimination. Approval of same sex marriage will enable gays and lesbians in Germany to marry the person they love and will strengthen the fundamental rights of everyone in Germany to equality and non-discrimination.

In the Netherlands, the first country in the world where marriage equality legislation came into force in 2001, same-sex marriage has become a non-issue. A vast majority of the population supports it. Even members of parliament from the Dutch Christian Democratic party – aligned with the CDU in Centrist Democrat International- who voted against the same-sex marriage bill have changed their opinion, saying publicly that having seen so many gay and lesbian couples vowing responsibility, love, and commitment to one another, they do not wish to repeal the Dutch marriage law.

In October 2011 British Prime Minister David Cameron reflected this view when he spoke at the Conservative Party’s conference in Manchester:

“We’re consulting on legalizing gay marriage. To anyone who has reservations, I say: Yes, it’s about equality, but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us, that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.”

Two years later, in July 2013 England and Wales approved marriage equality. The Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaderships all backed the law.

Put simply, political leaders in Europe are coming to realize that gays and lesbians are not a separate group with a different sexual orientation.  Rather, they are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our friends and neighbors.  Gays and lesbians are integral parts of our families and our societies.

It is time for the German members of the SPD to demand that the promise to introduce marriage equality will be kept. The SPD and CDU/CSU coalition should end the situation of second class citizenship for same sex couples.

Boris Dittrich, Advocacy director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch

Dittrich, a former member of the Dutch Parliament, initiated the debate on marriage equality in the Dutch Parliament in 1994. After heated debates in parliament and in society at large, the Netherlands implemented same-sex marriage legislation in 2001, becoming the first country in the world to approve marriage equality.

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