Reflecting on 12 Years of Gay Marriage in the Netherlands

While many countries hotly debate the issue of same-sex marriage, it has been 12 years since its legalisation in the Netherlands. Twelve countries* have followed the Dutch example.

Here, euronews takes a look back on the step-by-step process that made the Netherlands the first country in the world to introduce gay marriage, and what the situation is today.

A step-by-step process

Traditionally, Dutch society is organised around ‘pillars’, one for each group of society (Protestants, Catholics, liberals, social-democrats). Each pillar had its political party, its unions, education system and hospitals. It was “the Catholic psychiatric hospitals, facing a great number of severely depressed homosexual patients, who started to raise their voices against discrimination” explains Laurent Chambon, a French sociologist living in Amsterdam, by phone to euronews.

For Chambon, this progressive position taken by Dutch Catholics differs from the official Catholic Church view on the matter, because of the Catholics’ minority status in the Netherlands. “They are a minority and thus tend to be more progressive, similarly to the Jewish minority.”

On the legal side, things moved slowly but surely (see timetable). First, discrimination (against any person, not just a homosexual) was banned in 1983. Then a demand emerged for same-sex unions. As a result, in 1998 the Netherlands passed a law creating civil partnerships which could include individuals of the same-sex, loosely based on the Danish law of 1989.

After a few additional reforms, “by 1998, a very great proportion of the (traditionally marriage-related) special rights of heterosexual couples had also become available to same-sex couples. However, this did not silence the call for the opening up of marriage,” writes Kees Waaldijk, a law professor at the University of Leiden. “On the contrary, the social and political pressure increased,” fuelled, says the specialist of LGBT rights, by “the remaining discrimination [on parenting, foreigners and pensions] and the separate and unequal social status of registered partnership as compared to marriage”. Prof. Dr. Waaldijk, an expert on the question, is a former member of the advisory commission which worked on opening up civil marriage to persons of the same sex and he reported to the government in 1997.

As a result, on April 1, 2001, a few seconds after midnight, Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam and former State Secretary for Justice, was the first registrar in the world to marry a same-sex couple. Four gay couples tied the knot that night, 382 followed in April 2001.

Gay marriage in the Netherlands, a timetable

1983: A major rewriting of the Dutch Constitution bans discrimination. Sexual orientation is not explicitly stated.

1990: The Dutch Supreme Court rejects the demands of 3 homosexual couples who wanted to get married. However, the Court’s obiter dictum tells lawmakers they can legislate on the issue.

1994: A civil partnership bill is introduced to the lawmaking process.

1998: The civil partnership bill is voted and applies to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. On April 1, adoption is opened to single and non-married individuals regardless of their sexual orientation.

1999: On July 8, the bill on same-sex marriage is brought before the Dutch congress.

2000: The Lower Chamber votes on the same-sex marriage bill: 109 in favour, 33 against. The Higher Chamber votes ‘yes’ on December 19. Queen Beatrix ratifies the law on December 21.

2001: The law legalizing same-sex marriage comes into effect on April 1.

Today, a normal situation

Laurent Chambon, a French teacher who came out as gay in his youth, moved to Amsterdam in 1998 to flee the “execrable atmosphere in France” a country that was, at the time, experiencing a heated debate on civil unions. In 2000, Laurent met Lewis in Amsterdam, and the couple wed in 2002. “My family from Brittany, albeit pretty conservative, was happy that I got married,” he told euronews.

In his daily life, his marriage is a non-issue. “My students don’t care,” he explains. “Even in the most difficult classes.” Veiled girls with migrant backgrounds “ask me if they can see a picture of my husband to see if he’s handsome.” However, “most of the people in the Netherlands do not understand” the anti-same-sex marriage mobilisation in France. “They are a bit disappointed by the rigidity of the French”, he says, which doesn’t match his native country’s general reputation in the minds of most Dutch people.

Lewis and Laurent were, of course, not the only gays to marry in the Netherlands in the last 12 years. Between April 1, 2001 and January 1, 2011, 15,000 same-sex couples were legally wed. According to an article on the Radio Netherlands website, 20% of the 55,000 gay couples in the Netherlands are now married. In the same period of time, there have been 761,000 heterosexual marriages. In total there are 4.1 million straight couples in the Netherlands, 80% of whom are married.

In some cities, it is not illegal for a registrar to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

Gays divorce too. Between April 1, 2001 and January 1, 2011, there have been 1,078 gay divorces, two thirds of them women-women couples. In the meantime, there have been 323,549 divorces among straight couples.

Jan Latten of Statistics Netherlands explains that “just as with straight couples, the desire to have children and the resulting legal responsibilities often weigh even more for gay and lesbian couples. This could explain why gay couples marry less often than straight ones. Gay couples, especially gay men, still face considerable difficulties when they want to adopt children.” If adoption by same-sex couples is legal in the Netherlands, there are few children to adopt. Commercial surrogacy is banned and altruistic surrogacy is tightly regulated.

A recent political and media storm shows how far Dutch society has gone in terms of the acceptance of same-sex families. In mid-March, a row erupted between Turkey and the Netherlands, the AFP reported: Turkish media and officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complained that a baby, born in the Netherlands to a Turkish family, had been placed in foster care by social services at a lesbian couple’s home. Turkey has asked for Yunus, the boy, to be reunited with his allegedly abusive biological family.

Members of the Dutch government came to the defence of the country’s child foster care system and values. Dutch Deputy Premier Lodewijk Asscher called any interference by a “foreign power” based on religion or sexual orientation “presumptuous.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte reiterated this point: “the interest of the child come first”, and added “no distinction is made in the Netherlands on the basis of sexual orientation or religion.”

Several demonstrations, against or in support of the Dutch foster care system, took place during Erdogan’s visit last month. Laurent Chambon, who hold a PhD in Political Science and specializes on minorities’ issues, says the row was on the verge of turning into “full-fledged diplomatic incident” between the two countries. However, for him it is an example of the “very progressive discourse” that is often in evidence in Dutch society. He also explains that some gay or lesbian couples serve as ‘part-time foster families’, welcoming children for difficult background during weekends and vacations, a system well accepted in society.

Homophobia remains

Twelve years of same-sex marriage did not wipe out homophobia from society. For instance, Yunus, now 9, and his adoptive mothers had to go into hiding, fearing for their safety.

Bullying and victimisation also still occurs on a daily basis. A recent study by Dutch and American scientists concluded that lesbian, gay and bisexual youths are still victims of stigmatisation in their families, schools and neighbourhoods.

These words and acts have tragic consequences: almost 64% of the surveyed LGBT 18-24-year-olds in the study reported thinking about suicide and almost 13% of them attempted suicide. For straight Dutch youths of the same age group, the figures are respectively 10.3% (thought about suicide) and 2.2% (attempted suicide). The study suggests that ongoing persecution, especially at school and by the parents, are linked to increased risks in suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Chambon notes that there have been a handful of lesbian couples who had to move because of negative and aggressive reactions from their neighbours. But, he says, those are “marginal epi-phenomena”, equivalent in numbers to the occurrence of migrant families who had to move because of racism in their neighbourhoods. However, he recalls that, when looking for a new flat with his husband, several people strongly recommended against moving to a few districts in Amsterdam because they fear the locals’ reactions. Proof, if need be, that equality is only real when the mindset, not only the legal framework, changes too.

*The countries where same-sex marriage is legal nationwide are: Argentina, Belgium, Uruguay, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden.