People In Same-Sex Marriages Reflect On 20 Years Since Union Was First Legalised
Twenty years ago today, the Netherlands made history by becoming the first country in which same-sex marriage was officially legal.
After passing a landmark bill to allow the practice in December 2000, the law came into effect on April 1, 2001, prompting many gay couples to officially tie the knot.
When the notion of legal same-sex marriage was first raised there were fears that the Netherlands would become a ‘legal island in the rest of the world’, but in the years since its legalisation a further 29 countries and territories enacted national laws allowing same-sex marriage, according to Ross Othen-Reeves, Head of Global Programmes at Stonewall.
Sandra Nuis-Bons, who lives in Oud-Beijerland, near Rotterdam, had not come out as a lesbian to her family and colleagues at the time same-sex marriage was legalised, but ‘inside [she] was very happy’ at the prospect of being able to marry who she wanted one day.
She noted that the change in law was a ‘very important first step’ in gaining equality for the LGBTQ+ community, explaining that previously gay couples in the country ‘didn’t have the same rights as a married straight couple’ even if they had lived together for years.
This lack of legal protection was one of the reasons why Boris Dittrich, a writer and senator in the Dutch parliament, began campaigning for the change in law.
Boris was the first openly gay male member of parliament who focussed on LGBTQ+ rights in the Netherlands, and following his election in 1994 he proposed same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples in Dutch parliament.
The notion faced a lot of opposition, for example from religious circles, members of parliament and those citing the ‘legal island’ argument, but Boris knew how important it was to fight for legal protection after working as a lawyer for the partners of gay men who passed away during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
He co-organised a campaign with allies from the academic community, lawyers, parents and friends of LGBTQ+ people, actors, singers, sports people and the business community, and worked together with two other MPs from different political parties to fight for marriage equality.
Finally, during the negotiations for a new majority coalition government, Boris’s political party D66 managed to make a deal about marriage equality and adoption by same-sex couples, paving the way for the same-sex marriage bill and what Ross described as a ‘trailblazing move which had a monumental effect on global LGBTQ+ rights.’
Reflecting on the last two decades, Sandra noted that she personally benefitted from the law when she married her wife in 2007. Sandra’s wife had a four-year-old daughter at they time they married, and thanks to the law Sandra was able to adopt her.
She commented: ‘Of course my wife and I loved each other very much, but giving our daughter some legal rights was important to us too.’
Sandra told UNILAD she is ‘very proud to live in a liberal country’; an opinion long shared by diplomat Nout van Woudenberg, who is Dutch and lived in the Netherlands until last August.
Referring to the Netherlands, Nout said that it was ‘great to live in a country that provides such an opportunity’, and noted that on a wider scale he is proud that the Netherlands ‘tries to improve the position of LGBTQ+-people and their rights as much as possible world wide, for instance through its Human Rights Fund.’
Nout was quick to take advantage of the law change as he married his first husband just months following the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2001, explaining: ‘It was good to have the opportunity and positive that the number of options on how one would like to confirm one’s relationship increased.’
Following his second marriage, Nout noted that as well as offering ‘confirmation that gay people are not different from straight people’, the legalisation allows his husband to be considered a ‘family member forming part of the household’ of him as a diplomat, on the basis of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Though both Nout and Sandra had marriages in the months and years after the law first came into force, some couples celebrated the legalisation by getting married the very minute they were allowed to do so.
Boris was invited to be present at the first four marriages that all took place on April 1, 2001 in the City Hall of Amsterdam, and he recalled that the Mayor of Amsterdam attempted to deliver a speech that would come to a close one second after midnight on April 1, when the couples would say ‘I do’.
Unfortunately the mayor’s nerves got the best of him, and his speech came to a close two minutes too fast – and two minutes before the law came into place. To cover the gap, the audience started clapping until midnight, when the couples said ‘Yes!’ and officially tied the knot, prompting ‘an outburst of joy’.
Another wedding attended by Boris was between two men in their eighties who had been in a relationship for more than 50 years and wanted to get married before they died.
Discussing the long-lasting impacts of the moment, Boris told UNILAD:
The law had a tremendous symbolic effect. Gay relationships became more visible and were normalised now that the law recognised those relationships.
It became a starting point to change other legislation to strive for full equal rights.
[I felt] very proud because the Netherlands did not remain a legal island in the rest of the world as some had predicted – the concept really took off. In many of the countries where marriage equality was introduced the Dutch law was used as example.
Between 2007 and 2018, Boris worked for Human Rights Watch in New York and Berlin as advocacy director of its LGBT rights program and was called as an expert witness to discuss marriage equality in a number of countries which went on to introduce the law, including New Zealand, Costa Rica, Colombia, Uruguay, Switzerland and Taiwan.
Boris himself got married in June 2006, though initially he and his partner were ‘okay with simply living together.’ Unfortunately, however, his campaign for same-sex marriage had made him ‘very visible’, and Boris was targeted by those who opposed the law.
He received death threats, and in 2005 police arrested a terrorist who had planned to kill him. Boris described it as a ‘difficult time in the Netherlands’, and after noting the assassination of two famous gay men, politician Pim Fortuin and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Boris and his partner decided it was best that they get married, so his partner would be legally protected.
It is no secret that the legalisation of same-sex marriage did not solve every issue faced by the LGBTQ+ community; it was simply one part of a much larger fight for equality.
Boris, Nout and Sandra all acknowledged that there is a long way to go to overcome the barrier still faced by LGBTQ+ people, with Nout noting that ‘discrimination and exclusion of LGBTQ+ people occur on an individual basis’ in the Netherlands.
Laws on paper are one thing. Discrimination in schools, the workplace, violent incidents on the streets are still taking place. Discrimination of a minority group will always be there. We need to constantly work on social and mental changes in society at large. Emancipation of LGBTQ+ people is never finished.
As for the rest of the world, Ross noted that ‘same-sex relationships still criminalised in 71 countries, and [there is] a roll back of hard-won LGBT+ rights in many countries.’ He added: ‘At Stonewall, we will keep fighting for a world where all lesbian, gay, bi and trans people are free to be themselves.’
Sandra pointed out there will ‘always be ignorant or homophopic people’, but support for the LGBTQ+ community is rife in the Netherlands, for example through the Dutch police and their Pink in Blue initiative; a scheme which aims to increase willingness to report hate crimes, offers support to victims, prevent violence against the LGBTQ+ community and promote the visibility and diversity of employees within the police.
Elsewhere, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an active policy on inclusion and diversity and equality for LGBTQ+ people.
The community is also celebrated through numerous events which take place every year, one of the most noteworthy of which is Amsterdam Pride. The festival draws almost one million people and consists of street parties, human rights debates, art festivals, a transgender pride festival and the famous Canal Parade, where decorated boats cruise the city’s canals.
Though coronavirus measures will require any anniversary celebrations for 20 years of same-sex marriage to be muted, the fact that it is able to be celebrated at all is a testament to the Netherlands and those who advocated for the change in law.
The fight for true equality is a long one, and there are still far too many countries where LGBTQ+ people are condemned simply for being themselves, but the knowledge of the progress made over the years serves as motivation to keep pushing forwards.
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