LGBT Rights

Gay Marriage Nears Legalization

Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin
The annual Christopher Street Day gay parade in Berlin could get a big reason to celebrate this year. Source: Getty Images

After years of lagging behind other Western nations in LGBT rights, Germany’s political scene has witnessed a rapid shift poising gay marriage to become legal in a matter of days.

Speaking on Monday evening, Chancellor Angela Merkel shocked the country by swerving from her conservative stance against marriage equality. “I would prefer to shift the discussion in a direction of a vote of conscience rather than imposing anything from the top,” she said. 

It was a short but sweet statement with the chancellor’s typical no-fuss attitude stamped all over it. But it caused a big commotion. A vote of conscience, allowing lawmakers to cast ballots without toeing the party line, all but guarantees that the law would pass. Opposition parties have proposed several unsuccessful gay marriage bills over the years, so they would vote “yes.” But so would many parliamentarians from Ms. Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union who have long disagreed with their party’s line. They include openly gay members Jens Spahn and Stefan Kaufmann.

LGBT groups in Germany are in high spirits that reform could finally be on the political doorstep, with the hashtag #EheFuerAlle, or in English “MarriageForAll,” trending on Twitter.

Ms. Merkel’s comment was actually meant to be a small opening. Other CDU officials said she intended for a vote to come during the next legislative session, after federal elections in September. Yet with the cat out of the bag, others saw a unique opportunity: Many members of parliament are now demanding a vote be hurried through before German parliament enters summer recess at the end of this week, with the Social Democrats’ leader Martin Schulz vowing his party will force the issue to a vote.

So a vote is expected on Friday, meaning gay marriage in Germany could be astonishingly legalized before Pride Month comes to a close.

“Angela Merkel has recognized there is no alternative to marriage equality.”

Axel Hochrein, German Lesbian and Gay Federation

It’s a stunningly quick turnabout. The CDU’s parliamentary secretary Volker Kauder said his party had been taken by surprise and called the move to a vote a “breach of trust” by the SPD, which is in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel. Yet Mr. Kauder acknowledged they could do nothing to stop it.  By the end of Tuesday, the CDU faction in parliament had no choice but to accept the vote as planned, and formally agree.

For years, marriage equality has fallen to the wayside at the hands of Ms. Merkel and the power of the CDU, which has refused to stray from its conservative ideal of traditional family values. The chancellor herself voiced personal opposition to the idea more than once, famously in a televised debate where she said she had “difficulties” with gay marriage and the right for gay couples to adopt, and again in 2015 when she defined marriage as “coexistence between a man and a woman.”

Ms. Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, said a “memorable experience” had contributed to her change of heart, a recent encounter with a lesbian couple caring for eight foster children in her Baltic coast electorate.

“We are happy that after a long way … the goal is finally being approached,” Axel Hochrein of Germany’s Lesbian and Gay Federation told Handelsblatt Global. “For too long, gay and lesbian couples have been treated as second-class citizens and the principle of equality disregarded. Angela Merkel has recognized there is no alternative to marriage equality.”

But the timing of Ms. Merkel’s statement is no coincidence either. On Sunday, her main rival for chancellor Mr. Schulz stated the party would not sign a future coalition deal unless it included a commitment to marriage equality, emitting a standing ovation and plenty of headlines – and what many view as a strategic response for Ms. Merkel, taking a hot button election issue that could have hurt the CDU off the table.

The announcement also gives her leeway to form potential alliances with other parties, such as the Greens and Free Democrats, who both support legalizing same-sex marriage. In the latest Emnid poll on Sunday, the CDU was surveying at 39 percent ahead of September’s federal election, meaning it would require a coalition to govern.

German law currently only allows civil unions. While it grants many of the same legal benefits as marriage, what’s missing is the right to jointly adopt, which is almost impossible for gay couples in an archaic and highly bureaucratic system that tightly restricts surrogacy and artificial insemination.

Although the matter is only now approaching a parliamentary vote, it is clearly decided in the court of public opinion. In January, Germany’s Anti-Discrimination Agency surveyed citizens to find that 83 percent are in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.


Barbara Woolsey is a writer for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author:

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