Has Obama tipped the scales towards gay marriage in Europe?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA’S RECENT statement of support for gay marriage in the United States is touching off an avalanche of advocacy for equal marriage rights throughout Europe as well. No, nobody died and made him emperor. But his high-level announcement might just expedite a continent-wide trend towards full marriage rights for gays and straights alike.
Obama has retained a great deal of his personal - if not political - appeal in Europe, and when he talks, people start talking. While his support may not make gay marriage more appealing per se to its opponents, it seems to be making public opposition to it less plausible. In Berlin today, Green politician Volker Beck challenged Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democratic Union and her Free Democrat coalition partners have long been dragging their feet on gay marriage, to quit stallling and finally announce that “It’s okay to marry gay.” The current German law, which the Social Democrat/Green coalition pushed through in 2000, only allows for a “registered partnership” (a.k.a. “homo marriage”) without full marriage status and which still withholds tax privileges and adoption rights - although largely for practical rather than "moral" reasons.
Responding to Mr. Obama's comments, Green party boss Claudia Roth said it was "a scandal" that the CDU/FDP coalition had failed to legalize full gay marriage nearly twelve years after the passage of the partnership law. The Left Party, not normally a fan of the President, announced that Mr. Obama “has sent an internationally heard signal that the German Bundestag should also pay attention to.” The party’s spokesperson for gay and lesbian issues, Barbara Höll, said that “all deputies should vote in the Bundestag, independently of their party and coalition affiliations” so that homosexuals may “quickly” move towards full marriage. “Discrimination,” she added, “is no longer in keeping with our times.”
Ines Pohl, the lesbian editor of the left wing Tageszeitung, editorialized this morning: "Make no mistake: This is an historic day. With his commitment to gay marriage, Obama has made history once again."
But it isn't just the left that is cheering Obama's move. Despite his government’s hesitation in the matter, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle of the coalition Free Democrats, who sealed his own “homo marriage” with boyfriend Michael Mronz back in 2010, announced that Obama’s statement was a “a brave step” in the spirit of the German government’s policies and, yes, “it’s okay to marry gay.” Today, encouraged by Obama and her party colleague Westerwelle, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for full equal marriage rights in Germany. "Every life model deserves respect," she said.
Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle and sports manager Michael Mronz
Obama’s gay marriage "coming out" captured the headlines in every major European newspaper and has set an unignorable precedent. In France, it may further tip the balance towards a rapid introduction of equal marriage rights. President Nicolas Sarkozy (something of an expert on the topic, with three straight marriages and two divorces under his belt) regularly nixed the idea, stating that “to my knowledge and the current state of scientific knowledge, it requires a man and a woman to have a child.”
Tone-deaf comments like this may have helped cost him the election. According to the newspaper La Libération, speaking out in favor of gay marriage could have "made his image a bit more human," but ultimately he feared "alienating part of the traditional right-wing electorate." He needn't have bothered. His socialist successor François Hollande took a different tack, promising during his campaign to “open the right to marriage and adoption to homosexual couples” by 2013. Hollande defeated Sarkozy in a runoff election on May 6. It appears that French voters had other issues on their minds besides the threat of gay marriage. Who could have imagined it?
Already in February, the communist mayor of Villejuif "married" a gay couple in deliberate violation of French law, which still defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Alexis Cortijos, one of the grooms, told reporters that "it's a militant act. We wanted to show certain people from the Right that people want to start moving things forward." They now seem to be moving forward very quickly indeed.
Alongside Germany and France, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Finland are considering going beyond their existing registered partnership laws and allowing full gay civil marriage. As far as Britain is concerned, Obama is behind the times. In Edinburgh, the Scottish National Party has announced that it is “inclined” to permit gay marriage in the near future. In London, party leaders David Cameron, Nick Clegg, and Ed Milliband are actively seeking action on the issue. This spring, Prime Minister Cameron famously announced: "I don't support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative." No, Cameron hasn't turned into a blushing liberal, but he does know that it's not good politics for the Conservatives to be permanently branded "the nasty party."
The Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001. So far, Belgium, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal have legalized civil ceremonies. Several Central European countries, including Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia, permit certain kinds of registered partnerships.
Further east, countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Belorus, Bulgaria and Ukraine have constitutions defining marriage as existing solely between a man and a woman. While it will likely take more than a few words from Obama to change their way of doing business, it’s hard to imagine the social revolution the Dutch tipped off in 2001 halting forever at mere national borders. And regardless of what Republicans might think, it would take a lot more than the election of Mitt Romney, the likely candidate of America's own "nasty party," to stop the movement for universal human rights in the United States as well.