Berlin: Germany legalised same-sex marriage Friday in a change nonetheless opposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, joining many other western democracies in granting gay and lesbian couples full rights, including adoption.
The election-year bill was pushed by Merkel’s leftist rivals, who pounced on comments she made early this week suggesting a policy U-turn — a manoeuvre that left her conservative lawmakers fuming.
Merkel allowed her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) lawmakers to vote their conscience on the bill rather than follow the party line, and it passed by a vote of 393 to 226 on parliament’s last day before the summer recess.
But Merkel said Friday that she voted against the legalisation because she believes marriage is the preserve of a man and a woman.
“To me, marriage as defined in the German constitution means the marriage between husband and wife, and that is why I voted against the law today,” she said.
But she did say that her thinking had changed on the question of child adoption by same-sex couples, which she long opposed.
“I have thought a lot about the matter of child welfare and have now… come to the conviction that same-sex couples should be able to jointly adopt children,” she said.
After the law passed, which prompted jubilant proponents to throw confetti in the Bundestag, the German legal code will change to say “marriage is entered into for life by two people of different or the same sex”.
The upper house has already approved the measure, which is expected to enter into force before the end of the year.
Renate Kuenast of the Greens party, which has pushed for decades for LGBT rights, quipped cheerfully: “I would advise all registry offices in the country to boost staff numbers.”
Gay and lesbian groups cheered the push for marriage equality in Germany, where so-called civil unions for same-sex couples were legalised in 2001.
“It’s a real recognition, so it warms the heart,” said French engineer Christophe Tetu, 46, who lives in Berlin with his partner Timo Strobel, 51.
“We’re thinking about having a party, getting married and using our new rights to protect our relationship,” he told AFP.
Strobel said he too was “overjoyed” that the couple would be able to show family and friends “that we are committed to each other, that we will stay together and we will spend our lives together”.
The rapid series of events kicked off with an on-stage interview Merkel gave Monday to women’s magazine Brigitte, in which an audience member asked her: “When can I call my boyfriend my husband if I want to marry him?”
Merkel, who had long opposed gay marriage with adoption rights, replied that her thinking had shifted since she met a lesbian couple who cared for eight foster children.
She said she favoured an eventual vote when all lawmakers could follow their conscience rather than a party line.
Many read the surprising comments as a move to rob opposition parties of a strong campaign issue before September 24 elections.
Merkel’s current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), had declared a gay marriage law a red-line demand and precondition for any future alliance — as had the Greens, the far-left Linke and the pro-business Free Democrats.
On Tuesday, after much buzz on social media, the SPD leader and candidate for the chancellory Martin Schulz took Merkel at her word and broke coalition ranks to call for an immediate vote.
The CDU slammed the tactic as a “breach of trust” after four years of joint rule.
But during Friday’s emotional parliamentary debate, one SPD lawmaker angrily criticised Merkel, accusing her of “pathetic and embarrassing” meandering on the issue.
“Mrs Merkel, thanks for nothing!” said Johannes Kahrs, a gay rights activist, charging that she had blocked progress on gay and lesbian rights for years.
He characterised her Monday-night comments as a “Schabowski moment” — a reference to the communist East German official Guenter Schabowski, whose fumbling comments at a 1989 press conference sparked the mass rush to border crossings that brought down the Berlin Wall.
Around the world
Gay marriage is authorised in about 20 nations around the world, the majority of which are in Europe.
In April 2001 the Netherlands became the first country in the world to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry in a civil ceremony. Twelve European countries followed: Belgium, Britain (except Northern Ireland), Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.
In Germany, the upper house had already approved the bill, and the measure is now expected to enter into force before the end of the year. Some European countries only allow same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships, including Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Switzerland.
In October 2014, Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to authorise this type of civil union. Many eastern European countries — including Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia — deny homosexuals the right to marry or enter into unions.
In December 2015, Slovenians voted in a referendum against efforts by their national Parliament to legalise gay marriage.
About 15 western European countries allow same-sex couples to adopt children, whether within marriage or civil partnerships. They include Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.
Other countries, including Finland, Germany and Slovenia, let gay people adopt the children of their partners.
Canada led the way in North America, authorising same-sex marriage and adoptions in June 2005.
In the United States, a Supreme Court decision in June 2015 legalised gay marriage nationwide.
Mexico’s federal capital led the way in Latin America, authorising civil unions in 2007 and full marriages in 2009.
Same-sex marriages are also legal in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay.
Chile’s civil union law recognises same-sex couples, and Costa Rica allows them to share health and pension benefits.
On the African continent, where around 30 countries ban homosexuality, only in South Africa can gays legally marry and adopt children.
In the Middle East, Israel leads in terms of respect for homosexual rights, recognising gay marriages performed elsewhere even though such marriages are not performed in Israel itself. Gay couples can jointly adopt children there.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the only country that allows gays to marry is New Zealand, which passed a law in April 2013.
Several Australian States practice civil unions, which are not recognised nationwide. But adoptions by gay parents are legal.
In May, Taiwan’s constitutional court ruled against laws that prevent same-sex unions and gave the government two years to draft new legislation.