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WORLD | 01-10-2019 14:22

30 years on from first same-sex unions in Denmark, gay marriage more accepted

Ivan Larsen and Ove Carlsen had their civil union three decades ago. Same-sex marriage is today allowed in 28 countries across the world, including Argentina, even though homosexuality remains illegal in some parts of the world.

Thirty years after Denmark became the first country to allow same-sex couples to register in legal unions, the world has become more accepting. But in 1989, it was a trailblazing move.

"It was a ceremony that takes place every day at city hall," Ivan Larsen recalls. "But for us, for the first time in history two men could experience this ceremony." 

Ivan had met his partner, psychologist Ove Carlsen, three and a half years earlier. On October 1 1989, the very same day Denmark first allowed same-sex couples to register in civil unions, Larsen - himself a Lutheran pastor in Church of Denmark – legally joined with his partner.

As the couple prepared to celebrate their pearl wedding anniversary, they recalled their vivid memories of that occasion with AFP.

It was a Sunday in the country's capital Copenhagen and deputy mayor Tom Ahlberg opened the massive gates of the city hall to officiate the "partnerships" – the official term – of 11 same-sex couples.

Both dressed in cream-coloured suits, Ove wore a pink bow tie, Ivan wore a blue one, and at 42 years old they became the second couple to formalise their union.

The first was Axel and Eigil Axgil, 74 and 67 years old at the time but now both deceased.

A 'pioneering act'

"We had been told that you can have 25 guests with you at city hall," said Ivan Larsen. "We had three."

"Because of the journalists," his husband added.

Following the ceremony the newly joined couples were greeted by enthusiastic supporters throwing rice.

Although it was in stark contrast with their modest everyday style, Ivan and Ove embraced the media spotlight their historic union provided.

"We thought it was necessary to talk about what was happening in Denmark … to spread the message: it's OK and it was possible," Ove Carlsen said.

"It was a pioneering act to get married that day," Ivan Larsen said.

In Denmark "until 1866 homosexuality was punishable by death and one couldn't be openly homosexual until 1933," Larsen explained.

True to the Danes' progressive reputation, civil union was in most ways equal to marriage in respect to the law – but the right to adopt was excluded.

"As long as it didn't touch the symbolic realm of reproduction and family it was OK," Michael Nebeling Petersen, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Southern Denmark told AFP.

The idea behind the law, he said, was above all to offer financial security for homosexual men, allowing them to inherit from each other at a time when AIDS was spreading fast.

"It was first of all practical," Nebeling Petersen said.

Other countries follow

Since it still wasn't technically a marriage, ceremonies could not be held in most churches and the partnerships were not recognised by other nations.

Between 1989 and 2012, 7,491 civil unions were formed. And in 2010 same-sex couples were granted the right to adopt.

In June of 2012 the civil partnerships were abandoned in favour of new legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married just like heterosexual couples.

Soon after that law passed, Ivan and Ove were wed by one of Ivan's colleagues. 

By that time, Denmark was no longer leading the way. Same-sex marriages had already been adopted by several other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Spain, and the Danes' Nordic neighbours Norway and Sweden.

The first country to legalise same-sex marriages was The Netherlands, whose parliament passed its first legislation on the matter a decade earlier in 2000. Almost 30 countries have now legalised same-sex marriages.

Ivan and Ove are now content to enjoy their retirement in their cosy apartment in one of Copenhagen's quiet districts.

Despite the progress in gay rights however, they are worried about what they say is a rise in homophobia. In response, they urge people to be open about their sexuality in everyday life.

"Some people would say, 'You always talk about being gay'," said Ivan.

"No I don't. I just told you that I've been to the cinema with my husband," he added with a smile.

Gay marriage legal in 28 countries

The first-ever gay civil unions in Denmark 30 years ago paved the way for full same-sex marriages that are today allowed in 28 countries, even though homosexuality remains illegal in some parts of the world. Here is an overview. 

Europe, gay marriage pioneers

On October 1, 1989, for the first time in the world, several gay couples in Denmark tied the knot in legal civil unions.  Danish homosexual couples would, however, have to wait until 2012 to be allowed to marry in church.

The right to a religious marriage ceremony was first allowed in The Netherlands in 2001. Thirteen European countries followed: Belgium, Britain (although not Northern Ireland), Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Austria allowed gay marriage from 2019.

Some countries allow only gay civil partnerships including Croatia, Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland.

The Czech government has backed draft legislation that would make the country the first post-communist member of the European Union to legalise same-sex marriage, but its fate is uncertain. Slovenia also allows civil partnerships but in 2015 rejected in a referendum a proposal to legalise gay marriage. In 2014 Estonia became the first former Soviet republic to authorise same-sex civil unions. In Romania a referendum aimed at enshrining a ban on gay marriage in the constitution failed in 2018 because of a low turnout.

Progress in the Americas

Canada was the first American country to authorise same-sex marriage in 2005.

In 2015 the US Supreme Court legalised gay marriage nationwide at a time it was banned in 14 out of 50 states. The United States' first gay marriage had actually taken place in 1971, when a Minnesota couple obtained a marriage licence thanks to an overlooked legal loophole. The marriage was officially recognised in March 2019, after a five-decade legal battle. 

In Latin America five countries allow same-sex marriages: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay, joined by Ecuador in June 2019. 

Mexico's federal capital authorised gay civil unions in 2007 and marriages in 2009. Half of its 32 states have followed.

Chile legalised gay civil unions in 2015.

Costa Rica's Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that a ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional and gave parliament 18 months to amend the laws.

Cuba left out of its new constitution adopted in February 2019 changes that would have paved the way for legal same-sex marriage. The definition of marriage will be left to a new Family Code which will be put to a referendum. 

Taiwan, first in Asia

While much of Asia is tolerant of homosexuality, Taiwan became in May 2019 the first in the region to allow gay marriage.

In the Middle East, where homosexuality is repressed, Israel leads the way in terms of gay rights, recognising same-sex marriages that are performed elsewhere although not allowing such unions in the country itself.

Several countries in the conservative region still have the death penalty for homosexuality, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Australia (2017) and New Zealand (2013) are the only places in the wider Asia-Pacific region to have passed gay marriage laws.

Africa: marriage in one country

South Africa is the sole nation on the African continent to allow gay marriage, which it legalised in 2006.

Around 30 African countries ban homosexuality, with Mauritania, Somalia and Sudan having the death penalty for same-sex relations. 

by Camille Bas-Wohlert, AFP

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