A few days ago German Chancellor Angela Merkel signaled that she may drop her opposition to a vote on marriage equality after she said at a debate that her party was discussing the issue at length. At this same debate Merkel argued that she favoured a conscience vote on the issue. Almost all the Chancellor’s political opponents support marriage equality and after her announcement sought to gain political capital from her decision. They pressured for a snap vote on the issue and, much to my surprise, she permitted one.
The vote itself was not only on marriage equality but also on whether or not same-sex couples should have the right adopt children. This is important because history has shown us that the fight for marriage equality usually comes first before another later fight on parental rights. In the years that I have been following the LGBT liberation movement, this is the first time in which a parliament voted on one bill legalising both these practices.
The bill passed the Bundestag with ease with 393 members voting for versus only 226 who voted against. The vote was largely down party lines with Die Linke, the SPD, and the Greens supporting the bill whereas most of the CDU and all of the CSU opposed the legislation. Despite some German commentators believing that she may have changed her position on the issue, Angela Merkel voted against the bill and, in remarks to the press after the vote, said that she still believed that marriage should legally be regarded as between a man and a woman. Despite her sustained opposition, she used the same opportunity to call for a more socially cohesive and peaceful society.
In an article I wrote three days ago I laid out why I thought that same-sex marriage would be legislated on after the federal election in September. I wake up this morning to have egg on my face. But the one thing that I believe could still be true is that Germany’s legalisation of same-sex marriage could start conversations in other parts of Europe, especially those with relatively religious populations. Unfortunately because Merkel did not endorse this legislation herself the impact of the vote in Central and Eastern Europe will be less strong than if she had, but nevertheless Germany’s decision will make headlines around the world and put the issue back into the spotlight.
For instance Austria has similar public attitudes to LGBT rights as Germany. Although a 2015 parliamentary vote on marriage equality was overwhelmingly negative (26 in favour vs. 110 against) I am still optimistic for the future. The Social Democratic Party of Austria, whilst nominally in favour of equal marriage, voted against the legislation which would seem to indicate some back-door politicking. The conservative forces in Austria that oppose marriage equality need to be defeated and this landmark vote in Germany will do something at challenging those opinions.
Furthermore, Austrian civil society is lining up in support of equality. A 2015 Eurobarometer poll found that 63% of Austrians supported same-sex marriage, and I am confident that this number has only risen. This is significant because the more socially acceptable it is to be LGBT in Austria, the more people will come out, and the more people previously skeptical of equality will be brought onside.
In other Central and Eastern European countries like Poland there are larger barriers to equality, such as a more hostile public mood and constitutional prohibitions on marriage equality. But even so I believe that this move by Germany has the potential to seriously interrogate the more conservative parts of Europe, especially given Germany’s influence on the continent. It is important to stress, however, that these victories are not inevitable. We need to continue fighting in whatever ways that we can to demand change across Europe and around the world.
The march for LGBT equality is ongoing but Germany was a long awaited domino to fall and the activism of those advocates and allies on the ground needs to be commended. Without the hard work of thousands of ordinary people this battle wouldn’t have been won. There is, of course, a long way to before full LGBT equality is achieved in Germany but this vote has taken two major steps forward for same-sex couples. The legalisation of marriages and the right to adopt children means that families will begin being raised and a new generation with more tolerant views of LGBT people will be born.