There is a north-south split among the countries in Europe concerning
same-sex partnerships. Many of the northwestern countries, which are nominally
Protestant, have either expanded marriage to include same-sex couples, or have
created registries for such couples and have granted them some benefits. The
southern Mediterranean countries come from the Roman Catholic tradition which
considers procreation to be the main function of marriage. None of them have
legalized same-sex marriage.
In 2001-APR, the Netherlands became the first country in the
world to expand the definition of marriage through legislation so that
"two people of different or the same sex can contract a marriage."
houses in the legislature had approved two bills during the previous fall which made both marriage and
adoption available to all committed couples: whether they are same-sex or
opposite-sex. This was the first country in the world to allow same-sex couples
On 2003-JAN-30, Belgium became the second country in the world to allow gay
and lesbian couples to marry. However, unlike the laws of the Netherlands, the new legislation does not allow
them to adopt children. 2
Belgium is a country of about ten million people. Dutch, French, and German
languages are spoken there.
About the legislation:
Like many other northwestern European countries, Belgium had already
granted some tax and property rights and privileges to registered gay partners.
Pressure to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples
started in the Dutch-speaking northern areas of the country, spearheaded by
Holebifederatie, the largest gay and lesbian civil rights organization in
Belgium. Changes to the marriage act first became possible in 1999 when the
conservative Roman Catholic political party, the Social Christians, lost their
first election in forty years. 3
According to Annemie Mercelis, legal adviser for Jef Tavernier,
the public health minister, it was the previous minister of public health, Magda
Aelvoet, who first suggested that the government legally recognize gay
relationships. After evaluating the various options, the government decided to
not create a separate, parallel system of civil unions for gays and lesbians.
They concluded that widening the definition of marriage to include same-sex
couples was the preferred route, Mercelis explained: "Otherwise, it would
have meant a whole new type of legislation. [With the revised law] it was a
really simple operation....These are good times for the [gay] movement in
our little country." 4
A coalition government of Liberals, Socialists and Greens
amended the 1830 civil code to make the simple change of defining marriage as a
contract between two spouses. No public hearings were conducted.
The Belgium public took little interest in the revisions to the
marriage laws. However, there was considerable opposition to allowing same-sex
married couples to adopt children.
The House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill by a
vote of 91 to 22 vote on 2003-JAN-30. There were nine abstentions. Only
members of the
opposition Christian Democrat party (CdH) and the extreme right Vlaams
Blok voted against the bill. 5 The Associated Press
reported that "During the public debate and vote, dozen [sic] of lesbian and
homosexual couples attended the proceedings, some holding hands as the
legislators approved the legislation."
The law came into force on 2003-JUN-1, four months after it had received royal
assent and after the text had been published in Belgium's official journal.
Reactions to the legislation:
Before the bill was voted upon, Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen said: "Mentalities
have changed. There is no longer any reason not to open marriage to people of
the same sex." 6
A Green Party member in the ruling
coalition of Greens, Liberals and Socialist, Kristien Grauwels, said: "It makes it clear that any enduring and
loving relationship is appreciated in the same way in our modern society."
Commenting on the lack of a provision for adoption, Grauwels said: "It still
was a step too far for several parties" in the coalition. 4
Socialist deputy Karine Lalieux said: "In spite of the very symbolic value
of this law and the positive signal it sends to the gay community ... it
remains blatantly hypocritical in one respect: a single person can adopt a
child, but not a homosexual couple." 6
Anke Hintjens, a spokesperson for the country’s largest gay
rights group, Holebifederatie, said: "We’re very happy. We think it’s a very
important moment for us in our history. We have a lot of couples in our movement
who want to get married." 2 Hintjens said her group hopes to organize a mass wedding in
Brussels after the law takes effect.
Kurt Krickler, Co-chair of the European Region of the
International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA-Europe) said: "Throughout
the world there are positive moves to recognize the rights of lesbians,
gay men, bisexuals and transgender people. There are now eight EU Member
States where same-sex partnerships have some legal recognition, and two
that allow same-sex marriage. We hope and expect this trend to continue." 7
ILGA-Europe Executive Director Ailsa Spindler said: "As more
and more EU citizens have their same-sex partnerships and marriages
legally recognized at home, they will expect the same recognition when
they move around Europe. Any refusal to recognize such partnerships by
other member states is a barrier to free movement and as such runs
contrary to the founding principles of the EU [European Union]."
There are three main restrictions in the new legislation:
Belgians in same-sex relationships can only marry other
Belgians, or a partner who is a citizen of a country which also permits same-sex
marriage. That only includes the Netherlands, as of mid-2003.
A gay or lesbian couple is not allowed to adopt a child. In the
case of a lesbian couple, the birth mother will be considered the sole parent of
the child or children. 8 If she dies, then the surviving
spouse has no rights to the child. The child may then be ripped out of the only
home that they have known, and be placed in a foster home. As of mid 2003, a
married lesbian couple with a child is preparing to challenge the ban in court.
There is no provision for joint custody for both spouses; only a
biological parent has custody rights. 4
An additional hurdle faced by gays and lesbians is that they can
lose their status as a married couple or as registered partners as they move
among the countries of the European Union (EU). Only eight out of 15 member
states of the EU (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands,
Portugal, and Sweden) legally recognize same-sex couples. The European
Parliament addressed this issue in its study of fundamental rights in the EU,
which they adopted on 2003-JAN-15. 9 On 2003-JAN-21, the
European Parliament's Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice
and Home Affairs (LIBE) approved a report which recommended that citizens of
the EU and their family members be free to move and reside freely within the
territory of the member states without losing their status. By a vote of 24 to
18, they adopted amendments to widen the definition of "family members"
to include same-sex spouses, registered partners, and other unmarried partners
living in a durable relationship. 10
The first same-sex marriages:
On 2003-JUN-1, same-sex marriages became legal in Belgium. Marion Huibrechts
and Christel Verswyvelen, a lesbian couple, were the first same-sex couple to
marry. Verswyvelen wore a blue silk dress; Huibrechts, a green suit. Their
matching wedding bands were patterned after those in their favorite movie,
The Lord of the Rings. Next were Jan Thys and Tom Van Dessel, a gay couple.
Thys said: "We know what we did is something very important for Belgian
society. But we didn't do it to make a point. We did it because we love each