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Thursday, 2 August, 2001, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
Germany split over gay marriage
Dutch brides Helene Faasen, left, and Anne-Marie Thus
Germany still lags behind Dutch laws on gay marriage
By BBC News Online's Catherine Miller

Register offices in Germany opened their doors to gay and lesbian couples on Wednesday under a new law that allows them to legally register their partnerships.

The new law allowing what have been dubbed gay marriages could have marked Germany's coming of age as one of Europe's most liberal societies.

The federal government wants to put the family on the same level as ways of life which long term do not guarantee the natural endurance of the generations

CSU secretary-general Thomas Goppel
But the wedding bells are being drowned out by a bitter legal dispute headed by the conservative state of Bavaria, which is putting up a desperate rearguard action.

The southerners' battle against the federal government reveals just how far apart the extremes of German society still lie.

Hamburg marriage

At the other end of the country, in the northern city of Hamburg, Reinhard Sass and Felix Krueger are preparing to wed for the second time.

We have got through crises which I'm not sure we would have got through without this bond

Reinhard Sass
In 1999 they were among the first couples to be joined in the pioneering "Hamburg marriage", a locally approved method for registering partnerships.

"Legally, it meant nothing at all, we made a purely symbolic registration of our partnership at the registry office," Reinhard says.

"But at the time I would never have imagined what it would mean for the relationship... In the two years since then we have got through crises which I'm not sure we would have got through without this bond."

Their marriage was a triumph not only for them and the gay community, but also for the local register office which campaigned for the right to hold the ceremony there.

Down south, the situation could not be more different.

The only option for gay couples there is to hold their marriage in front of a notary - but register offices remain strictly out of bounds.

Gert Kasteel, left, and Dolf Pasker
Couples will gain a raft of new rights and duties
"My partner and I were at a register office in Bavaria and wanted to apply for the partnership," says gay lawyer Marie-Sabine Augstein.

"The woman in the office reacted very snootily and said she was completely against anything like that."

The Christian Social Union (CSU) which runs Bavaria claims that the partnership law undermines the constitution's protection of the family.

"[The federal government] wants to put the family on the same level as ways of life which long term do not guarantee the natural endurance of the generations. Once again it is putting a supposed zeitgeist ahead of values and norms," said the CSU secretary-general Thomas Goppel.

Court battles

Along with Saxony, Bavaria launched a bid at the federal constitutional court to stop the implementation of the law until a final decision on its constitutionality had been made.

The court rejected the bid and told the states they must implement the law in their regions by 1 August.

Saxony has bowed to the will of the more powerful federal authorities.

But Bavaria claims it would be quite impossible to carry out the necessary arrangements in time for the 1 August deadline. Some time before Christmas, it grumpily concedes, it might just manage it.

Gay pride march, London
Gays think the new law will make them more visible
This inaction has so angered Marie-Sabine that she plans to take Bavaria back to the constitutional court - this time as the defendant.

Other Bavarian couples are considering moving to another state in order to register their partnerships and warn they could sue Bavaria for the extra costs.

Reinhard says the less tolerant climate hits him when he goes to see his father in Upper Bavaria: "When we visit him there as a couple I really notice the difference - very much so - we have to be as invisible as possible," he says.

For him the partnership law is important as it will formally document the existence of the gay community and, he believes, improve their recognition by others.

Gay mayor

Couples gain rights covering areas such as inheritance, insurance, tenancy and visiting rights in hospitals. There are also responsibilities - partners must support one another rather than claim social benefit.

But the partnerships still fall some way short of arrangements for heterosexual couples and still do not approach the civil marriages available to same-sex couples in the Netherlands.

The initially wide-ranging proposals have been watered down by successive political challenges.

Germany has become much more easygoing, much more relaxed in many respects - it's even a bit more humorous than it used to be

Journalist Eckhard Berkenbusch
Berlin-based journalist Eckhard Berkenbusch says these rights will improve the treatment of gays and lesbians in everyday life: "No idiot at any office will be able to make their life difficult and people in general will get used to having this kind of partnership around them".

Despite the conservative backlash he thinks attitudes have changed: "Germany has become much more easygoing, much more relaxed in many respects - it's even a bit more humorous than it used to be. It's not the Germany of the 1950s any longer - but these Bavarians they sometimes believe it is".

Indicative of this change was the announcement by Social Democrat (SPD) candidate for the mayorship of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, that "I'm gay and that's good".

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to this statement in a city that has long been one of Europe's gay capitals has spurred even the Christian Democrats (CDU), sister party to the Bavarian CSU, to take out full page adverts in the gay press ahead of the city's autumn elections.

Klaus Wowereit
Klaus Wowereit: "I'm gay and that's good"
Most agree though it would still be unacceptable for a high-ranking CDU politician to be openly gay.

While German society is still far different from that in the neighbouring Netherlands, where gay couples vastly greater rights include the adoption of children, the partnership law does mark something of a watershed.

Ultimately, says Eckhard Berkenbusch, a way will be found to drag even the staunchest conservatives along in the tide towards a more liberal society.

"The Germans have learned to find compromises - you don't want to polarise society you want to take everyone with you".

See also:

01 Apr 01 | Europe
Dutch gay couples exchange vows
01 Dec 00 | Europe
Germany approves 'gay marriage'
12 Sep 00 | Europe
Dutch legalise gay marriage
18 Sep 00 | UK
Gay marriage: In the pink
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