The One Sentence That Brought Marriage Equality to Germany

The One Sentence That Brought Marriage Equality to Germany

Most Western European countries have embraced marriage equality. Germany was late to the table but eventually got there. The final proof will come October 1, when the first same-sex marriages take place.

Germany had been a hard nut to crack in terms of legislation. But to everyone’s surprise, on June 26, it was one young man, Ulli Köppe, 28, who set a chain of events in motion leading to the long-sought-after equal marriage legislation. At a public event he asked Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, a simple, but powerful question. 

German lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations and their allies have been advocating equal marriage rights for many years. In 2001, the year the Netherlands adopted the first marriage equality law, Germany introduced registered partnership for same-sex couples. Since 2010 opposition parties in the German Parliament have taken steps to introduce same-sex marriage, but these were blocked by the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union parties in two subsequent governing coalitions. Merkel, chancellor since 2005, had made opposition to marriage equality a condition of a coalition agreement with her CDU/CSU party.

In the summer of 2015, Human Rights Watch took the initiative to bring some 20 German nongovernmental organizations together in our Berlin office to open the Ehe fur Alle (Marriage for All) campaign. Marriage equality had popular appeal. In 2016 a study by Germany’s federal antidiscrimination agency showed that 83 percent of people interviewed favored marriage equality, but Merkel and her CDU/CSU party remained dismissive.

The chancellor did not budge until the evening of June 26. She was speaking at a public event organized by the women’s magazine Brigitte. Ulli Köppe, interested in politics and social issues, and a fan of Merkel as a politician, went to hear her speak in the Gorki Theater in Berlin. When it was time for questions from the audience, Köppe spontaneously grabbed the microphone and asked his simple question: “When can I call my boyfriend my husband?”

Angela Merkel, seemingly thinking out loud, answered that same-sex marriage should be decided by each individual member of Parliament. Köppe had not realized the significance of this answer, but one journalist who was attending recognized its political implications. The next morning Köppe received calls from reporters from every corner of the world.

Merkel had given in and was in favor of a free vote in Parliament. Perhaps Merkel shifted her stance because her potential coalition partners in a future government had indicated same-sex marriage should be adopted and it would be very difficult for Merkel’s party to form a new government after the September elections while refusing equal marriage rights.

Be that as it may, Köppe’s question and Merkel’s answer led to a vote of conscience, which Merkel’s coalition partner SPD (Socialdemokratische Partei Deutschland) called for on June 30.  The vote was 393 to 226, with four abstentions. From the 393 yes votes, 75 came from Merkel’s own party. Merkel voted no. The bill was approved by the Bundesrat (Upper House) July 7, and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier signed it July 21, after which it was formally published in the law gazette. The legislation will come into force October 1.

This chain of political events happened at an incredible speed, triggered by one question. Ulli Köppe came to the Human Rights Watch office in Berlin, and I asked him what strategy he used to break down Angela Merkel’s firm wall. His answer moved me: “My question was spontaneous. It came from love.”

BORIS DITTRICH is the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

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