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  • Sasha Issenberg

April 1, 2001: Netherlands legalizes same-sex marriage

TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY....

The Netherlands became the first country on earth to permit same-sex couples to marry on equal terms to same-sex couples.


In 1989, Denmark began allowing gays and lesbians to join in “registered partnerships,” the first effort under national law to grant same-sex relationships many of the rights and privileges afforded to married couples. (One notable exception: adoption and joint-custody rights.) As the demand for full marriage rights became an issue throughout North America and Europe in the 1990s, local and national governments began creating their own alternate institutions that mimicked marriage under different names: domestic partnership, civil union, reciprocal beneficiaries, civil-solidarity pact. In 1998, the Netherlands passed a law establishing its own “registered partnerships,” a marriage-lite option open to both gay and straight couples. Much like the Danish law, it did not grant same-sex couples the ability to share custody of children.


Less than two years later, Dutch legislators rectified that. Two bills, allowing gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children, respectively, sailed through Parliament in late 2000 over united resistance from Christian Democratic Appeal, the center-right opposition party. The law was written to take effect on April 1, 2001, a day was met with midnight nuptials at Amsterdam’s city hall, bookended by a press conference and party at a nearby gay disco. The first couple to marry, Helene Fassen and Anne Marie Thus, had already confronted the limitations of their registered partnership when Fassen was unable to establish any legal claim to Thus’s child. (Three other male couples married as part of the same midnight festivities.) “We still have to work on things with the general public," Henk Krol, editor of the magazine Gay Krant, told the Washington Post’s Keith Richburg. “But as far as the law is concerned, this is the end, because gay people are now perfectly equal in the Netherlands."


Conservative activists in the United States warned what might happen if an American couple traveled to Amsterdam, already a celebrated destination for gay tourism, and took advantage of the new law. “When they return, they will seek recognition of their marriages. Somebody will have to decide whether to give it to them. Will it be their employer? A sympathetic town clerk? A city council that endorses same-sex marriage? An attorney general who decides not to contest the decision of such a clerk or council?” David Orgon Coolidge wrote in The Weekly Standard. “Whatever one thinks of same-sex marriage, at least the Dutch have chosen it for themselves, through their normal democratic process. It would be doubly unfortunate if that same policy were forced on unwilling Americans by their courts.”


For Coolidge, a co-founder of the Marriage Law Project, that threat one more reason that opponents of same-sex marriage should focus on a then-novel proposal that would gain momentum in coming years: an amendment defining marriage in the U.S. Constitution.

The Engagement:
America's Quarter-Century
Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

​By Sasha Issenberg

The riveting story of the battles over gay marriage
in the United States – the most important
civil-rights breakthrough of the new millennium.
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