Dutch gay couple make history with first same-sex `marriage'

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The Independent Online
The Netherlands nailed its liberal colours to the mast yesterday when it allowed two men to "marry" in a civil ceremony for the first time. They were both elderly and one is terminally ill in hospital - but they still made legal history by being the first to take advantage of a new law extending marriage rights to same-sex couples from the start of the year.

A lesbian couple had been expected to be the first to tie the knot under the law in mid-January, after giving the authorities the statutory two weeks notice. As a concession to the life-threatening illness of one of the two men in question, they went first instead.

The new "Registration of partnership" in the Netherlands follows a pattern established in several Scandinavian countries over the past three years, by extending to gay couples all the rights adhering to the traditional civil marriage, with the exception of joint adoption.

Even this hurdle may soon be overcome in the Netherlands. As the law now stands, there is no bar on single gay men or lesbians adopting a child, and the centre-left government appears to be moving towards allowing couples the right jointly to adopt as well.

Gay "marriages" were, until recently, the preserve of unofficial religious or secular bonding ceremonies, none of which had any sanction in law. But increasing acceptance of openly gay lifestyles in the West is creating pressure for changes. In Hawaii last year the state's supreme court decided in favour of three couples who claimed it was discriminatory to deny them a legal civil marriage, though this ruling is under appeal.

In Europe, Denmark led the way by allowing gay couples to register as "partnerships" in 1989, followed by Norway and Sweden in 1995 and by Greenland and Iceland in 1996. Greenland alone already allows joint custody adoption.

Even in Britain change is afoot. Last year, after a test case, the new Labour government allowed unmarried couples of whatever sexual combination to apply for residency on behalf of their non-EU partners.

But "white weddings" in church still seem a long away off. In Norway a recent furore over the ordination of a lesbian minister in the official Lutheran church shows there is still resistance to conflating gay "partnerships" with marriage in the complete, traditional sense.

Many gay-rights activists question whether they should be fighting for the right to live a "straight" lifestyle. Peter Tatchell, of the OutRage! pressure group, claims less than 10 per cent of Danish gay couples have taken up their new right to be "married" since 1989, and, although he opposes the ban on gay marriage, because it is discriminatory, adds: "We don't believe queers should copy a fundamentally flawed heterosexual institution." - Marcus Tanner