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Opinion

Opinion: Same-sex marriage in Germany - a run-of-the-mill revolution

Just a week ago, no one would have suspected that same-sex couples in Germany would be legally married. In the end, you can always expect the unexpected, writes DW's Felix Steiner.

At the moment, many are comparing Chancellor Angela Merkel to Günter Schabowski, the East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) official whose press statement in 1989 accelerated the fall of the Berlin Wall. On November 9, 1989, at his legendary press conference, he intended to address new East German travel regulations that would include applications and official stamps necessary for travel. Instead, he unwittingly unleashed forces not known to him - forces that would bring the Berlin Wall down that night. 

On Monday evening, while sitting on a pink leather chair during an interview with "Brigitte Talk," a talk show presented by Germany's largest women's magazine, the chancellor said she was thinking of revising her line on same-sex marriage in the future - meaning after the upcoming elections.

Felix Steiner

DW editor Felix Steiner

Now, not even four days later, Germany has a new law that makes it possible.

Not that radical a change

Does this new law, which still needs approval from the Bundesrat and the president's signature before going into effect, deserve to be hailed as a social revolution? Of course not! Same-sex couples have been able to enter registered same-sex partnerships that have been becoming more and more like marriage when it comes to taxation to inheritance. The main differences between the two forms of legal partnerships are that same-sex couples now have the right to adopt children and that their legal partnership is now recognized as the institution of marriage.

The real revolution took place in the past - not in politics but in society. The fact that even rural Catholic families, the symbol of conservative values in Germany - can now bring their same-sex partner to grandma's birthday would have been unimaginable 40 years ago. But today, this is normal, just as it is to rent out an apartment to a gay couple - or to reveal one's sexual identity at work. Even in the 1980s, this information could have been used to blackmail someone. Now, many surveys say that the majority of Germans thinks the new law is good.

But one cannot actually speak of "marriage for all" as everyone in the country calls it. The institution of marriage has been expanded to include same-sex couples but not large groups - like in Colombia recently - or relatives, children, animals or oneself for the sake of tax benefits. You can accuse me of vicious polemics and homophobia when you read this list - this happens to everyone who criticizes the new law - but allow me to make two comments.

What comes next?

First, society continues to evolve. Just as my grandparents could never have imagined this law, we also do not know what will be opportune for the alleged majority in 50 years. Perhaps it will be something that we would call incompatible with our values. Anything could be possible.

Second, a privilege - and that is exactly why German Basic Law puts marriage and family under special state protection - is only a privilege if not everyone has it. Many people who live together in a traditional marriage, as a traditional family, are more and more concerned that the new law is not about eradicating discrimination, but instead, taking away privileges. Family policies cost the state a great deal of money and when looking at current demographic developments, they do not create any identifiable benefits anyway.

Questions that still need answers

Two questions remain at the end of this day: first, What is going on in Chancellor Angela Merkel's mind?

She is a politician who suddenly puts the subject of same-sex marriage on the political agenda without pressure to do so and then uses her vote to show that she does not agree with the legislation. Party members with conservative values in Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), are looking to their party leader with confusion. In all of Helmut Kohl's obituaries, he has been praised for his principles. Does Angela Merkel have any?

Second, can the new law withstand the scrutiny of Germany's Federal Constitution Court in Karlsruhe? One thing is for sure: There will surely be an attempt to appeal the new law. A decade ago, Germany's highest court clearly defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Thus, the new law contradicts the Basic Law of Germany. But even rulings in Karlsruhe are subject to change over time. As the saying goes, "before the court and on the high sea, one is in God's hands." Anything could happen - and probably will.

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