Two decades after the German parliament voted for same-sex civil unions, a gay couple who were among the first to enter into such a partnership looks back at their struggle for equality — and how far there's still to go.
"I was always gay, for me being gay was all I knew," says Andreas Hochrein-Margeit. "So it never occurred to me I could get married or start a family. I just never thought the option would be there."
Andreas (57) and his husband Axel Hochrein (55) have been a couple for some 25 years. November 10, 2020 is a special date for them — it marks 20 years since the German parliament voted in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, giving gay and lesbian couples many of the same rights as heterosexual married couples.
Read more: What does 'LGBT+' stand for?
Andreas and Axel entered into such a "registered life partnership" (eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft in German) in 2002, becoming one of the first couples to do so. Two years ago they finally got married.
They say things have changed a lot for gay couples in Germany over the last two decades.
A coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the Green party came to power in 1998. The socially liberal government looked to table a bill, after years of pressure for civil unions to be legalized. The legislation was opposed by several German states, including Bavaria, and the party that would later produce Chancellor Angela Merkel — the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU).
Axel is from Würzburg in Bavaria. "I was a member of the CSU [the CDU's Bavarian sister party]," Axel explains. "Then Andreas asked me — why do you want to be a member of a party that does not support you having equal rights? And I left soon after."
The CDU/CSU coalition along with the state of Bavaria took legal action against the decision to allow civil partnerships, dragging out the passing of the law for almost a year. Axel and Andreas remember following the legal proceedings on the television.
Ultimately, German courts ruled that civil partnerships did not violate the constitution. Germany became one of the first European countries to allow civil unions.
By this time, the couple was living together near Würzburg. While the conservative state could not go against the federal ruling, they made it impossible for same-sex couples to enter into a partnership at an official registry office.
"So we got 'married' here at the same kitchen table where we eat dinner every night," Axel laughs. "Just us, our mothers, and the registrar. It was very moving — but maybe not all that special."
"But we did go to Paris the next day for our honeymoon," Andreas interjects.
Axel and Andreas say they made a point of referring to themselves as "married" from the start.
"The term used in the German media was 'Homo-Ehe' [homosexual marriage] even though it was not a marriage," Axel says. "But that was actually really helpful for us; and that helped many people in society get used to the idea that it really was a type of marriage."
The civil partnership ensured many equal rights as those of married couples, but in certain issues — for example, tax purposes — it did not.
While it was to take a further 16 years for Germany to legalize marriage on an equal basis, Axel and Andreas described the civil partnership as "important groundwork" for equal marriage.
"I don't know how many protests we attended, petitions we signed in those 16 years," says Andreas. "But without the precedent of the civil partnership, it would have been a lot more difficult."
The German parliament finally ratified equal marriage for same-sex couples in 2017, in the process nullifying the power for new civil partnerships to take place. Andreas and Axel opted to wait until 2018 to get married on their anniversary.
"We always said we have married anyway," Andreas says. "So when it came to the time where we were actually getting married, people said — but you got married already? What else do you want?"
The "real" marriage was a much for a joyous affair — a three-day party in their home in rural Bavaria, where over 120 people descended. The couple says they were lucky that they never faced discrimination from their couples in the rural, conservative area.
"All our friends from Berlin said 'You poor things, living there in the countryside,'" says Axel. "And then for our wedding, they came to Würzburg for three days — and realized everyone was so supportive. It was a great party."
"It did not change our relationship for us, just as the civil partnership had not changed our relationship," Andreas adds. "But externally it meant a lot. I could finally say he was my husband."
Nowadays Andreas still works as a tailor, while Axel has retired from his job in management. "I cook the dinners mostly: a proper marital division of labor," he laughs. Additionally, Axel volunteers on the board of the Lesbian and Gay Federation of Germany, one of the most prominent rights groups in the country.
As a couple, they say the things they get more frequently asked about nowadays is their decision not to have children. Same-sex couples have been allowed to adopt together since 2017.
"For us, children were never part of the question," Axel says. "But we see now so many young gay and lesbians who are building rainbow families, and see that as one of their implicit rights."
The couple is very aware of how lucky they are.
"We are very aware of the situation in Poland today, an EU country, they have these LGBTI-free zones," says Axel. "And Russia, certain African countries. There are still countries that we cannot visit because of who we are. Even here in Germany, we see so much support for far-right radical homophobic policies. And for some mainstream politicians, there is apparently still a connection between homosexuals as perverse or pedophiles."
The last comment comes in reference to CDU politician Friedrich Merz, candidate for the chairmanship of the party and possible hopeful successor to Angela Merkel as chancellor. In a recent interview with German tabloid Bild, he was asked whether he would object to a gay chancellor.
"No," Merz replied to Bild. "The question of sexual orientation, as long as it is within the scope of the law and does not concern children — at this point, I reach my absolute limits — it is not an issue for public discussion."
But Andreas and Axel also cite the faces of German politics that have increased acceptance for LGBT+ people — former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and current Health Minister Jens Spahn have both enjoyed favorable public reactions.
But for Andreas and Axel, the vote 20 years ago remains pivotal in changing their lives.
"There is this problem in German — the word 'Freund' [boyfriend] can also just mean friend. So if I call Axel my boyfriend, people think he is just my mate," Andreas explains. "And then I could start using the word 'partner' — in a legal sense. It meant a lot."
For the couple, the greatest joy is simply that their marital status is no longer an issue at all.
"It is great to just feel like a normal part of society," says Axel. "We don't think about it anymore."