Five years ago, the bride-and-groom grouping lost its monopoly on the church aisle or the top of the wedding cake. Groom and groom or bride and bride became possible due to a new law on same-sex registered partnerships.
Germany's first "gay marriage" in Hanover in 2001
It was actually just over five years ago that one of Klaus Jetz's long-sought-after goals was realized. After long debate and much lobbying from the organization he directs, the Lesbian and Gay Association of Germany (LSVD), the German parliament passed the "registered partnership" bill, which gave gay and lesbian couples new status in the eyes of the state, one that had many of the advantages of marriage. The law he had fought so hard for went into effect on Aug. 1, 2001.
"Since the early 90s, the LSVD had fought for this, and back then, it all seemed so far off," he said. "Then with the change of government in 1998, the chance to make it a reality arrived."
For many long-time same-sex couples, whose daily reality had looked pretty much like a marriage, their relationships were now sanctioned by the coalition government of left-of-center Social Democrats and Greens under Gerhard Schröder. The law entitles gay and lesbian couples who registered their partnerships some of the advantages heterosexual married couples enjoy.
Same-sex couples can now share a last name, refuse to testify against one another in court and have same inheritance and tenants' rights as heterosexual spouses. A foreigner legally joined in a gay partnership to a German can apply for the right to citizenship. Partners also take on a responsibility to maintain and support the other in the case of financial difficulties.
Another happy couple
On Jan. 1, 2005, the law was amended, giving one partner the right to adopt the other partner's biological child, so-called stepchild adoption. Other rights were expanded, such as the area of property rights, which moved registered partnerships closer to heterosexual marriage.
But attempts to give same-sex partners the same tax and welfare benefits as those enjoyed by heterosexual couples were defeated in the conservative-dominated upper house of the German parliament.
While it is difficult to know exactly how many same-sex couples have registered their partnerships over the five years of the law because of different recording criteria in Germany's federal states, estimates range between 14,000 and 20,000.
"In 2001, there were many same-sex couples who knew they wanted to become registered partners and were just waiting for the ink of this law to be dry," said Ute Terwedow from the civil registry office in Cologne. "That accounts for the large numbers we saw at the outset. Now the whole thing has become very normal."
The LSVD's Axel Blumenthal, left, and Green politician Volker Beck, signaled their optimism that the Constitutional Court would rule in their favor in 2002
In Cologne in 2002, 285 same-sex couples registered their partnerships -- a "record year," according to Terwedow. Since then, between 170 and 180 couples have tied the knot every year. According to a survey by the dpa news agency, gay men are saying "I do" much more often than lesbians. In Cologne, only a third of same-sex couples at the registry office are women.
When "gay marriage" was under debate in Germany, some talked about it being a danger to the nation's culture fabric and there were fears that it would undermine traditional marriage. Several states led by the conservative Union political parties asked the law to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, in the hope it would declared unconstitutional. It was not. Five years later, however, same-sex unions have gained a societal acceptance that exceeds even what optimists had predicted.
Even though Klaus Jetz celebrated the law's coming into effect five years ago, he and his partner of 11 years have chosen not to tie the knot at the registry office. While he said the current law marks progress in the area of gay and lesbian rights, he still finds parts of it unacceptable, since a registered partnership is not the same thing as a marriage. Some have called it marriage "light," since it has most of traditional marriage's responsibilities, but fewer of its advantages.
There are differences regarding income taxes, joint tax assessments, and inheritance taxes. For example, it is almost impossible to inherit an apartment from a deceased partner, Jetz says, because of the high inheritance taxes that would have to be paid.
Spain legalized gay marriage in 2005 in the face of opposition from the church and conservatives
Heterosexual married couples, on the other hand, enjoy a tax exemption of 500,000 euros ($635,000). Same-sex couples do not. And unlike heterosexuals, or gay couples in the neighboring Netherlands, German couples will not have the right to adopt.
"In Germany we are still far away from complete equality for homosexual partnerships," said Volker Beck, a Green parliamentarian who has been a major backer of the law.
The discrepancies came about because the registered partnership bill was split into two parts when it went through parliament. The section that dealt with many of the financial aspects, such as tax law, would have had to be approved by the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat. Because that body was dominated by conservatives, the left-of-center government did not try to push it through, since it would have gone down to defeat.
"Now we need to take a new run at the partnership law to complete it," Jetz said.
But he doesn't want to downplay the importance of the law, calling it a paradigm change in Germany, something that was almost inconceivable just 15 years ago. He would like to see the government take up the issue again, but said the current coalition under conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel is not likely to.
"But even in the Netherlands and Denmark it took 10 years until lesbian and gay partnerships were made 100 percent equal to heterosexual ones," he said.