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Why same-sex marriage is spreading in Europe

With Britain vowing to have same-sex marriages, Italy likely to be pushed into making the leap and France also set to tie the knot under a new president, are gay marriages now unstoppable in Europe?
Same-sex marriage equality is now looking like an unstoppable movement in Europe.
Image by Giovanni Dall'Orto.

Italian MP Anna Paola Concia is in a German civil union with her partner Ricarda. But her rights are not recognized in Rome.

It happens to hundreds of couples in the Mediterranean country, who got married and are not recognized by the state.

But Concia is confident Italy will soon change its mind and allow same-sex unions. She told Gay Star News: ‘It will happen in four or five years, marriage equality is an idea that has spread and that now is unstoppable. And the European Union can make a difference.’

Despite being an MP, she is fighting the lower chamber of parliament to see her partner’s rights of health care and parliamentary insurance recognized.

Concia added: ‘It is absurd. In Germany we have the same rights of a married couple, while in Italy we are nothing. For me, marriage or civil partnership are the same. But I want the European Union to do something.’

Brussels, of course, can't impose family issues on the European countries. Marriage, adoption, inheritance: as the EU is currently structured these are issues for national governments and parliaments.

‘But the European Union can work on the front of the freedom of movement. If a married same-sex couple moves from Spain to Italy, for example, their rights should be recognized in Rome as in Madrid,’ Bruno Selun, secretary of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBT rights, told Gay Star News.

‘Every country is different, every country has different laws. So, at the European level, we have to work in the field of freedom of movement.’

In countries like Italy, discussions are still going on. The association Famiglie Arcobaleno (Rainbow Families) is a group of 300 same-sex couples with children.

President Giuseppina La Delfa told us: ‘We need a law, our rights must be recognized. Marriage or civil partnership? I say both. Every couple should have the right to decide between a more formal or a less formal union.

'But the rights should be recognized in all cases. In Italy, same-sex couples are left alone when dealing with the difficult moments of life: illness, death, need of adoption, inheritance, children’s needs. This is not right, this is unfair.’

Italy is a European parriah, together with Greece and most of the Eastern Europe countries, in still denying gay and lesbian couples right to formal unions.

Italy, still firmly Catholic, does not recognize any kind of rights to gay couples. But within the last month a case at the High Court has prompted judges to ask the parliament to intervene with the court agreeing that same-sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexuals.

Despite this judicial pressure, politicians may be reluctant to take action. The government run by Romano Prodi, in the 2000s, tried to introduce a new kind of civil union. But the parliament blocked the bill. One study by a leading LGBT organization indicated that half of Italians may be in favor of formal same-sex unions but many politicians still see this as a contentious issue.

The only two eastern European countries to recognize same-sex couples’ rights are Hungary and Slovenia. Hungary introduced some benefits in 1996. Slovenia introduced a civil partnership in 2005, but with very limited rights around inheritance, the obligation to support the weaker partner and property.

In some Eastern European countries, LGBT people are still struggling for basic recognition and respect, making partnership rights seem a long way off. Meanwhile, in Russia several states have now imposed laws criminalizing gay 'propaganda' in a bid to shut-down the equality debate.

By contrast, northern Europe stands out as a beacon for equality worldwide. The Netherlands became the first country to allow full same-sex marriage equality in April 2001 but even before that they had legislation protecting same-sex unions. It was way back in 1979 when Amsterdam issued the 'unregistered cohabitation law' starting a movement that prompted many European countries to give rights and a new way of life to LGBT citizens.

It took a decade but in 1989 Denmark became the first country to introduce registered partnerships for gays and lesbians. Now, alongside The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Iceland and Norway have legalized same-sex marriage. Other countries permit civil partnership, the first was France with the Pacte Civil de Solidarité or PaCS, in 1999. This legal right does not include adoption, taxation and inheritance right. Then Germany (in 2001) and Switzerland (in 2007) both introduced registered partnerships

But what about marriage? In Paris the discussions are still going on. France is now in the middle of the presidential race and President Sarkozy has made it clear he would not support gay marriage. But at present his challenger François Hollande is looking like he could succeed Sarkozy and he has backed the idea of marriage equality.

Like Italy, although to a lesser degree, France is a Catholic country and vociferous church leaders worldwide have vigorously opposed gay marriage. It takes the heat out of the subject to some extent that in France the institution of marriage is clearly a civil matter, with church ceremonies only taking place after a registration at the town hall. And Spain, one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in the world, has already demonstrated that religious bigots can be overcome - the parliament surprised many observers in June 2005 by legalizing same-sex marriage despite a vigorous campaign by the church.

That's because former Spanish prime minister José Zapatero wanted it and forced the issue. But the new government of Mariano Rajoy wants to change the law. Adoption by same-sex couples is also currently permitted, but the Catholic Church, of course, opposes it.

Even in Portugal, another Catholic country, in 2001, the parliament introduced the ‘Union of Fact’, a sort of civil partnership, recognizing some rights to same-sex couples. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church of Portugal is still against this law.

Then, there is the anglosaxon front. In the United Kingdom, in 2003, Westminster passed their civil partnership legislation. It allows for same-sex unions, with equivalent rights and responsibilities to civil marriages. Different legislation permitted adoption to gay and lesbian couples.

Now British prime minister, David Cameron, wants to follow up on civil partnerships by allowing same-sex marriage and with his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and the Labour opposition backing the move, he's likely to win despite an aggressive and hate-ridden campaign against equality by the Catholic and Anglican churches.

The battle is also a cultural one. For example, with several countries revising their marriage laws to recognize same-sex couples in the 21st century, all major English dictionaries have revised their definition of the word ‘marriage’. The purpose was to drop gender specifications or supplement them with secondary definitions to include gender-neutral language or explicit recognition of same-sex unions.

But gay marriage is not only a matter of modern times. Various types of same-sex marriages have existed, ranging from informal relationships to highly ritualized unions. It used to happen in ancient China, with a sort of egalitarian male domestic partnership. In used to happen in ancient Rome as well. Emperor Nero is reported to have engaged in a marriage ceremony with one of his male slaves. Then the Christians came and the winds changed.

But with Europe either increasingly secular or embracing secular views and human rights, the movement to turn Europe into the first continent with universal same-sex marriage is beginning to look unstoppable.

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