20 years ago the world’s first same-sex marriages took place when four couples said ‘I do’ as the clock hit midnight in Amsterdam’s city hall on 1st April 2001.
“It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed,” Chris Chambers, a British-Dutch gay journalist who attended the ceremony, told GCN. “It was emotional for everybody concerned because we knew that in that small chamber real history was being made.”
To put into context how momentous a European country legalising same-sex marriage was, in Britain, an equal age of consent for men who have sex with men was only secured in 2001 (only in 2008 for Northern Ireland) and of course it was just eight years previous that in Ireland it was still a crime to be gay.
Jan Wolter Wabeke, one of the architects of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands said at the time: “I foresee that in 10-15 years a lot of European countries will follow. Once the world gets used to gay people getting married and having the same rights, I think that a lot of people will start thinking in their own country well actually why not?”
He was right. Since the historic event in Amsterdam 20 years ago, same-sex marriage has been made legal in 28 countries worldwide, as well as the self-governing island of Taiwan.
In many countries though, opposition to marriage equality remains stubbornly strong. Just 15% of the world’s population live in a country where same-sex marriage is legal.
Poland and many other Eastern European countries are still a hostile place for LGBTQ+ people. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda was reelected last year after a campaign depicting the LGBTQ+ rights movement as more harmful than communism and the country infamously created ‘LGBT free zones’ in 2019. Elsewhere, in Africa same-sex relations are legal in only 22 of the continent’s 54 countries and are punishable by death or lengthy prison terms in some nations.
The Netherlands itself was a very conservative country up until the 1960’s with a huge Christian population, which it still has in the so-called ‘Bible Belt’. However, in modern times it has been a pragmatic country and Chris Chambers believes that this is why they were the first country to legalise same-sex marriages along with their political system of proportional representation, which forces politicians to find compromise.
The first ceremony took place in Amsterdam’s city hall with a packed audience full of the world’s media. Mayor of Amsterdam at the time, Jeb Cohen, officiated.
The couples had been found through an open call out in a Dutch LGBTQ+ magazine, Gay Krant. Only five couples responded and one dropped out, leaving three gay couples and one lesbian couple.
“We are so ordinary, if you saw us on the street you’d just walk right past us,” Anne-Marie Thus, one half of the lesbian couple, said on the day. “The only thing that’s going to take some getting used to is calling her ‘my spouse.'”
While the Netherlands is clearly one of the best countries in the world for LGBTQ+ people to live, it is not the world leader that it was in 2001. The country currently ranks 13th in the Rainbow Index, an annual ranking in which countries are placed according to their commitment to and protection of LGBTQ+ people.
Chambers, who lives in the northern Netherlands with his husband, says there has been an increase in incidents against gay men, in particular during the last decade. In 2009, there were 428 reports of homophobic violence and in 2016 this had risen to 1,574.
The Netherlands used to have something unique according to the COC – a Dutch advocacy group for LGBTQ+ people – but now more needs to be done. They argue for gay rights to be enshrined in the constitution. It is something that has been agreed to in the Dutch House of Representatives but has not yet been approved by the Senate.
“By being the first country to open marriages to same-sex couples in 2001, we made world history,” said COC chairman Astrid Oosenbrug in a statement. “How cool would it be if we rediscover that pioneering spirit and soon be at the forefront of the world again?”
Hélène Faasen, the other half of the first ever married lesbian couple, also believes more needs to be done in the Netherlands and abroad. “I remember very well that on the same day we got married, in Egypt a group of gay men were arrested for having a party together on a boat. There is something cynical about it that 20 years later we are asked how we are, while probably no one at all is wondering how these men are now. Our wedding was not just a party and now it is finished. No, a lot is still going wrong,” she told Dutch newspaper, Het Parool, this week.
As for the four history making couples, three have stayed together in the following 20 years, as sadly, Peter Wittebrood-Lemke’s husband Frank Wittebrood died in 2011. Anne-Marie Thus and Hélène Fassen live happily in Maastricht with their two children who are 19 and 20. Ton Jansen and Louis Rogmans have been together since 1965 and are still going strong after Jansen overcame COVID-19 last year at the age of 91. While Dolf Pasker and Gert Kasteel have settled down together just outside of Amsterdam.
The fight for LGBTQ+ equality goes on with 69 countries still criminalising homosexuality and only 29 countries (including Taiwan) legalising same-sex marriages but on this day in 2001 the LGBTQ+ community celebrated a watershed moment.
© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
GCN has been a vital, free-of-charge information service for Ireland’s LGBTQ+ community since 1988.
During this global COVID pandemic, we like many other organisations have been impacted greatly in the way we can do business and produce. This means a temporary pause to our print publication and live events and so now more than ever we need your help to continue providing this community resource digitally.
GCN is a registered charity with a not-for-profit business model and we need your support. If you value having an independent LGBTQ+ media in Ireland, you can help from as little as €1.99 per month. Support Ireland’s free, independent LGBTQ+ media.