Dutch Advice to Obama on Same-Sex Marriage

Nadette De Visser on what a decade of same-sex marriage in the Netherlands can teach the U.S.

Bas Czerwinski / AP Photo

The Dutch, who legalized same-sex marriages more than a decade ago, have a little advice to offer President Barack Obama, in the wake of his announcement that he, too, supports such a measure.

For one thing: the passage of time wears on most controversial decisions, even if resistance remains. And secondly: persist!

In 2001 the first same-sex marriages in the Netherlands were celebrated with great fanfare and publicity. At ceremonies people would pass out favors of small Delft-blue porcelain figurines. But rather than the usual depiction of a boy and a girl, kissing, these figurines showed a Dutch boy kissing a Dutch boy and a Dutch girl kissing a Dutch girl.

In that first year, too, people rushed to get married. In the Netherlands, a country of about 16 million people, there were 2,414 same-sex marriages, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. But already the following years, the number started to decline. Since 2005 the number of same-sex marriages has held steady at around 1,200 every year.

But even as the Dutch now take a prosaic view on same-sex marriage, some people still seek to thwart the wedding plans of same-sex couples. Only a few months ago a civil servant lost his job because he refused to register same-sex couples—a case that isn’t unique. In fact, a whole subset of Dutch functionaries has become known as “refusal civil servants” because of such actions, leading to an intense political debate about whether a public servant should be fired for refusing.

Jan Wolter Wabeke, now an appellate court judge who played a key role in setting the wheels in motion toward changing the marriage law, says the separation of church and state is important. “Nobody wants to hijack holy marriage, or the sacraments of religious wedding,” he says. “This is a contract of care between two partners, a legal marriage.”

He anticipated continued opposition to same-sex marriage. After all, it took almost 13 years to get the law passed in the first place. “I estimated it would take three governments,” for the proposal to pass, he says. “The first would reject the proposal, the second would consider implementing it, and the third would endorse it.” And that is exactly what happened.

Wabeke didn’t work on it alone. In 1987 he called Henk Krol, the well-known spokesman for the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and an active member of the gay community working for equal civil rights. “’Did you ever read our marital law?’” Krol remembers Wabeke asking him. “’I just discovered something rather special. In Dutch marital law it says nowhere that a man should marry a woman or vice versa … It simply doesn’t specify gender. Shouldn’t we be looking into this?’” Krol responded immediately: “I jumped on my bike and rushed over to see him.”

The two devised a strategy, casting advocates of the cause “like you would in a film production,” Wabeke recalls. “They had to be lovable. We wanted two couples: two women, two men, longtime partners who wanted to get married. They had to be hardworking, not controversial in any other way, nothing strange, just normal people. They could be your teacher, your caretaker, your nurse, your neighbor.”

Krol, a political veteran, believes Obama must be thinking in strategic terms as well. “He is aware that public opinion in the U.S. has been changing. He also knows that the gay community and the gay-friendly companies could put large sums toward his campaign. And, most of all, you don’t want to be the president who goes into history as the man who held back civil rights for gay people.”

As it happens, just about the same time Obama announced that he fully supported gay marriage, Wabeke was about to put a compact disc recording in the mail to the White House, as a kind of encouragement. It’s a concert in the classical style of a work intended as “a musical monument” to “an emancipatory achievement.” It is meant to be played only when introduced by an explanation of what it represents.

Gays in the Netherlands have come a long way since 1987, and even since they were handing out figurines at the first weddings in 2001. But they know they have to keep the memory of their struggle alive to keep the future of their partnerships secure.