Germany’s mixed record on equal rights – and how Merkel gets away with it
For anyone who believes the clichés about Germany being a sober, sensible, slightly humourless country, the Gay Pride parade in Cologne might come as a big surprise. Travelling down the Rhine yesterday as part of a book project I’m working on, I found no shortage of eye-catching attractions on the big river bridge in Cologne; from bearded men in ball-gowns to topless women spraying champagne, and a man dressed as a dog on a leather leash, barking at the city’s twin-towered cathedral.
Cologne’s Pride parade – better known as ‘Christopher Street Day’, in honour of the place where the Stonewall riots began in 1969 – has long been a major fixture of the Rhineland summer, attracting hundreds of thousands people to drink and dance, protest and celebrate. This year, the mood was perhaps even livelier than usual. Just ten days before the parade, the German parliament had voted to legalize gay marriage; an occasion which saw the Bundestag erupt in cheers, glittery confetti tossed across the debating chamber and same-sex couples kissing in the gallery. It was, as the German Lesbian and Gay Association said, “a historic day, not only for lesbians and gays, but also for a more just and democratic society”.
Across Europe, gay rights have taken huge strides forwards in recent years. The Netherlands voted to legalize gay marriage in 2001, and was soon followed by a host of imitators, including France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and even the United States. There are still serious problems with discrimination in many places, but in countries like Britain, the political turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Twenty years ago, it was routine for senior British politicians to advocate banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools. Now, even on the conservative right, it’s almost as unacceptable to oppose gay marriage as it is to love taxes or dislike dogs.
In all those years of progress, though, there’s been one major exception. Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to register their relationships on a legal basis for several years, but when it came to actual marriage, the German government has bucked the European trend, refusing to change the law even as the rest of the world moves on. The reasons for this are complex, but include the personal views of the Angela Merkel. The Chancellor has recently become a hero of the European Left, thanks to her refugee policy and her principled opposition to Donald Trump. However, at heart she’s fundamentally a right-wing politician; a pro-business conservative who’s the devout daughter of a Protestant pastor. “Man and wife, marriage and family, stand at the centre of our social model”, she said in 2005. “Other lifestyles should not receive comparable constitutional protections.” In government, Merkel has depended on the support of a Bavarian conservative party, the CSU, whose president recently promised to launch a “family-oriented offensive” in support of traditional values. And outside government, too, the gay rights lobby has faced other formidable headwinds. The churches still play a significant role in German civic life, and (like the Dutch) many Germans are still quietly but profoundly conservative in their attitudes to work, money and family. Until very recently, the legalization of gay marriage in Germany looked like a passionate affair between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: something which could theoretically happen, but was almost impossible to imagine.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, everything suddenly changed. Answering a question from a member of the public, Merkel unexpectedly relaxed her opposition to same-sex marriage. Five days later, parliamentarians were allowed a free vote on the issue, and history was made. German politics isn’t usually known for its rapid pace, and the change came so quickly that even some supporters were left reeling – in Bonn last week, I met someone who was convinced that the whole thing was essentially a mistake, with a few careless words by Merkel triggering a vote which she’d never expected. The Chancellor herself has claimed that the shift was more deliberate, and she changed her mind after talking to two gay women in her constituency who were caring for eight foster children.
That twee tale may well be true, but there’s also little doubt that politics again played a role. In late 2016, a poll found that 83 percent of Germans back same-sex marriage, and 95 percent think gays should be legally protected from discrimination. German elections are looming, and although Merkel looks likely to win , she’s facing a sparky liberal challenger in Martin Schulz, and must be worried about succumbing to a Clinton-style shock defeat. As in the Netherlands, German governments are almost always coalitions, and two major parties had already announced they wouldn’t agree to any future power-sharing with Merkel unless gay marriage was on the table. With prominent members of her own party coming out in favour of change, the populist AfD making homophobic comments, and Schulz noisily trying to position himself as a German Martin Luther King, Merkel was being squeezed from several sides. Weighing the odds, she may have judged it was best to leap without looking for too long. U-turns on other issues like nuclear power and military conscription haven’t always been popular with her conservative base, but they have enabled her to keep firm control of the centre ground. By being flexible on gay marriage too, and allowing MPs to vote on the issue immediately, she’s effectively killed off the issue before the election campaign really gets started. Ever pragmatic, the Chancellor seems to have pulled off the neat trick of keeping both sides happy – personally opposing gay marriage while heading a government which makes it possible. One can’t help but wonder whether poor Theresa May (who once opposed gay marriage but then changed her mind and helped implement it as Home Secretary) would be quite so easily forgiven if she now voted against gay rights.
Of course, the battle for equality is far from over, and in Cologne on Sunday there were plenty of lurking criticisms: snarky posters of Merkel hugging Hillary Clinton, campaign ads for Martin Schulz, and protest banners accusing the Christian Democrats of persistent homophobia. Overall, though, in a country which often seems haunted by the moral failings of its past, the mood was grateful and joyful. And politically, the U-turn seems to provide further proof that whatever her faults, Merkel is still an unusually savvy operator. As the public broadcaster ZDF put it on Twitter on Friday: “Merkel’s vote against ‘marriage for everybody’ is a shame. But she has another eight terms as Chancellor to think about it”.