When same-sex marriage was legalised in the Netherlands twenty years ago, on 1 April 2001 – a world first – Dutch journalists weren’t planning to cover the story. Until they found out that dozens of newsrooms from around the world were sending cameras to capture the first wedding ceremonies.
Speaking to openDemocracy, Henk Krol, a veteran gay rights activist who fought for this historic legal change two decades ago, remembers the contrast between how it was seen in the Netherlands compared to internationally.
“People here were already used to [same-sex] marriage,” he explained. LGBT couples had held ‘wedding’ ceremonies for years, and registered partnerships for same-sex people were legalised in 1998. “But the fact that we were the first country to [grant marriage equality] was news.”
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I grew up in the Netherlands, and fondly remember the wedding day of my parent’s close friends in the late 1990s. The two men had lived together since I was little, and their celebration was no different to me than any other wedding. But it wasn’t officially a marriage, it was a registered partnership.
“I thought it was very insulting,” said Krol, about how the 1998 introduction of registered partnerships was seen as a victory for LGBT equality.
“I don't want a ‘registered partnership party’ or a ‘registered partnership trip’, but a real honeymoon. And above all, I don't want a ‘registered partnership night’, but a wedding night. Because the other doesn't seem as romantic.”
This wasn’t the only reason that Krol and other activists continued to fight for equal marriage rights. Registered partnerships not only have a different name, but they also grant fewer rights to couples and their children.
Registered partnerships, Krol explained, are contracts between two people, while marriage is different – it places obligations on others too.
“If two people get married at the town hall, then your employer suddenly has to deal with it, then the tax authorities have to deal with it,” he gave as examples. “That is what makes marriage so special.”
In the 1970s, when the fight for marriage equality in the Netherlands first gathered steam, Krol was also in touch with gay rights activists in the US. He helped to raise money for pro-equality adverts in the Miami Herald and Time magazine to combat attacks from anti-rights campaigners.
Krol had worked as a journalist and as a press officer for the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). He managed to secure Amsterdam’s famous Royal Concertgebouw for a fundraising concert, along with the country’s most famous TV presenter at the time, Mies Bouwman, as host.
“Mies agreed in an instant. That meant that all the well-known Dutch artists of the time were also eager to take part,” Krol remembers. The Miami Nightmare concert was a big success, raising more money than needed for the ads. The rest went into other work to promote marriage equality.
Krol believes his political and media connections also helped him “to lobby much better than anyone else. It wasn’t so much a tremendous effort on my part, but a coincidence that helped the fight enormously.”
His advice for equal marriage campaigns in other countries is to “make it a broad political battle. Do not allow only left or right parties to vote in favour, make sure it is widely accepted. Because the people involved [the same-sex couples who want to marry] are both left- and right-wing supporters.”
‘You must first ensure that you can get married. If you are allowed to marry, you can then refuse marriage’
After same-sex couples in the Netherlands gained the right to registered partnerships, not everyone wanted to fight for marriage equality.
Some saw the institution of marriage as “outdated”. But for Krol the point was not whether gay couples should get married, but whether they have equal rights to be able to marry. “You must first ensure that you can get married. If you are allowed to marry, you can then refuse marriage,” he insisted.
He gave another example of the same principle. “I've been a pacifist my whole life. I didn't want to join the military. But when I was rejected [by the military] because of my homosexuality, I requested a re-examination […] I wanted to be approved, because I wanted to be able to refuse service.”
Now, two decades after the world’s first legalisation of same-sex marriage – the Dutch LGBT rights milestone that inspired the world – Krol is preparing for his own wedding. “Because it’s been 20 years, I asked my partner Aldo to marry me,” he said. “After 20 years, I’m finally going to use it myself.”
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