Belgium: No waffling on gay marriage

Stepping from the town hall into bright sunlight, Olivier Pierret raised his hand in triumph. It was his wedding day, and celebrations lay ahead. First was a vin d’honneur drinks reception among the airy rooms of an art gallery, then an elaborate dinner and finally, a surprise speech from his father, a taciturn 74-year-old who seldom displays emotion.

“You’ve envisaged and built your life along a different emotional track from that of your parents,”Pierret’s father told his son and 73 wedding guests. “That’s your right and above all your choice, and I respect and accept it with sincerity and joy.”

“He’d never said those things before. Around me, everyone went quiet and started to cry,” Pierret, a 42-year-old Belgian househusband tells me over Lucky Strikes and wine in his matrimonial Brussels loft.

Even two years later, the wedding photos have an effect on someone like me, who just met the couple. That’s because this wasn’t a regular wedding. More than 16 years after they met at a Christmas dance, Pierret and Alain De Jonge, a 39-year-old lawyer, became one of the first gay couples to marry in Belgium. When they strode into the street on August 30, 2003, to the sound of Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything,” it had been just weeks since this small country in the center of Europe legalized same-sex marriage — the second country in the world to do so after the Netherlands, and ahead of Canada and Spain, which followed suit this year.

It’s easy to see the Dutch legalizing gay marriage — they legalize almost everything. Catholic Spain, ever since it emerged from the repression of the old Franco regime, has indulged its new freedoms. And Canada is known for tolerance. But why Belgium?

When I stroll around Brussels, it’s hard to imagine homosexuality was ever taboo. Gay bars spill onto pavements. Cinemas host bisexual, lesbian and gay evenings. In the local transvestite cabaret bar — a testosterone-laden cavern named Chez Maman — men will buy even a straight woman like me a drink. Dozens of politicians joined the 20,000-strong throng that wound through town during this year’s Gay Pride parade.

But it wasn’t always like this. As recently as the mid-1990s, gay bars in Brussels shut out suspicious eyes with bouncers and dark curtains. Belgium’s Christian Democrats ruled over the country’s politics and had secured a code of religious ethics for decades. It was a country that concealed homosexuals such as Chille Deman, the 57-year-old former president of Gay Pride Belgium who sat with me in a window seat in the Rainbow House, a gay center on a cobblestone street. When Deman was 10 years old, his father took him aside and warned him he would one day fall in love with men.

“Even Belgium’s swelling far-right movement has dropped its anti-gay agenda of the 1980s, focusing instead on immigrants — which may have something to do with the fact that it takes many of its cues from the neighboring Netherlands.”

“‘But you must struggle,’ my father told me, ‘and you’ll get over it and be married and happy, like I am,'” Deman says. So he struggled — for 22 years and through two marriages. During those years, he welcomed the thick curtains.

Yet when Belgium signed off on same-sex marriage, there was no public outcry, there were no mass street protests and no politicians courting anti-gay votes. So what happened in this country whose state religion is Catholicism, a country that shutters its shops and banks on Catholic holidays, and where the bad word for gay translates as the shortened version of pedophile?

“We are not a progressive country. We just had a political opportunity,” says Deman.

That opportunity materialized in 1999 through a completely unrelated event. Reject motor oil had been routinely added to Belgian animal feed. When the public learned about it, a massive food scare ripped across Belgium. People feared that everything from chicken to chocolate was contaminated by toxic dioxins. National elections were a few weeks away. As countries around the world slammed their doors against Belgian imports, furious Belgian voters ousted the Christian Democrats from all major political posts. An incoming coalition of liberals and left-leaning parties promised far-reaching reforms — much like the Socialist government that came to power in Spain on a wave of public support after the Madrid terrorist bombings in 2004.

The new Belgian government legalized euthanasia and marijuana and outlawed discrimination. The anti-discrimination law restricted the power of those who opposed gay rights, and gay marriage became legal. On January 31, 2003, the parliament voted by a 91-22 majority to give full civil marriage rights to gay couples. Allowing gays to adopt is up for debate this fall.

“It all happened so quickly,” Alain De Jonge tells me as I sit in the couple’s garden, among scented roses. “We watched the debates on the television, and we started to think, ‘Should we get married?’ It was a way to make a statement.”

Other factors had helped prepare the ground. As in churches across the rest of Europe, church pews in Belgium are often empty. Belgium’s Catholic King Badouin abdicated temporarily rather than face public opposition as lawmakers legalized abortion in 1990. Conservative politicians, seeing their power slip, remade themselves to fit into a more liberal mold and, in the late 1990s, passed limited co-habitation rights for gay couples. And some say Belgium’s internal divisions between French speakers in the south and Dutch speakers in the northern Flanders region contributed as well. There are simply too many other things to fight over.

“Besides, when you live in a country where everyone speaks several languages, you understand there are things you can’t translate. You understand there are different points of view that are valid,” says Peter Young, an Australian antiques dealer and chef who spoke to me from Canberra. Young and Frenchman Olivier Bruge were married in Brussels before the two moved to Australia.

Even Belgium’s swelling far-right movement has dropped its anti-gay agenda of the 1980s, focusing instead on immigrants — which may have something to do with the fact that it takes many of its cues from the neighboring Netherlands. There, Pim Fortuyn, the leader of the Dutch far right until his murder three years ago, was openly gay.

Not that it has always been easy being homosexual in Belgium, even for Pierret and De Jonge. De Jonge kept his boyfriend quiet for years when he visited home, although by now he says his Catholic mother has metamorphosed into a pro-gay militant. And both have been targets of verbal abuse. But these days, when a postman at the door asks for De Jonge’s signature while he’s out or when Pierret deals with officials on behalf of himself and his husband, there is a fresh sense of acceptance.

“Once people understand you are legally married, they see you differently. They realize there’s nothing outlandish about us. We’re just a couple of people who love each other, that’s all,” says Pierret.

It’s a message he wants to spread. When the couple attended the straight wedding of a Hawaiian friend in a castle outside Brussels this summer, they earned gasps of admiration from the American wedding guests.

“They seemed to think it was great that we’re married. My friend’s father even sent us these from Hawaii,” Pierret laughs, holding up two necklaces strung with pale shells. “Not that we’ll ever wear them, but still,” he winks and makes the shells clink, “I think we planted a seed.”

Since 2003, more than 2,440 gay couples have married in Belgium. That’s not a very high number considering couples travel here from around the world to get hitched. Deman, for one, will not marry. After two marriages to women, he chooses not to. After all, he says, it’s having the choice that counts.

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck is a European affairs reporter for Dow Jones Newswires in Brussels. She is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

by Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck
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