A few weeks ago I was in Taipei (Taiwan) for a conference on same-sex marriages. I heard stories about legal battles, boycotts by opposition parties, demonstrations for and against… In Belgium, I myself took part in the campaign for ‘gay marriage’ (as most people then called it, of course; we meant ‘marriage for everyone’) by participating in activities and debates, and by putting the subject on the agenda within and outside my political party. But I realised I didn’t know how the discussions ultimately went within the government. So I called Magda Aelvoet, the green minister who got the dossier on the government table, and we talked…
Bruno De Lille: Was same-sex marriage a theme during the 1999 election campaign?
Magda Aelvoet: Not really. The theme of the elections at that time was the dioxin crisis. That food scandal occurred in the middle of the election campaign and determined most of the discussions and debates.
And even in the government agreement that we subsequently concluded with the purple-green parties, same-sex marriage did not come up. The agreement contained a sentence about ‘enforcing legal cohabitation and civil partnership’. But even this was, in my opinion, mainly aimed at heterosexuals. There was a willingness to give gay and lesbian people more rights, but there was no mention of same-sex marriage as such. Fortunately, there was also nothing that prevented us from working on it.
B.D.L.: Who finally put the subject on the table?
M.A.: I did. I was a member of the core cabinet and that allowed me to put these kinds of proposals on the table as well. Together with my cabinet, we then built up a strong dossier, and went all out for it.
“There were a number of prominent voices, known LGBTIs, who saw marriage as a bourgeois institution that is oppressive in itself, and therefore rejected it. “
This was necessary because during the first discussions with the other political parties, only Ecolo (the French-speaking green party) and the VLD (the Dutch-speaking liberal party) supported us. The Prime Minister (VLD) was with us from the beginning, but there was little enthusiasm in the other parties. The sp.a (the Dutch-speaking socialist party) and the PS (the French-speaking socialist party) were not against it, but they thought that our proposal to immediately go for a full marriage didn’t stand a chance. So they tried to push us towards an extension of the civil partnership. The MR (the French-speaking liberal party) was rather cautious.
B.D.L.: How did you convince them?
M.A.: Step by step. At the first inter-cabinet meeting, we suggested conducting a study that examined the necessity, listed the options, studied the support base, and also looked at how the situation had evolved abroad (especially in Europe).
What did not help us in the beginning was the relative division within the LGBTI community. There were a number of prominent voices, known LGBTIs, who saw marriage as a bourgeois institution that is oppressive in itself, and therefore rejected it. Or they thought that there were other gay and lesbian problems to solve first. That did not make it any easier for us.
“Louis Michel came to me at the next meeting of the core cabinet and he said, “Magda, j’ai vu tes amis les ‘olebi’ et ça marche.” “
Fortunately, the LGBTI umbrella organisation FWH (the current Çavaria) got all noses in the same direction. This is how my colleagues saw that the LGBTI civil society supported us in any case. When the study showed that Belgian gays and lesbians did want it and that there were no objective reasons not to open up marriage, we could continue.
The biggest resistance came from the MR. The VLD wanted to be the ‘party of the free citizen’, so they were really on our side in this case. But the MR aimed for a more conservative, traditional audience. And so they put the brakes on every time I brought the subject to the table. They wanted to question their members, search for extra information, and so on. In other words, they were trying to slow us down.
I then suggested to Louis Michel that he should at least meet with the representatives of the FWH in person. And he did this in his typical style: if he wanted to personally explore a difficult subject, he organised an extensive breakfast with all those involved. Anke Hintjens, the spokeswoman of the FWH, and a number of members of the board were in attendance. They must have been very convincing because Louis Michel came to me at the next meeting of the core cabinet and he said, “Magda, j’ai vu tes amis les ‘olebi’ et ça marche.” (laughs).
B.D.L.: And then everything was fine?
M.A.: No, there were still a few obstacles. The two biggest difficulties were: are we going to open up marriage as it exists for heterosexuals, or are we going to invent a new system separately for LGBTI people who want to get married? And especially, “what about the children?”
“We were afraid that the discussion about adoption would slow down the whole law and eventually lead to the law not being passed.”
This last point was very sensitive, especially on the French-speaking side. Both the MR and the PS said “Que les adultes s’amusent…mais n’implique pas les enfants dans ce genre d’affaires.”
We thought we could win the first battle but not the second. We were afraid that the discussion about adoption would slow down the whole law and eventually lead to the law not being passed. So we decided not to provide for adoption in the law. This was to my great regret, but tactically we couldn’t do anything else at that time. It was either that or nothing. Fortunately, a few years later, people realised how absurd that was.
B.D.L.: Finally you choose to open up marriage as it existed and didn’t go for a separate system. How did you win that battle?
M.A.: I’m still very happy that we didn’t choose an alternative formula.
We had two main arguments. The first was practical: if we wanted to work out an alternative system, we would have a large number of laws to amend. Whether it’s about inheritance law, illness, disability, or anything else, the fact that you’re married changes your rights and obligations towards each other. If we wanted a separate system in which we gave the partners the same rights and obligations as married couples, we would have to examine and amend all these laws. Fortunately, no one really wanted that.
The second argument was ideological: we wanted to go for full equality. And then there was only one option: the opening up of civil marriage to everyone.
B.D.L.: First there was the anti-discrimination law; did it influence the marriage discussion?
M.A.: The strange thing is that the two discussions were completely separate. In hindsight it seems like a logical sequence, but at that time they were two important files that were not linked to each other. The spirit of the times was right.
“We wanted to go for full equality. And then there was only one option: the opening up of civil marriage to everyone.”
We experienced a unique momentum with our purple-green government. For the first time in decades, the Christian Democrats were not in the government. And these were often the parties that blocked any progressive change in ethics. We seized this opportunity to move forward with both hands.
B.D.L.: At that time there was little public support for same-sex marriage (only 35% was positive). Did you feel the opposition?
M.A.: I haven’t faced any problems myself. Of course, we knew that there would be no support or approval from the church, for example. But it was never like later in France where people really took action to stop the law. Some employees of the cabinet have received insults and threats.
And that there wasn’t much public support at the time…Look, we really believed in political leadership: as a politician, I stand for something, so if I’m convinced that a proposal can improve the lives of a whole group of people, then I’ll go for it. At the same time, you have to talk and explain why you are making that choice, who you are doing it for and what the consequences will be or will not be. In this way, you create support.
“I really do believe in political leadership: if I stand for anything, I’m going for it.”
Often people are against something because they don’t like change. But in the case of same-sex marriage, their own situation didn’t change at all, they only made other people happy. When that became clear, the support came naturally. By the way, the FWH also convinced the CD&V (the Dutch-speaking Christian Democratic Party) at the last minute to join in the approval of the law, which at first seemed impossible. In the end, there was a great deal of support in parliament.
B.D.L.: Now it is seen as one of the legacy files of the purple-green government, one of the achievements to which one immediately refers when one talks about that period. Was that already clear by then?
M.A.: We did realise that it would be one of our important decisions. In fact, as a member of the green party, I think we should remind people about this more often because there are many people and parties now who claim to be the parents of this law. I know a lot of people, including LGBTI’s, who have no idea who really worked for this. Well, that’s how it goes. I am especially happy for all those people whose lives we have been able to change in a positive way. It’s nice if you can achieve that as a politician.
Disclaimer: this text is a translation of an interview that was conducted in Dutch. The original can be found here: http://brunodelille.eu/magda-aelvoet-de-openstelling-van-het-huwelijk-heeft-de-levens-van-veel-mensen-positief-veranderd-het-is-mooi-als-je-dat-als-politicus-kunt-doen/