Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

A Triumph for Love in Denmark

May 26, Copenhagen, Denmark

In the photograph, the Axgils radiate pure joy. Newly married, they lean into each other across the seat of the horse-drawn carriage, their hands clutching glasses of champagne, their lips locked in an ecstatic kiss. The crowd swirling around them in front of Copenhagen's town hall could pass for a regular group of wedding guests, if it weren't for the boom mikes jutting over their heads. That horde of reporters and cameramen is what gives it away: the pair in the photo are no ordinary newlyweds. It was Oct. 1, 1989, and, dressed in matching suits, Axel and Eigil Axgil had just become the first gay couple in the world to legalize their union.

Today, that photograph hangs on the wall of 94-year-old Axel's cozy Copenhagen apartment, amid a crop of houseplants and ceramic tchotchkes. His husband, Eigil, has been dead for 14 years, but Axel still remembers the wedding as if it were yesterday: the stream of gifts that began arriving early that sunny Sunday morning, the taxi ride to the town hall, the asparagus soup they ate at the reception. More than anything, he remembers the crowd. "I'd never seen so many television cameras. There were journalists there from all over the world," he says. "It wasn't until that moment that we realized the historic significance of what we were doing."

Twenty years later, the relative ease with which Denmark enacted that historic moment is still unusual. Seven countries now permit same-sex marriage, and 15 more authorize civil unions. (Some states in Australia, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. also recognize civil partnerships.) But in most cases, legislation has been bitterly contentious — witness the 2005 mass protests staged by religious and conservative groups in Spain, or California's November 2008 repeal of gay marriage via referendum. In Denmark, where opinion polls from the time showed only 25% of the public opposed it, the gay-marriage bill passed on May 26, 1989 with a clear majority. Steffen Jensen, spokesman for the Danish National Association of Gays and Lesbians, remembers the moment as remarkably moving. "The Danish Parliament isn't like the British one — there's never any shouting or clapping; we're very reserved," he says. "But when the law passed, everyone in the audience rose and bowed to the legislators."

What made Denmark so receptive to gay marriage so early? It's not as though the Danes have a long history of tolerance toward homosexuals. Three years after World War II, when Axel Lundahl-Madsen (he would later change his surname to Axgil, a combination of his and Eigil's given names) helped found the first Danish gay-rights organization, even the word homosexual was still taboo, which is why the group called itself the Association of '48. "When I came out, I lost my job as a bookkeeper. And my landlord kicked me out of my apartment," says Axgil.

It would be nearly 40 years before the Association of '48 could change its name to the National Association of Gays and Lesbians. Even then, barriers to equality remained: a 1984 attempt to legalize same-sex unions was defeated in Parliament. Yet by the end of that decade, something had changed to make legalization seem the only logical option.

For many, that something was an epidemic. "AIDS did two things," says Jensen. "First, it made conservatives think that it might be good to support stable, monogamous relationships among gays. And second, it brought homosexuals into the public sphere. For the first time, politicians were actually meeting gay men and lesbian women, and realizing they weren't any different from straight people." Tom Ahlberg, who, as deputy mayor of Copenhagen in 1989, married Axel and Eigil, agrees that AIDS was a significant factor, but sees its role somewhat differently. "Given the tragedy of what was happening, I think we as a society felt we owed something, some sign of sympathy and respect, to gays."

The legislation does not fully equate gay unions with straight ones. It prohibits homosexuals from adopting children, for example, and refers to the sanctioned relationships as "registered partnerships" rather than marriages. But from the start, that distinction was blurred. Ahlberg spent the months after the legislation's approval working with gay activists to prepare for the first ceremony. "I wanted to acknowledge the historic significance of what was happening, but I also wanted to stick as closely as possible to the service for straight couples," he says.

In the end, Ahlberg changed almost nothing of the civil service, though he did make the unprecedented decision to open Copenhagen's town hall on a Sunday for the ceremony. Standing before 11 couples and their guests, Ahlberg gave a short speech that made only one alteration to the civil service — substituting the word marriage with the phrase registered partnership. He then led each couple, starting with Axel and Eigil, into a side room, where they exchanged their vows.

"It was totally wonderful," says Ove Carlsen, a psychologist who married minister Ivan Larsen that day. "There were musicians playing as we came down from the wedding room, and then we stepped out into the crowd, and everyone was cheering. At that moment, I knew we were writing history."

For the next few years, Axel and Eigil continued to run their gay-friendly bed and breakfast in northern Denmark. But decades of repression had left their mark: even after they married, each continued to refer to the other as his "friend." It wasn't until 1995 when Eigil, who lay in hospital suffering from the heart attack that would kill him, used the more accurate term. "A doctor saw I was always with him, and asked who I was," recounts Axgil. "And Eigil looked at me and said, 'Him? He's my husband.'"

Denmark still has a long way to go. Hate crimes against gays have risen in recent years. And activists are still working to achieve adoption rights and the right to wed in church for gay couples — to say nothing of the right to call their relationships marriages. "We were the first country to have legal partnerships, but all these other countries now have legal marriage," says Larsen. "I think, why are we so old-fashioned in Denmark?"

Yet despite the lag, Danish society is comfortable with the idea of same-sex unions. Since they were authorized, the country has witnessed some 4,700 gay and lesbian weddings. "There was never any negative reaction," says Ahlberg, who retired from office in 1994. "But Danes aren't given to controversy. That's why we call ourselves the consensus society."

For proof that gay marriage is now wholly a part of that consensus, you need only ask Kasper Jensen and Aedan Blansø. One afternoon in April, the two young men, who had been dating for five years, met up in front of the same town hall in which Axel and Eigil were married 20 years ago. Both were born a few years before the registered-partnership legislation went into effect, so they are young enough to have fully absorbed its impact. "I grew up thinking that one day I would meet the right man, fall in love and get married," says Jensen. "You hear about these other countries where it's banned and it seems so sad. People should have the lives they want."