20 Years ago: Berlin Wall Falls; Death Knell for Apartheid; Birth of Marriage Equality

David Mixner last week, like many others, was feeling angry. Still, he said he had tried to set aside the anger and write more objectively. This is part of what he wrote:

Call this campaign against us what it is – Gay Apartheid. Refuse to allow any of our fellow Americans, President Obama or our allies to view this as a political issue who time hasn’t quite come. America is in the process of creating a system of Gay Apartheid.

I have no quibble with his impatience and anger, nor with his proposals. But as someone who lived in South Africa for half of the 20th century, to suggest that we are seeing the rise of gay apartheid in the US is preposterous. On the contrary, what we are seeing is the gradual erosion of the discrimination that has always been present. Even if that erosion is not fast enough, even if there are heart-breaking setbacks, looking back just a decade shows how much progress there has been. Still, the reference to apartheid is appropriate in two ways: the destruction of apartheid was a long process – nearly 80 years from the formation of the ANC to the first democratic parliament, and the remnants and legacy still remain.

This week, the celebrations in Berlin, coming on top of Mixner’s comments led me to reflect on my own life 20 years ago this month, and on another anniversary this year, one important in this context but one I have not seen noted anywhere else.

South Africa 1989 : The Beginning of the End For Apartheid


In November  1989, South Africa conducted yet another in the long series of all –white elections in which the main outcome was never in doubt: a massive electoral victory for the National Party, creators of entrenched apartheid.  Still, there was at least hope  that the moderate DP, the official opposition and committed to dismantling apartheid, could make at least some progress.  In pursuit of this hope, I had worked my butt off as campaign manager for a constituency then held (as a safe seat) by a cabinet minister. Two years previously, I had worked even harder in the same district. In 1987, the outcome was cruelly disappointing: where I had confidently expected gains across the country, there were instead notable losses for our side, and instead gains for the far right .  As the results came in, I wept publicly before going home, where I was quite unable to sleep.  In 1989, the results were more favourable, with some notable gains, but the National Party seemed secure.  The only consolation was that this time, the far right had failed to make significant inroads. Outside of electoral politics, there had been some  dismantling of single discriminatory laws, recognising the simple facts of public disobedience, and increasingly demonstrative public resistance to the apartheid laws, but the system appeared to be dispiritingly intact.  We all new change had to come eventually, but most observers were thinking in terms of decades.  That election though, spelled the death knell for apartheid. the then new sate President FW de Klerk had his first electoral mandate and confirmation that white white opposition from the left was more significant than that on his right flank. Less than three months later, on February 2nd 1990, he announced the unbanning of the ANC and other proscribed  organizations, released leading political prisoners, and promised the forthcoming release of Nelson Mandela. From that day, apartheid as state policy was doomed.

In comparing the Maine disappointment to the “creation” of gay apartheid in the US, Mixner is wrong on two counts.  The scale of discrimination against gays and lesbians is nowhere like the scale of entrenched racial discrimination under apartheid, and also the direction of change is not towards greater oppression, but away from it.  Mixner, however, is not alone.  The anger to be seen in the blogosphere was widespread, and natural.  It is fully human to notice the large dramatic disappointments, and lose sight of the smaller, gradual changes in the other direction. To offer some perspective, I want to take a wider look at the progress of gay equality over those same 20 years.

The Birth and Spread of Marriage Equality(Europe)

1989 was not only the year that the Berlin wall fell, or the year of the last all-white election in South Africa, the precursor of the end of apartheid.  It also marked the start of the move towards marriage equality for gay men and lesbians.

Denmark introduced civil partnerships in that year, the first country anywhere to take such a step.  I still recall newspaper reports at the time describing it as “gay marriage”, but this was inaccurate.  It was not marriage, but it was the first time that we were being granted a realistic marriage alternative, even if it was “marriage lite”. Other countries were initially slow to follow, but follow they did, in steadily increasing numbers – Norway in 1993, Sweden in 1995, Iceland in 1996 (with “registered partnerships” offering everything except the name), Finland and Portugal in 2001.

The Spread of Gay Marriage & Civil Unions:

European Gay Marriage Spread;

Also in 2001, Netherlands became the first to offer the name, with full marriage equality. Since then,  Spain, Belgium, Norway and Sweden have followed with full marriage (in Sweden, including full church weddings), while  Croatia, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, UK, Slovenia and Hungary have added civil unions, domestic partnerships or similar. Do you see the pattern here? One early pioneer of civil unions but not full marriage, Denmark, was followed some years later by others with increasing rapidity and with full marriage beginning to replace the more cautious partnerships only 13 years later. But the process is now almost complete. This year alone, Hungary continued the spread of civil unions into Eastern Europe, while Norway and Sweden replaced civil unions with full marriage. Sweden even moved the process up a notch by providing for marriage in church, not just civil marriage. Ireland, Estonia, and Albania are each engaged in moves which could see unions established during 2010.  In all of Western Europe, only Italy still holds out. Even in Eastern Europe, progress has been substantial.


Same sex Marriage, Civil Unions in Europe (Wikimedia)

Elsewhere, the process began later, but the pattern is the same, as I will show later for the US, for the rest of the world, and even for the churches..


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