Germany’s Retrograde Record on Gay Rights

Across Western Europe, marriage equality is fast becoming the norm: From Scandinavia through the Netherlands and Denmark; even the Catholic countries of Ireland, France and Spain. But there’s one glaring exception: Germany. It stands out not only because it is the largest country in Western Europe, but also because on many measures, it is among the most progressive.

Germany’s outlier status (it allows “registered partnerships,” but not full marriage) is even more curious because much of the country is in favor. But not its leadership: Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party, the Christian Democratic Union, have stood athwart the Continentwide movement and yelled no.

Part of the reason is personal: Ms. Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, grew up in the former East Germany, where Communism and traditional social mores reinforced the power of the state, and she admits to being extremely conservative on this issue. She has budged on gay rights issues only when forced to do so by the Constitutional Court.

Indeed, her position on gay rights goes beyond marriage equality. Ms. Merkel has also explicitly opposed a proposal that would allow full adoption rights for homosexual couples. Such laws in other European countries are not without their share of controversy, but at least France and other countries grant the right.

Ms. Merkel has clearly decided that it’s better to shore up her support among the country’s older, more conservative voters than to make a pitch to younger Germans, who support marriage equality. In an uncomfortable interview on YouTube, she stunned the millennial host by telling him condescendingly that there would be no gay marriage (and also no legalization of cannabis) as long as she was in office.

Ms. Merkel has spent the last year pushing her country and neighbors on the refugee issue, and it’s easy to forget that on most issues, she is deeply skeptical of social change. Despite the influx of newcomers, she has resisted any sort of effort to codify the reality of Germany as a country of immigrants with a major revision of its outdated immigration laws. (Part of that is pragmatism, based on the fear of further fueling right-wing extremism.)

Still, whether Ms. Merkel as a person is truly against gays marrying is an open question. In March, Guido Westerwelle, a former foreign minister under Ms. Merkel who lived in a “registered partnership” and fought hard for gay rights, died of leukemia at the age of 54. Ms. Merkel gave an insightful speech at his funeral, at which his partner, Michael Mronz, was also present. Ms. Merkel may simply feel that she can’t make progress on the issue, so doesn’t try.

But it’s not just a personal matter. Ms. Merkel governs in partnership with the left-wing Social Democrats, who support marriage equality, but in populous Bavaria the conservative wing of the coalition is represented by the C.D.U.’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, which strongly celebrates its closeness to the Roman Catholic faith, the church and its religious customs. At the same time, the party is drifting ever further to the right, embracing openly xenophobic, anti-refugee ideas (to such an extent that the Catholic bishops of Bavaria and the archbishop of Cologne, among the most powerful clergymen in the country, found themselves compelled to reprimand the C.S.U. for its un-Christian conduct).

The C.D.U. is also looking to reinforce its conservative image. In recent years the party has capitulated on several key issues, which until then were considered to lie at the core of their policy: compulsory military service and nuclear energy, to name just two prominent examples. There aren’t many such issues left, but marriage equality is one of them. For many in the party, giving in on gay rights would be the equivalent of selling the silverware. Several C.D.U. members have defected to the upstart, far-right Alternative for Germany Party, which upholds the biblical family model and rejects marriage for all.

With the Social Democrats stuck at around 20 percent nationwide, and despite Ms. Merkel’s own ups and downs in the polls and recent losses by the C.D.U. in elections in eastern Germany, her party is on track to win the national elections convincingly next fall. (Of course, if she decides not to run again for the top spot, and a younger, more progressive candidate steps in, the chances for marriage equality could change.)

A result, at least for now, is an odd reversal of Western Europe’s league tables for social progress. Traditionally, it is the Protestant countries of the north that have led on progressive social issues, with the Catholic south dragging behind. This time, though, it is Germany, the leading country in Protestant Europe, that lags the rest. Without a major realignment in German politics, that is unlikely to change for a long time to come.

Alexander Görlach is a visiting scholar at the Center for European Studies at Harvard.

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