Denmark, 1 oct 1989. The first ever legalised gay marriage was on its way. The momentous moment was recorded, photographed and filmed by hordes of reporters and cameramen. It ushered the way to a new era, an era where social change was occurring. The acceptance of such an act was considered audacious, but it also served as a landmark as to how far homosexual's rights have come.
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.
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.
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."