Watching the spectacle surrounding the Supreme Court oral arguments this week in two cases involving same sex marriage, I’m transported back a dozen years, to April 1, 2001, when I covered the world’s very first same sex marriage ceremonies in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam’s city hall.
The Netherlands that year became the first country to legally open marriage to anyone regardless of gender, culminating a 15-year fight. I was then the Paris Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, and I had covered the contentious parliamentary vote a year earlier, and decided to head up to the Netherlands for the first gay wedding, conducted just after midnight by Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen. I had a sense then that this was something not just novel, but important, even ground-shifting, and my patient editors allowed me to hop the train back up to Amsterdam for the big day.
The Netherlands’ gay community was inundated with requests from couples wanting to be the first to wed. So they chose four symbolic couples — elderly, young, two lesbians — for the honor. It was clearly a watershed moment — including the front page images of two men kissing, and two women walking down the aisle together holding hands and both in wedding dresses.
I was correct that this was the start of a trend, because soon after, Belgium, Spain, Canada and other countries followed suit, granting marriage equality to all. Suddenly it seemed not quirky, but inevitable.
But more than two years later, I was intrigued; what had happened, I wondered, in the elapsed time? The fierce Dutch opponents of same sex marriage — mostly conservative Christians I had interviewed in 2000 and 2001 — had warned of all kinds of calamities if gays and lesbians were allowed to wed. Traditional marriage would break down, families would be disrupted, children put at risk, the very basis of society itself would be imperiled.
Had any of this “parade of horribles” come to pass?
So in September, 2003, I went back to Amsterdam, and around the Netherlands, asking a simple question; what happened in the intervening two and a half years since that first gay wedding ceremony I attended in Amsterdam’s city hall? And the answer turned out to be, pretty much nothing at all. Zip. A huge yawn.
I met several happily married gay couples, including Gert Kasteel and Dolf Pasker, a medical supplier and a social worker who were among the first four couples to wed back in 2001. They told me they wondered what all the fuss had been about. Even their more traditional, conservative neighbors had come to accept them, they said, for example by sending them a joint Christmas card every year. The lesbian couple from that first batch to marry, Helene Faasen and Anne-Marie Thus, were raising two young children, Thus as a stay-at-home mom. “We have a pretty standard family,” Faasen told me, “two wives, two children in school.”
I’ve always considered the Netherlands a rather cutting edge place on social issues — open, tolerant, willing to experiment, less inclined to try to control human behavior through prohibitive legislation. The Dutch are probably most famous for their permissive attitude toward marijuana, as evident through the ubiquitous licensed “coffee shops” that are allowed to sell the herb. But the Dutch also allow prostitution to exist in designated “red zones” as a legal profession; euthanasia was legalized, and the Netherlands has long displayed a more open attitude than many of their European counterparts toward the influx of immigrants, may from Muslim North Africa. Blacks, Muslims and other minorities are now a fabric of European life. But the Dutch, again, seemed ahead of many others in acknowledging the country’s changing face, and adapting to it.
It hasn’t always been easy. There was an anti-immigrant backlash following the 2001 terrorist attacks and a spate of violent incidents that left many Dutch wondering whether their tolerant country had become a breeding ground of extremists. Some who dared speak out — often in the colorful, vitriolic terms that form part of the democratic debate — found themselves facing death threats. And on social issues, there’s been something of a backlash, too. Those marijuana coffee shops were bringing in so many teenagers from neighboring countries that the conservative government decided to try to scale back the shop licenses, and restrict some pot sales to Dutch residents only.
But I still have a soft spot for the Netherlands as a small, quiet, open and tolerant place in the center of Europe. And as the U.S. public shifts toward a more tolerant attitude toward gay marriage, and as an increasing number of states vote to legalize small amounts of marijuana, I often wonder whether we should do more to study the Netherlands and why it works, and perhaps learn from its example.
And maybe soon, like the Dutch, we'll be wondering what was all this gay marriage fuss about?
Keith B. Richburg spent more than 20 years overseas for The Washington Post, serving as bureau chief in Beijing, Paris, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Nairobi and Manila as well as New York.
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