Marriage equality in Denmark

A decade ago, on 7 June 2012, the Danish Parliament was in the middle of the third reading of a bill to amend the Marriage Act. The bill would replace the existing definition of marriage with a gender-neutral one, paving the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage. It would replace the Domestic Partnership Act of 1989, which recognised the civil status of domestic partners and allowed existing civil partnerships to be converted into marriages.

The third reading of the bill was characterised by three hours of lively, and sometimes heated, debate. Politicians from Dansk Folkeparti invoked the importance of tradition, steadfast in their claim that marriage must be between a man and a woman. Rebuttals from Enhedslisten stressed the importance of equality and moving with the times.

At this point, Poul Cullura and Nicolai Bøcker Jensen had been together for a year, after meeting in 2011 on a night out in Copenhagen. They recall watching the proceedings in parliament anxiously on the day of the vote. On the assurance of the minister of social affairs that the new bill would pass, they had already gone ahead with booking Højdevangskirken in Amager to host their wedding the next week, a restaurant in Østerbro to celebrate in afterwards, and a three-week-long honeymoon in Greece.

It was soon clear that they needn’t have worried. In the end, almost all parties voted in favour of the bill, though the vote was split within Det Konservative Folkeparti and Venstre. Dansk Folkeparti were the only party to vote as a bloc against the legislation. The law was passed with 85 votes in favour, 24 against, and two abstentions. It came into effect on 15 June, making Denmark the eleventh country in the world to allow same-sex couples to marry.

Since then, nearly four thousand same-sex couples have gotten married in Denmark. On 16 June, at 12 pm, Poul and Nicolai were the first.

A Traditional Church Wedding

Nicolai is now 33 years old and works as a store manager for a builder’s merchant. 51-year-old Poul’s work life is varied, and he works both in retail and in the restaurant business. Looking back at their wedding, they describe it as ‘very traditional’. This was important to them – as believers in God, they didn’t want to get married unless they could have a traditional church wedding.

The involvement of the church led to some backlash at the time – the Church of Denmark lost members as a result of the decision, and a number of new independent churches sprung up, most of which are based in Jutland.

Despite this, Poul and Nicolai found the response to their marriage positive.

“We haven’t experienced any bad will, and that’s even though we have been featured in so many media [stories], and everyone knows us as the first gay couple to marry,” Poul says. “We’ve had no problems in our social life, or at work, and so on. There was definitely some backlash after the law was passed – not against us but just because of people’s religious opinions and beliefs.”

LGBTI+ Rights in Denmark: Progress and Problems

Overall, Denmark has a long history of progressive attitudes towards LGBTI+ rights. In 1989, it was the first country in the world to introduce a Domestic Partnership Act. It was also the country where the first successful gender confirmation surgery took place in 1951, the first country to allow legal gender to be changed without medical approval in 2014, and the first country to declassify being transgender as a mental illness as of 2017.

However, many believe that there’s still some way to go, and questions of LGBTI+ rights still, on occasion, hit the headlines. At the beginning of this year, a petition on the rights of ‘co-fathers’ received 65,000 signatures in two days. As the law currently stands [in March 2022, ed.], while ‘co-mothers’ can be registered as a parent, the legal requirement for the birth mother to be formally registered as a parent, and the lack of legislation allowing for children to have three parents, means that only one father has parental rights. This can lead to problems when it comes to healthcare visits for the children, inheritance, and communication with schools.

Similarly, a decade on from its legalisation, same-sex marriage has again become a point of discussion in Denmark. The new priest at Hedensted Kirke in central Jutland announced that he would marry neither same-sex couples nor divorced people, and his appointment in January 2022 was met by demonstrations outside the church. Though same-sex church marriages are legal, it remains up to individual priests whether or not they will conduct them.

To Poul, however, the wider culture of acceptance for same-sex marriage in Denmark means that the beliefs of individual priests aren’t a problem. “I believe in God and I have my way of thinking, and if a priest has another opinion, I think it’s absolutely okay,” Poul says. “There are so many churches in Denmark, it’s easy to find another.”

Space for Different Views

That’s something that is important to Poul and Nicolai – there should be space for different views, and they make a distinction between personal views and religious views. They stress that it’s important to them that their community are not painted as victims, or as a separate part of society, but as equal members of mainstream society. They believe that this is one of the main things that has changed, not just over the last decade, but over the last few decades – that homosexuality no longer serves to hold one back in terms of the ability to participate fully in life in Denmark. And they are particularly hopeful when it comes to younger generations.

Poul recalls the way reactions have changed over time when he mentions his husband to the young people he works with at the business school. He has noticed how people no longer seem uncomfortable when he mentions his husband. Instead – nothing. Hardly a reaction at all. “No one has a problem, because it’s so normal, it’s nothing. The young people don’t care. They aren’t seeing individual characteristics; they are seeing the whole person.”

“What we’ve experienced in the last ten years is there has been a lot more inclusion,” adds Nicolai. “We wanted to get married, we didn’t want rights that were above and beyond anyone else. It was about equality.”

Acknowledgements: Poul and Nicolai Bøcker Cullura

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