A few seconds after midnight on April 1 2001, the first gay weddings on earth took place in Amsterdam town hall. Four couples were simultaneously married by the city’s mayor, Job Cohen. I grew up in the Netherlands, and re-watching the scenes, I found them that typically Dutch thing: sexual revolution, bourgeois style. The newlyweds exchanged the traditional kisses while ageing fathers in suits and ties beamed from the town hall’s benches. When the couples signed the register, they looked just like the stolid burghers of 17th-century Dutch paintings, except gay.
Nobody suspected then that by 2013, half the western world would be following them. Already one in five Americans lives in a state with gay marriage, and now Barack Obama’s government is asking the US Supreme Court to overturn a federal law banning the practice. The British and French parliaments voted for gay marriage in February. Yet in these countries, gay marriage is often debated as a leap into the unknown. It isn’t. As with so many social issues, the Netherlands is a laboratory. Twelve years on from Amsterdam town hall, we have a pretty good idea of how gay marriage changes a society.
The first thing to note: it doesn’t change much. Almost as soon as gay marriage was introduced, it faded from Dutch political debate. The unprecedentedly angry political arguments in the Netherlands since September 11 2001 have been about Muslims, Brussels and social class. Even when the Christian Democrats re-entered government in 2002, they never tried to ban gay marriage. Only one in nine Dutch people now opposes the institution, says the state’s Social and Cultural Planning Bureau.
Gay marriage has become so banal that Boris Dittrich, a politician who helped introduce it, reports hearing a woman on the bus tell a friend that she’s just got married. The friend shouts across the packed bus: “To a man or a woman?”
Nor does gay marriage seem to affect heterosexual marriage. The conservative American pundit Stanley Kurtz has long claimed that Dutch and Scandinavian straights began abandoning marriage after gays “devalued” the institution. But this is plain wrong. Kurtz correctly notes that since gay civil partnerships and then marriage came in, the rate of Dutch out-of-wedlock births has soared. However, he fails to note that Dutch out-of-wedlock births have been soaring since the 1970s – long before anyone ever thought of gay marriage. In 1970, 124,000 Dutch couples married. By 1983 fewer than 80,000 did. Since 1983 the decline in Dutch marriages has been far more modest: 71,000 couples married in 2011. Most European countries have experienced similar trends, with gay marriage or without.
Kurtz seems to be operating on the familiar presumption that you can say what you like about the Netherlands because nobody knows what happens there anyway. In a similar vein, the US Republican Rick Santorum claimed last year that half of all cases of Dutch euthanasia were “involuntary”: old people were being massacred.
The liberal temptation, then, is to say that gay marriage doesn’t affect national life. But that would be wrong. Mark Gevisser, an Open Society Foundations fellow researching “the new global struggle for the rights of sexual minorities”, has convinced me over large lunches in Paris that gay marriage makes two big changes. Firstly, it slaps the churches in the face. When a country introduces gay marriage, it’s in effect telling its churches, “What you say about moral issues isn’t that important any more.” That’s partly why British and American churches have fought so hard against gay marriage. They’re not just losing a battle. Their national relevance is in question.
The other impact of gay marriage is on gay life. Recently I visited Gert Hekma, historian of homosexuality, in his apartment overlooking Amsterdam’s dinky city centre. This was long a classic gay habitat: the homosexual left his hometown, and his often uneasy relationship with his family, for Amsterdam’s “gay scene”. He didn’t have kids, and often drifted apart from heterosexual friends after they did. Gradually, many gays came to inhabit a mostly gay world.
But that is changing. Amsterdam’s gay scene – the cafés, nightclubs and bookshops – was “collapsing”, said Hekma. That was partly because of the internet but also because gays were increasingly integrating with straights. Young gay men now hang out with their parents, or go clubbing with heterosexual friends, said Hekma. “Lots of straights come to a gay parade – sometimes too many.”
Many gay teenagers are still persecuted at school, Hekma added. But gay marriage had improved integration by sending a clear message: “Society accepts homosexuals.” Nowadays, said Hekma, some parents nag their gay children to marry. “I think the wedding itself is a means of integration,” he mused.
So far, relatively few Dutch homosexuals have had children. But as more do, and gay families retreat to suburbia, they will enter a hetero world of kids’ playdates and freezing parents watching Saturday-morning hockey games. It’s an unglamorous life. But as most straight parents will testify, that’s what marriage does to you.