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EQUALITY

30 years ago, Denmark led the way with first step towards marriage equality

Thirty years after Denmark became the first country to allow same-sex couples to register in legal unions, the world has become more accepting. But in 1989, it was a trailblazing move.

30 years ago, Denmark led the way with first step towards marriage equality
An event was held at Copenhagen City Hall in August to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of same-sex legal unions. Photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix

“It was a ceremony that takes place every day at city hall,” Ivan Larsen recalls. “But for us, for the first time in history two men could experience this ceremony.”

Ivan had met his partner, psychologist Ove Carlsen, three and a half years earlier.

On October 1st 1989, the very same day Denmark first allowed same-sex couples to register in civil unions, Larsen — himself a Lutheran pastor in the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken) — legally joined with his partner.

As the couple prepared to celebrate their pearl wedding anniversary, they recalled their vivid memories of that occasion with AFP.

It was a Sunday in the country's capital Copenhagen and deputy mayor Tom Ahlberg opened the massive gates of the city hall to officiate the “partnerships” — the official term — of 11 same-sex couples.

Both dressed in cream-coloured suits, Ove wore a pink bow tie, Ivan wore a blue one, and at 42 years old they became the second couple to formalise their union.

The first was Axel and Eigil Axgil, 74 and 67 years old at the time but now both deceased.

A 'pioneering act'

“We had been told that you can have 25 guests with you at city hall,” said Ivan Larsen.

“We had three.”

“Because of the journalists,” his husband added.

Following the ceremony the newly joined couples were greeted by enthusiastic supporters throwing rice.

Although it was in stark contrast with their modest everyday style, Ivan and Ove embraced the media spotlight their historic union provided.

“We thought it was necessary to talk about what was happening in Denmark… to spread the message: it's OK and it was possible,” Ove Carlsen said.

“It was a pioneering act to get married that day,” Ivan Larsen said.


Ove Carlsen (L) and Ivan Larsen at their home in Frederiksberg. Photo: Thibault SAVARY / AFP

In Denmark “until 1866 homosexuality was punishable by death and one couldn't be openly homosexual until 1933,” Larsen explained.

True to the Danes' progressive reputation, civil union was in most ways equal to marriage in respect to the law — but the right to adopt was excluded.

“As long as it didn't touch the symbolic realm of reproduction and family it was OK,” Michael Nebeling Petersen, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Southern Denmark told AFP.

The idea behind the law, he said, was above all to offer financial security for homosexual men, allowing them to inherit from each other at a time when AIDS was spreading fast.

“It was first of all practical,” Nebeling Petersen said.

Other countries follow

Since it still wasn't technically a marriage, ceremonies could not be held in most churches and the partnerships were not recognised by other nations.

Between 1989 and 2012, 7,491 civil unions were formed. And in 2010 same-sex couples were granted the right to adopt.

In June of 2012 the civil partnerships were abandoned in favour of new legislation allowing same-sex couples to get married just like heterosexual couples.

Soon after that law passed, Ivan and Ove were wed by one of Ivan's colleagues.

By that time, Denmark was no longer leading the way.

Same-sex marriages had already been adopted by several other countries, including Belgium, Canada, Spain, and the Danes' Nordic neighbours Norway and Sweden.

The first country to legalise same-sex marriages was The Netherlands, whose parliament passed its first legislation on the matter a decade earlier in 2000.

Almost 30 countries have now legalised same-sex marriages.

Ivan and Ove are now content to enjoy their retirement in their cosy apartment in one of Copenhagen's quiet districts.

Despite the progress in gay rights however, they are worried about what they say is a rise in homophobia. In response, they urge people to be open about their sexuality in everyday life.

“Some people would say, 'You always talk about being gay',” said Ivan.

“No I don't. I just told you that I've been to the cinema with my husband,” he added with a smile.

READ ALSO: Denmark invites controversial priest to give parliament service

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EQUALITY

Glimmer of hope for Danish nurses’ conflict with committee set to scrutinise pay

A special committee is to assess wages in Denmark’s public sector, offering hope for long term improvement on wage equality for nurses, who have been protesting over the issue for months.

Nurses during a walkout at Kolding hospital on September 27th. A new committee is to look at the wage structure in Denmark's public sector, offering long term hope for improved wage equality.
Nurses during a walkout at Kolding hospital on September 27th. Photo: Søren Gylling/Jysk Fynske Medier/Ritzau Scanpix

Parliament in August intervened to settle a dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement between the nurses’ trade union DSR and regional health authority employers, ending union-sanctioned strikes which had been ongoing throughout the summer.

Strikes authorised and announced by unions, when negotiations over new working conditions break down, are permitted and recognised as a legitimate part of Denmark’s labour model.

But nurses have continued to protest against the agreement by conducting unauthorised walkouts in September and October. That action remains ongoing despite the Arbejdsretten labour court issuing fines against nurses involved in it and DSR urging them to end the walkouts.

EXPLAINED: Why has the government intervened in Denmark’s nurses strike?

A committee has now been set down to scrutinise wage structures in Denmark’s public sector, offering a glimmer of hope of finding a way out of the deadlock.

Economics professor and former head of the Danish Economic Councils Torben M. Andersen will lead the commission, the Ministry of Employment said in a statement.

In June, nurses voted against accepting the collective bargaining agreement, arguing that wages for their profession are lagging behind pay levels in other fields.

It is that agreement that was later implemented via the government intervention.

The wages committee will analyse pay structures and the consequences of any changes to them. The results of the work are to be presented as soon as possible, although the final deadline is the end of 2022.

Minister for employment and equality Peter Hummelgaard welcomed the appointment of the committee and recognised that Denmark does not have wage equality.

“But we must also recognise that it’s a complex debate and we need to make an informed basis that can form the background to future collective bargaining negotiations in the public sector,” the minister said.

“This is important work which the government obliges itself to follow up on,” he added.

Several professional sectors in Denmark, including nurses, have pointed to a 1969 wage law as the culprit in leaving a lot of female-dominated professions lagging on pay.

The 1969 wage reform, tjenestemandsreformen,  placed public servants on 40 different pay grades, with sectors traditionally seen as dominated by women, such as nursing and childcare, given lower pay than jobs such as teacher or police officer.

A petition demand an end to the decades-old wage hierarchy failed in parliament earlier this year.

READ ALSO: Why Danes want to boost equality by scrapping a 1969 public sector pay reform

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