Måndagen den 20 juli hade jag den stora äran att medverka som föreläsare vid ett seminarium på Sveriges ambassad i Tokyo om den nya könsneutrala äktenskapslagen i Sverige. Fyra talare från Sverige, Nederländerna, USA och Japan föreläste inför en publik på 150 personer, och det föll på min lott att beskriva processen fram till den svenska äktenskapsreformen och effekterna av den.
Mer om seminariet kan du läsa här. Manuset till mitt anförande hittar du här nedan.
Towards equal rights in Sweden
It is an honor to address this distinguished audience on the matter of same-sex marriage in Sweden. I myself have been involved in the process both as a politician and Member of Parliament, and as an activist within the Swedish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement.
In this presentation I will begin by describing the process and the resulting legislation, and later on analyzing the underlying causes, and making some personal reflections.
Already from the beginning, I would like to stress that the term marriage has several meanings. Marriage is not only a legal concept. In many of the world religions, marriage is a religious concept. Furthermore, every individual holds his or her own personal view of marriage. The point I wish to make is that it is the legal dimension of marriage that is the object for legislative action.
To understand the marriage reform in Sweden, a brief historical background may be useful. Sweden is a Christian country with a history of Lutheran orthodoxy and religious intolerance. This influenced the marriage system. In 1734 a law was passed stating that only Lutheran church weddings counted as legally valid marriages.
During the 19th century, religious tolerance increased. In 1908, a civil marriage ceremony was introduced as an alternative to the church wedding, and in 1951, all religious communities could get authorization to perform legally valid marriages. This system remains in force today.
During the 20th century, the legal oppression of gays, lesbians and bisexuals gradually diminished. This process went hand in hand with major changes in society: democracy, equal rights for women and men, secularization, and individualism. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1944. Until that time, lesbians and gays could be put in prison or sentenced to punitive labor.
The advent of the organized LGBT movement came in 1950, when the organization nowadays called RFSL was formed. Swedish LGBT activists became more vocal during the 1970s, and RFSL devoted substantial energy on lobbying politicians.
Starting in the 1970s, successive legal reforms in Sweden have established equal rights for all citizens regardless of sexual orientation, and strong anti-discrimination acts have been introduced. The final step in this process was the revised Marriage Code.
The reforms started with the discriminatory statutes in the Penal Code. The age of consent was made equal in 1978, a controversial reform at that time. The first anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation was introduced in 1987.
The first step towards legal recognition of same-sex couples was taken in 1988, when two new laws were introduced for unmarried cohabiting couples: one law for heterosexuals, the other for same-sex couples. This was an symbolic breakthrough. From now on, Swedish legislation recognized homosexuals not only as individuals, but also as couples.
The second breakthrough came in 1994, when the Swedish parliament passed the Registered Partnership Act for same-sex couples. A registered partnership gave the same rights and obligations as a heterosexual marriage with some major exceptions. Most importantly, registered partners did not have any right to adopt children, have joint custody over a child or receive artificial insemination.
In effect, same-sex couples were offered a lightweight civil marriage – but not marriage as such. Nevertheless, the registered partnership act came under ferocious attack from conservative politicians and many religious communities. It was passed with a narrow margin in Parliament.
I find it interesting to note that the opposition waned quickly when the law was finally passed. Instead, the discussion moved on to adoption and reproductive rights. In 2003, after a long and emotional political battle, registered partners were given the same rights to adoption and joint custody as married couples, and in 2005, the ban was lifted on artificial insemination for lesbian and bisexual women.
When the two cohabitation acts from 1988 were merged into a gender-neutral cohabitation act in 2003, this created no controversy.
Therefore, the final push towards same-sex marriage rights was made in a favorable political atmosphere. All other major LGBT reforms had been passed, some countries had already introduced same-sex marriage, and the general public was supportive.
At the beginning of the year 2005, four of the seven parties in parliament had decided in favor of same-sex marriage rights; one party was against, whereas the two largest parties were undecided. At that time the government decided to appoint a special commissioner to look into the issue.
The commissioner, former Chancellor of Justice Mr. Hans Regner, was assisted by two reference groups, one for political parties, and one for the major religious communities in Sweden. I myself represented the Liberal Party in the first reference group. During the commissioner’s work, the remaining two parties both decided in favor of same-sex marriage.
In 2007, Mr. Regner presented his conclusions, recommending that the Marriage Code should include same-sex couples. No other major changes were suggested. For instance, the legal obligation to perform weddings was restricted to civil servants, whereas the religious communities kept their right to decide which weddings they would perform and not perform.
Mr. Regner concluded that these were the most relevant arguments in favor of a reform:
1. Legal differentiation between heterosexual and same-sex relationships is only justified if there are objective reasons. No such reasons exist.
2. The legal and economic questions that need to be regulated are the same in all long-term relationships, regardless of the gender of the persons
3. Marriage is a way of manifesting the mutual commitment of two persons before the world.
4. For those who argue that it is in the interest of a child to be raised in a married family, it seems logical that this would be beneficial for the children of LGBT persons as well.
The arguments against the reform were summed up as follows by Mr. Regner:
1. The traditional definition of marriage is a union between a man and a woman.
2. The Registered Partnership Act gives the same legal protection as the Marriage Code. Legal differentiation is no problem as long as the legal consequences are the same.
3. Same-sex marriage goes against the faiths of all major religions.
4. Preferential treatment for heterosexual couples is actually justified, since only those couples can have children jointly.
Mr. Regner concluded that the arguments in favor of legal differentiation were not sufficiently strong, and concluded that the Marriage Code should be expanded to same-sex couples.
At this point, I would like make an observation about the argument of tradition.
It goes without saying that same-sex marriage as such goes against tradition. But one important lesson of history is that the institution of marriage actually has changed when society has changed.
In many cultures, marriage was traditionally seen as the union between families rather than between individuals. Traditionally, marriage has also been a patriarchal institution where married women were legally subordinated to their husbands, and we all know that this is still the case in many countries.
So, updating the definition of marriage is not a breach with the tradition, it is actually part of the tradition.
In the debate that followed Mr. Regner’s report, the religious dimension remained in focus. The opponents within the religious community tried to describe the reform as an attack on their own religious freedom. Many religious leaders threatened that their communities would abstain from the right to perform legal weddings if the marriage reform was passed.
But in the end, all reform-friendly parties agreed that Mr. Regner’s report as commissioner provided a good basis for a legal reform. And on 1 May 2009 the first same-sex weddings finally took place. No public controversy remains after the reform entered into force.
And interestingly enough, no religious communities have actually decided to abstain from their right to perform legal weddings.
As concluding remarks, I will offer some personal reflections on the process towards full and equal rights for lesbians, gays and bisexuals. How was this possible?
The deciding factor was the increasing openness among LGBT people, and the persistent lobbying work made by LGBT organizations. I can assure you that no politician is willing to take risks for a reform for which there is no public demand. By raising their voices and calling for reform, LGBT people mobilized the reform-friendly political forces.
How was it possible to build a coalition of nearly 90 percent in parliament? The lobbying from RFSL was instrumental, but I would also like to point out the important fact that there was a growing number of openly lesbian and gay parliamentarians, and that most political parties nowadays have LGBT caucuses of their own. When politicians discover that their own party members and political colleagues are LGBT people, it gets more difficult to keep the issue in the margins.
Also, it should be stressed that the LGBT movement chose a pragmatic reform strategy. The long-term goal of full and equal rights was never left out of sight, but RFSL and other LGBT organizations accepted that the process had to be taken in steps.
Sweden is no LGBT wonderland. Discrimination and hate crimes remain serious problems. Still, it must be said that the legal reforms have had far-reaching effects for the climate in society. Full and equal legal rights are important not only in themselves – they also set the norms and define the values in society.
As a Liberal, I would like to stress that the goal should not be that all same-sex couples should marry. Rather, the goal should be that all couples should have the same right to decide their own destiny. The right to decide not to marry is as important as the right to marry.
Finally, I would also like to add that the legal reforms have had tremendous and positive effects for the heterosexual majority as well. Sweden is a homogenous country where consensus is highly valued, and many people actually find it difficult to talk about things that fall outside of the norm.
When same-sex relations were recognized and included in the fundamental institutions of society, one effect was that the silence was broken also among heterosexuals. The parents, siblings and colleagues of lesbians and gays finally found the words to speak openly about the relationships of their children, their sisters and brothers, or their friends at work.
And words bring recognition; recognition brings acceptance; acceptance brings dignity.
There is a long road ahead of us, but I look forward to the day when gender and sexual orientation is an irrelevant factor for the legal rights of individuals in all countries.