Only a very few, very brave souls dared make mention of marriage equality back in the 1980s. The first glimmerings of same-sex civil unions or even domestic partnership agreements first came to light around that time.
As it was known before the term LGBT, the gay community, had not yet rallied around the domestic relationship issue. Basic civil rights for gays and lesbians were still being hotly debated in the US, and around the world. The current movement for these basic rights was only a few decades old. Within major cities and progressive nations, work towards foundational, elementary protection for committed relationships between two gay people was just gaining traction.
Those of us who had a real stake in such matters tracked the efforts to legalize domestic partnership ordinances in larger cities and statutes in European nations that had more progressive leadership than that in the United States. Where possible, we actively advocated for this new development in the struggle for equal civil rights. The times were both thrilling and disappointing.
Then, in June of 1989, the cold winter of inequality began its very slow thaw. A very basic registered partnership law was enacted in Denmark. Many of the same legal and fiscal responsibilities and rights were granted to same sex couples as were already enjoyed by Danish heterosexual unions. Although the law was a landmark event, the possible partnerships were clearly second-class.
The law stated three exceptions that applied to registered partnerships.
1. Registered partners cannot have joint custody of a child, except by adoption.
2. Laws making explicit reference to the sexes of a married couple do not apply to registered partnerships.
3. Regulations by international treaties do not apply unless all signatories agree.
If we hoped to travel to Denmark to have our relationships officially validated, we were out of luck. At least one of the partners was required to be a Danish citizen and resident. Furthermore, both members of the partnership were required to reside in Denmark, Iceland, Finland, or Norway for at least two years prior to official application.
The Danish statute went into effect on October 1, 1989. The law, recognizing registered partnerships, was the first one in the world that provided for some sort of same-sex union and was enforced by a national government.
The law provided for legal and personal recognition of the committed “marriagelike” partnership of any adult couple. Registered partnership expanded the usual definition of domestic partnership which is thought of as any committed relationship between unmarried couples irrespective of legal responsibilities and rights. To create or to dissolve a registered partnership, a couple needed the intervention of Danish officialdom.
Even though the law did not apply to everyone else in the world, it was a morale boost for activists and the rest of the global gay community. The law also set religious foes of the gay community on edge. Both camps redoubled their efforts in the overall civil rights struggle.
Where Danish law did not apply, activists scrambled to review their objectives. Gays and lesbians also felt our own oppression more strongly. How could the land of the free and the home of the brave so severely curtail such an important part of human happiness? Why would religions appear to be so dead-set against civil rights, when they hadn’t satisfactorily dealt with the problems of poverty, ignorance, and war? The debate that lingers today, was fired up, for real, in 1989.
Meantime, the differences between opposite-sex marriages and registered partnerships based on gender distinctions was dissolved two years ago. In 2012, the government of Denmark legalized marriage equality. Any pair of adults may now wed legally in that nation.