Dutch parliament approves unprecedented gay marriage rights

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The Netherlands enacted a bill Tuesday giving same-sex couples the right to marriage and all the trappings, including adoption and divorce - legislation that gives gays rights beyond those offered in any other country.

The new law will bring little change to the daily lives of most gays in a country that has long been at the vanguard of gay rights. But activists say it marks a bold step toward recognizing the equality of gay and heterosexual unions in the Netherlands.

Lawmakers thumped their desks in approval when the vote passed 109-33 in the lower house, and some of the scores of witnesses in the packed public gallery applauded and embraced. The bill still needs approval by the upper house, considered a formality, and is expected to take effect next year.

Opponents warned the legislation will isolate the Netherlands and said it threatens Dutch values.

''We are going in the completely wrong direction,'' said lawmaker Kees van der Staaij of the Reformed Political Party. ''We are ending an age-old tradition anchored in the Bible.''

Under the bill, gay couples can convert their current ''registered same-sex partnerships'' to full-fledged marriages, complete with wider adoption rights and guidelines for divorce. However, they are barred from adopting children overseas because of potential confrontation with countries that don't allow gays to marry.

''We now have a choice,'' said Mark Wagenbuur who came to The Hague to witness the vote with his partner, Lei Lennaerts, and two other gay friends. Wagenbuur, 34, and Lennaerts, 35, don't plan any adoptions, but said they will formalize their long-standing relationship with a formal marriage.

''Should I ask his father for his hand or should he ask mine?'' Wagenbuur asked with a laugh.

The law puts the Dutch at the forefront of the gay rights movement, a position held by Denmark since that country gave official sanction to gay marriages in 1989.

Danish gay couples enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals except for the right to adopt children. In May 1999, they won the right to adopt their partner's children but adoption from outside the marriage remains forbidden. Sweden also allows gays to register as couples with most of the rights of marriage.

Vermont has the closest thing in the United States to gay marriage after approval of a law by the state legislature last spring. The law created civil unions, a legal institution parallel to marriage that provides the same rights, benefits and responsibilities to same-sex couples.

Dutch legislators said the bill will not open the Netherlands to so-called ''marriage tourism,'' since marriages are allowed only for citizens or people with residency permits.

''Tourists cannot marry here,'' said Boris Dittrich, one of the legislators who initiated the bill.

Gay couples who legally wed in the Netherlands also will find few countries recognizing the marriage, he said, citing a survey conducted by the Dutch Foreign Ministry. Only a few Scandinavian and European countries said they would recognize the marriages of Dutch gays who move to their countries.

Andrew Fielding, spokesman of the European Union Commission, said recognition of Dutch gay marriages will be ''entirely a matter for each member nation'' in the 15-member union.

It wasn't until two years ago that the Netherlands allowed same-sex couples to register as partners and to claim pensions, social security and inheritance.

However, the law lagged behind the popular acceptance of gays in the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam, where the Homo Monument is a popular tourist attraction and where gays annually hold a raucous floating parade on the central canals watched by tens of thousands of people.

Van der Staaij, who opposed the bill, warned Dutch gay couples could face problems in other countries where homosexuality remains taboo or illegal.

The Dutch take the lead on other social issues besides gay rights. Officials tolerate the use of small quantities of so-called soft-drugs such as marijuana and hashish, allowing cafes to sell cannabis joints and a cup of coffee.

Prostitution is on open display in well-regulated red-light districts, where scantly clad women sit like merchandise in shop windows. Private television stations often show late-night soft-porn movies.


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